January 31, 2021 (Liturgical Year B)
In today’s epistle, Paul calls out members of the Corinthian church for bad behavior and attitudes. He talks a lot about knowledge and the kinds of food they chose to eat. Knowledge and eating aren’t bad things in themselves — or are they? Why does Paul react so strongly to such mundane things? In order to better understand what’s going on, it may help to learn about the communities involved.
Corinth was a prominent trade center in ancient Greece, home to not one but two major seaports. Heavy trade meant the city was a cultural and religious center. It was home to temples honoring Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, and Apollo, the son Zeus himself. Like large cities today, its inhabitants were diverse — though in this case, solidly pagan.
A majority of the Cornithian church membership were Gentile rather than Jewish. Unlike their Jewish counterparts, the Gentiles grew up participating in the pagan cultural milieu with its festivals and celebratory foods. Such festivals were one of the few opportunities lower-income residents had to consume meat. Despite their conversion, they still had many social connections in the pagn majority — friends, business associates, even family members. Naturally, they wanted to hold to their new faith without giving up lifelong social connections with all that entailed. This is at the heart of today’s dispute.
Statue of Asclepius; Source: Wikipedia
Some of the church’s Gentile members continued to fully participate in pagan festivals, as they had their entire lives. Other members of the community objected to this. The meat consumed at these festivals was slaughtered in honor of the pagan gods these festivals sought to worship. Does eating this “blessed” meat communicate to others in the community, be they Christian or pagan, that one believes in the gods supposedly receiving the sacrifice? Paul argues it does not. He clearly states, “there may be so-called Gods…yet for us there is one God…and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” Choosing to believe in the one, true God negates not only the power but the very existence of all others. But not everyone in the church community agreed upon or accepted this understanding. Imagine that! A disagreement — in the church! They worried not only about how the consumption of festival meat was perceived by their neighbors but what eating it meant for their very souls. And they looked down on those who disagreed with them as superstitious fools.
Though we no longer have the letter the Corinthians sent to Paul which prompted this passage, I expect the community couched their question on the matter in terms of theology. Paul does not see the problem as one of theology; rather, it is one of relationship. Paul quickly and directly cuts to the heart of the matter. Verse one includes the phrase, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge puffs up. Love…builds up. One should not take excessive pride in one’s own theological “rightness” if it causes poor treatment of neighbor. Paul cautions those who consider themselves in the right that “anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.” He urges them to be gentle with their neighbors, beloved ones of God, lest their influence “become a stumbling block…destroy[ing]” other believers.
I wonder how our own communities would be different if we approached each other with the same humility Paul urges for the church in Corinth. Like Corinth, we live in a diverse culture. And like humanity across time, it feels good to be right. I wonder how our interactions, from national political debates to one-on-one relationships, would yield different results if we took a different approach. If we approached each other with humble and open hearts, and sought to build up others in love, rather than elevating ourselves first.