The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 8
Food Offered to Idols
8 Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 “Food will not bring us close to God.”[a] We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.[b] 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family,[c] and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling,[d] I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them[e] to fall.
- 1 Corinthians 8:8 The quotation may extend to the end of the verse
- 1 Corinthians 8:11 Gk the weak brother . . . is destroyed
- 1 Corinthians 8:12 Gk against the brothers
- 1 Corinthians 8:13 Gk my brother’s falling
- 1 Corinthians 8:13 Gk cause my brother
What do you think the top four answers were to a Family Feud question that asked, “Where do people dread to go?” I’ll give you a clue to the number one answer. (WC Fields)
That’s right, of the people surveyed, 70 said they dreaded going to the dentist or doctor. Nine said they dreaded going to a funeral or to the cemetery, seven dreaded going to work and three dreaded—wait for it—three dreaded going to church.
Scientists who study dread say that dwelling on pain that might happen makes it worse when it does happen, and that the longer we put off what we think will be a painful experience, the more excruciating it will be.
This brain-body connection plays out in all sorts of ways. In medical studies, a control group will get a pill that does nothing, often made of sugar.
It’s called a placebo, and here’s the thing. Researchers tell people in the control group that the placebo is real—and, many times, some of them see their symptoms improve. They thought the medicine would make them better, and so it did.
The nocebo is the placebo’s evil cousin. Tell folks in a control group that a harmless pill can have some nasty side effects and, sure enough, some will.
From what we can tell, the nocebo effect was running wild in first century Corinth. It went back to the question of whether Christians could eat meat sacrificed to idols. A glance around the city saw temples to the gods of Rome, Greece, Egypt, and other far-flung corners of the world.
People who worshiped in those many temples sacrificed animals to their gods. The temples then sold the leftovers to meat markets, who in turn resold it to the public.
If you stopped by a Corinthian McDonalds, your Big Mac probably included meat sacrificed to Zeus, the king of the gods.
No one gave it a second thought—no one, that is, except some members of the early church. Though these followers of Jesus had turned their backs on the gods of other religions, that didn’t stop them from feeling guilty if they ate meat that started out as a sacrifice to an idol.
Some small piece of them couldn’t help but believe that even though pagan gods weren’t real, eating this tainted meat somehow still made them part of the gods they’d left behind.
The very thought that there was even an outside chance of that happening made them miserable. It was a spiritual nocebo of immense power, the power to lure people away from their new Christian faith.
Paul, never one to shy away from conflict or controversy, decided to step in, as we heard.
In this matter, then, of eating meat offered to idols, knowledge tells us that no idol has any real existence, and that there is no God but one. For though there are so-called gods both in heaven and earth, gods and lords galore in fact, to us there is only one God, the Father, from whom everything comes, and for who we live. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom everything exists, and by whom we ourselves are alive.
Idols don’t exist, so sacrifices to Greek gods are sacrifices to nothing. Meat sacrificed to nothing is just meat, plain and simple.
Except maybe it wasn’t quite that simple. Paul could go on about idol meat being harmless all he wanted, but until everyone in Corinth believed it, the old gods still had a grip on new Christians.
Paul knew that. So, he told the Christians in Corinth not to take pride in how much they knew, but rather in how much they loved.
As the JB Phillips translation so wonderfully phrases it:
We should remember that while knowledge may make people look big, only love can make them grow to their full stature. For whatever we may know, we still have a lot to learn. But if we love God, we open all of our lives to the Spirit of God.
Paul knew that other Christians in Corinth believed idol meat tainted because of where it came from. If he ate it anyway, he could hurt or even destroy their faith. So, Paul put their needs ahead of his own. He wrote, “If there is any possibility of meat injuring my sister or brother, I’ll have none of it as long as I live, for fear I might do them harm.”
Imagine a world where people put the needs of those they disagree with them ahead of their own, a world where people build up the faith of others, rather than tear it down. Where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah. “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
In our country, in our church, and in our own lives, we’re so worried about being right that we forget about being loving. Amazing how a long-ago controversy about meat sacrificed to idols can remind 21st century Christians that the goal of our faith isn’t to be correct, but compassionate.
We’re to build up each other in love, recognizing that everyone is a child of God, a sister or brother “for whom Christ died.”
If we don’t see each other in that light, even those with whom we have deep disagreements, then we don’t just sin against them, but against the church and Christ himself, Paul warned.
A church that loves God and neighbor will transform lives and change things for the better. A bickering, quarreling, fault-finding church will see evil where it doesn’t exist, evil that will tear them and the world apart just because they think it can.
When it comes to matters of the church and the kingdom, friends, remember that just a spoonful of understanding makes the gospel come alive.