A reflection on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 for the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, January 31, 2021
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ 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.
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.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—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.
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. ‘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. 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? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (NRSVA)
This passage reveals a remarkable practicable morality lived out by the Apostle Paul. It is one that is beyond knowledge, exceeds personal rights, and has love for neighbour at its core.
The first acknowledgment that will open this passage up for us is that Paul is not one to sit on the fence regarding meat sacrificed to idols. He is quite clear about this: ‘we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ (The fact that these statements are in quotation marks may indicate that this is a continuation of an ongoing conversation between Paul and the Corinthians and that these statements have been made before).
Obviously Paul does not believe an idol is of any significance – and therefore believes he is free to eat any meat. After all, for Paul, YHWH is the creator and giver of every good gift.
In defending this, Paul refers to what seems to be his equivalent of the Shema. The Shema refers to the daily recitation of the core call of Israel. It is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and reads:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
It is a daily-recited reminder to Israel to love God with everything.
It seems that Jesus caused Paul to reinvent this daily recitation. There is some evidence – including the obvious rhythm in the Greek – that the statement found in 1 Corinthians 8:6 is the core of Paul’s Gospel:
…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.
The repetition is obvious: ‘all things…exist’ through the ‘one’ God and ‘one’ Jesus Christ. Take this to heart and you will be free to live out the freedom Christ won.
So, of course, Paul can eat any meat – indeed any food – with a heart of gratefulness. This is a freedom, the apostle believes, won for him by Jesus’.
And yet, Paul is prepared to curb this Christ-won liberty out of love for his ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters. For their sake – and for their spiritual growth – he is prepared to limit the freedom he enjoys.
Make no mistake, this is a prioritisation of grace above all else. It places love at the core of our call – love for God – and love for others.
‘Knowledge’ is not the highest goal here. Indeed, it is consciously restricted in the face of love.
Paul himself says it best:
So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
Love is the highest of every call!
What might be a modern-day equivalent of ‘meat’ in this passage?
When do you notice people prioritising being right over being loving? When have you seen this in yourself?
What are the risks of prioritising love over being right? What might followers of Jesus be tempted to fade from this higher call?