The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
TEXT: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. (1 Cor. 8:1b-3)
There’s a story I heard once about missionaries in the South Pacific who set up a croquet game in their front yard. Several of their indigenous neighbors became interested and wanted to join in the fun. The missionaries explained the game and started them out, each with a mallet and a ball.
As the game progressed, opportunity came for one of the players to take advantage of another by knocking that person’s ball out of the court. A missionary explained the procedure, but his advice only puzzled the native. “Why would I want to knock his ball out of the court?” he asked.
“So you will be the one to win!” the missionary said. The short-statured man, clad only in a loin cloth, shook his head in bewilderment. His “civilized” neighbor was suggesting something absurdly uncivil. Competition is generally ruled out in a hunting-gathering society, where people survive not by competing with one another, but by working together. The game continued, but nobody followed the missionaries’ advice. When a player successfully got through all the wickets, the game was not over for him. He went back and gave aid and advice to his fellows. As the final player moved toward the last wicket, the whole thing was still very much a team effort. And finally, when the last wicket was played, all the players shouted happily: “We won! We won!”
I think the apostle Paul would have appreciated that story. In today’s epistle lesson, he writes to the Church at Corinth—and, as you may remember, Paul had his work cut out for him with this group. They believed that Jesus was God incarnate, and that he had lived and died that they might be saved; but beyond this, there was a lot of groundwork that needed to be laid before the people of Corinth would understand what it meant to live as a Christian community.
Elsewhere in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses a number of concerns—everything from what to do about a man who is having sexual relations with his stepmother to how best to arrange one’s hair when prophesying in church. In today’s passage, Paul is offering guidance about what they ought to do with food that had been sacrificed to idols.
Why was this a problem? Well, first-century Corinth was a cosmopolitan place. Religions abounded there, and a traditional rite of most religious systems involved the sacrifice of animals to the various gods and goddesses. However, food sacrificed to idols was still food that could be eaten. Typically, only a portion of the meat was actually burned upon the altar; the rest of it was given to the temple officials. The food offered to the gods was the food the priests lived on; but that food could also be sold in the general market to raise money to support the temple itself. And anyone could purchase this meat.
Apparently, there were people in the Corinthian Church who believed that food sacrificed to an idol was defiled and should not be touched. But Paul argues that idols cannot possibly defile food, because idols represent gods that do not exist. In Paul’s mind, there is only one God—and that is the Lord. Therefore this food that is being sacrificed to idols is really food being sacrificed to nothing. Paul’s opinion is that this food can be eaten just like any other food. Nothing magical has taken place, no change has occurred, it is still just food.
However, Paul then goes on to say something else. He stresses that just because he is enlightened enough to understand this does not mean that everyone else is; and if a brother or sister were to see him eat such food—and still in some way believe in the power or reality of these other gods—then that person’s conscience might become defiled. They would become confused. They would feel conflict that could be damaging to their faith. And Paul feels that it is simply not worth the risk. He says:
‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. (1 Cor. 8:8-9)
In other words: just because you know the truth, that does not grant you licence to act however you please. Paul stresses to his friends in Corinth that they need to be very careful. His criterion for judging personal behaviour is its effect upon others. Determining how we should act in a given situation is not just a matter of knowing what is right or true or customary; we must always take into account how our actions will affect the life and growth of other people.
In the story about the missionaries and their croquet game, we see something of this in action. The missionaries knew the correct rules of croquet, but they were wise enough to not impose those rules on their indigenous neighbors. They told them once, but then stepped back and observed their new friends act in accordance with their own understanding.
Thankfully, the missionaries did not take the mallets away and insist that they play the game properly or not at all. To do that would have been offensive; it would have subverted the cultural values of the people—and even though the missionaries may have had a right knowledge of the rules of croquet, the question would have hung in the air: “right at what cost?”
Our knowledge of food will not bring us any closer to God than will our knowledge of the rules of croquet—but how we use our knowledge in such situations will. Now, it is hard to think of really good modern examples that directly correspond to this dilemma, because we are talking about an action or behaviour that some people consider absolutely taboo—but which others regard as completely benign. However, the basic principle is this: we need to respect each other, and take others into account before we act, even if we already know we are right.
One example we could use would be the practice of drinking alcohol. There is nothing inherently evil about alcohol, but for some people it can become a real problem—and it places their health at risk. That’s why certain denominations have traditionally banned alcohol from church gatherings.
The same principle is at work when we celebrate Communion using gluten-free bread. In recent years, many congregations have instituted this practice out of respect for those who cannot digest the gluten in a wheat loaf. Now, we may not love the taste and texture of gluten-free bread (although some recipes produce better results than others), but … In this way, the church seeks to be inclusive, accommodating the needs of one another.
I like Paul’s phrase in the first verse of chapter eight: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Knowledge is good, and important, and something to strive for. However, knowledge without compassion is dangerous. I’m sure we all know brilliant people who completely ignore the feelings of those around them. Knowledge can most certainly get you into trouble if you do not temper it with concern for the welfare of others.
It takes a brilliant mind to construct a nuclear weapon; it takes a loving mind to refrain from using it. It takes equally-skilled scientists to create biological weapons that can destroy human lives or vaccines that can save them. It takes equally-skilled politicians to draft foreign policy that will lead to peace as will lead to war. But in each of these cases, the question that ought to be asked is this: is the knowledge being used to puff up the individual, or to build up all the people? Is knowledge being used for purely selfish reasons, or is it being used with respect for the needs of others?
If we bring it down to a more personal level, we realize that we as individuals know a great deal. In fact, every one of us is loaded with information. The question is: will we let our knowledge determine how we use our love, or will we let our love determine how we use our knowledge?
Our lives here in 21st-century Canada may seem worlds away from first-century Corinth, but here and now—just like in Corinth way back then—we find ourselves living and working with people who have ideas and values that are very different from our own. Our culture has become remarkably diverse—and there will always be people we disagree with, people we have trouble understanding, people who conduct themselves in ways that seem downright strange to us. But just because we don’t think the same way about things as others do, that does not mean we cannot find ways to conduct ourselves in a respectful manner.
Paul’s message to the Church in Corinth was simply this: let love and respect guide your actions and interactions. Ultimately, strong communities are built upon the foundation of love in the context of diversity—not upon the pursuit of complete uniformity of belief.
We don’t live in a world where we all agree, and that’s a good thing. But it also provides us with a challenge to let love inform our knowledge before we act, to let respect for our neighbour be a factor in our decision-making, and to exercise some humility by letting others act in accordance with their conscience—even if we don’t quite understand where they are coming from. Rather than puff ourselves up with that feeling of once again being right, let us build one another up in love. As Paul tells us, that is the way of Christ—and it surely is the gospel we preach.