Commentary on 1 Cor 8:1-7, 11-13
Paul now moves on to another local problem for the Christians of Corinth – the question of eating food offered to idols.
The New American Bible has a useful note on the issues which are at stake:
The Corinthians’ second question concerns meat that has been sacrificed to idols; in this area they were exhibiting a disordered sense of liberation that Paul here tries to rectify. These chapters contain a sustained and unified argument that illustrates Paul’s method of theological reflection on a moral dilemma. Although the problem with which he is dealing is dated [namely, eating food offered to idols], the guidelines for moral decisions that he offers are of lasting validity.
Essentially Paul urges them to take a communitarian rather than an individualistic view of their Christian freedom. Many decisions that they consider pertinent only to their private relationship with God have, in fact, social consequences. Nor can moral decisions be determined by merely theoretical considerations; they must be based on concrete circumstances, specifically on the value and needs of other individuals and on mutual responsibility within the community. Paul here introduces the theme of “building up” (oikodome, ‘oikodomh), i.e., of contributing by individual action to the welfare and growth of the community. (See also 1 Cor 14; Rom 14:1-15)
The topic – meat sacrificed to idols – is immediately introduced. This refers to meat which had been offered in pagan temples to idols. Meat left over from a sacrifice might be eaten by the priests, as well as by the offerer and his friends at a feast in the temple or sold in the public meat market. (At the site of ancient Corinth, archaeologists have discovered two temples containing rooms apparently used for pagan feasts where meat offered to idols was eaten. To such feasts Christians may have been invited by pagan friends.) Some Christians felt that if they ate such meat, they participated in pagan worship and thus compromised their testimony for Christ. Other Christians did not feel this way.
Today’s passage begins with a rather abstract and vague statement which makes one wonder where Paul is leading us. In fact, he is enunciating a principle of the very greatest importance for our living together as Christians and one that we neglect at our peril.
Paul opens with an apparently well-known slogan: “All of us have knowledge.” In Greece, knowledge was felt to be everything but Paul says that it can make people arrogant. What really builds people up, he says, is love (a central theme of this letter). Knowledge without love is barren. People equipped with much knowledge may not have a real understanding of what life is about.
The truly wise person – like Socrates – above all knows what he does not know. One is reminded of those people on the TV programme “Mastermind” who had encyclopaedic knowledge about all kinds of things but as persons may have been quite inadequate in coping with life.
Pure knowledge can lead to arrogance and a feeling of superiority; love, on the other hand, builds up. Better a person filled with genuine love and theologically ignorant than a topnotch theologian without a trace of love.
The person who loves and, in particular, the person who loves God “is known by God”, that is, has a direct experiences God’s love and thus knows how to relate with others. This is the only knowledge really worth having.
It serves as an introduction to a question which was very relevant to the Christians of Corinth, namely, the eating of food which may have been offered to idols. In itself, this is clearly not a problem for people in most of the Western world but it can still be a matter of conscience in Asia and Africa. (One thinks, for instance, of the food involved in ‘ancestor worship’ in China which was at the heart of the ‘Rites Controversy’. The custom still survives and Christians can now be involved.)
The question for the Corinthians then was: Should Christians eat such food or not? Would they be compromising their Christian faith by taking this food? Could they accept invitations to eat such food in a pagan house or temple?
Some Christians, especially converts from a former pagan life, felt that by eating this meat they were taking part in idol worship and were compromising their Christian faith. Others, however, including Paul and perhaps others with a Jewish background, did not feel that way at all.
Paul gives a very nuanced answer but one which we should read carefully: In principle, enlightened Christians are completely free to decide for themselves, but they must avoid leading astray other Christians who are not yet liberated from their pre-conversion ideas. In other words, as he has already said, knowledge alone is not enough for a good decision; love of neighbour must also be taken into account.
Paul first enunciates some of his own convictions about the issue.
There is really no need to worry about food offered to idols because idols do not represent anything. There is only one God. The rest are pure fakes. Indeed there seem to have been many so-called gods in the Greek and Roman pantheons which were worshipped by thousands of people but the Christian knew that they had no real existence whatever.
For Paul, as for us, there is only “one God, the Father, from whom all things come and for whom we exist”. And “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things come and through whom we exist”. These statements are found in different formulations throughout Paul’s letters.
Nevertheless, continues Paul, the Corinthian Christians have to acknowledge that among them there are many converts who have not completely shaken off their old superstitions. While they have abjured the worship of idols, they still have a feeling that they are somehow real. And they are inclined to think that the food they see offered to idols is being offered to something real. If, during a feast following worship in a temple, they are invited to share in the food, they feel they are taking part in idol worship and have sinned.
Others, like Paul himself, do not feel this way at all. They know that the idol has no existence and that for them there is no real worship involved with a statue in a temple. The meat, whether it is at a temple feast or on sale in the market place, can be eaten with impunity by Christians.
However, Paul warns that those who, like Paul himself, feel ‘liberated’ in this matter must be careful not to become a stumbling block, a source of scandal to their more sensitive brothers and sisters. If the latter see a brother or sister dining together with people in a temple and eating food that has just been offered to an idol, may they not be tempted to think that it is alright to eat this meat when, in their weakness, they still attribute some reality to these idols? In which case, they may further be led to believe that worshipping idols is acceptable.
In this way one could bring about the spiritual destruction of a weaker brother or sister. The weak Christian could be influenced by the example of the stronger Christian and, even though he felt it to be wrong, would eat the meat offered to an idol.
The weaker brother may be persuaded to eat but afterwards would be filled with guilt for doing something he believed was quite wrong and against his Christian faith. What is worse, if they did this often enough, they might blunt their consciences and continue to do something they still felt in their heart of hearts was not right.
In such a situation, it is the “stronger” brother who has sinned. A weak conscience is wounded by eating meat offered to idols. The result may be moral tragedy. There is a sin against Christ, who is present in the weaker brother, and it could break the unity of the members of the body (the church).
So Paul has made his own decision in this matter. Even though he himself has no problems about eating such meat, he has resolved never to eat meat ever again rather than be a source of scandal to a weaker member of the community. Paul says he will not hurt the brother’s feelings and he will abstain from something which in itself has nothing to do with his loving and serving his Lord.
There is a very important lesson for all of us here. Certainly principles, laws and rules are very important and in general they should be observed. But there is one over-riding principle – and Paul mentions it – and that principle is love, that is, a sensitive and empathic caring for the well-being of the brother or sister. The not-eating of meat on such occasions was a small price to pay for a brother’s or sister’s peace of mind.
In our Church today, for instance, there are people who still have not fully come to terms with changes, new ways of seeing things, which were introduced by the Second Vatican Council. To take one small example, there are people who still insist on eating fish on Fridays, even though they know it is not now compulsory to abstain from meat. There are also those who want to receive Communion on the tongue and kneeling down. For many others, receiving in the hand and standing makes much more sense and is closer to the ancient customs of the Church.
In the long run, though, it is not an issue to be fought over (though it may be discussed). By being adamant over not eating fish on Friday or taking Communion in the hand we may drive a brother or sister away who still feels scruples about touching the Eucharistic bread, something they were sternly warned about in the past.
This does not mean that we should be adopt an attitude of indifference that one way is as good as another. People do need to be formed to help them understand the mind of the Church in such matters.
In the meantime, we must carefully distinguish between matters where we can in no way compromise. On marginal issues, however, we need to follow Paul’s example of being flexible. The ultimate aim is to bring all together in union with Christ present in each one. (The issue is dealt with at greater length in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chap. 14, a passage, for some reason, not read in our Weekday liturgy.)