where’s the beef? – a reflection on First Corinthians 8:1-13

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Current Affairs / Lectionary / Paul / Year B
Highland Cow

A highland cow, from the Isle of Mull, Scotland. Photo by Rick Morley.

The following is a reflection on First Corinthians 8:1-13 the Epistle lesson appointed for January 29, 2012, the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – according to the Revised Common Lectionary. Also on this site is a version of the Prayers of the People for all Epiphany.

I believe that understanding Paul’s argument about eating meat sacrificed to idols is critical for the Church today. Paul’s argument here can be broken down into two distinct parts, each of which is important to grasp.

In the first part Paul states that the eating of meat that had been sacrificed to an idol is acceptable because the “gods” which the idols represent don’t really exist. We know that. There is no “Mithras.” There is no “Zeus.” Those gods are made-up human inventions, which have no compare to God Almighty.

So, if some fool wants to wave their hamburger over an altar dedicated to “Mithras,” and then sell the hamburger in the marketplace—it’s perfectly fine. Who cares? The foolishness, and sinful idolatry, of the pagan cult doesn’t taint the meat. It’s just meat.

This is an important point to grasp for several reasons:

  • This isn’t an universal answer in the New Testament. In the Council of Jerusalem, in Acts 15, when James released the gentiles from circumcision, he explicitly states that they were still to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols. In Revelation 2: 14 & 2:20 Christ condemns the Church in Pergamum and Thyatira for, among other things, eating such meat. So, in the New Testament Church, people were not at one mind about this.
  • Paul doesn’t appeal to scripture, or to the teaching of the apostles (or even Jesus) to come up with his answer. He appeals to reason. There are no other gods = the idols are worthless = the meat is fine.
  • And, in his reasoning Paul moves the line on idolatry. Now Paul isn’t weak-kneed on idolatry. Just see the first chapter of Romans for his clarity on the matter. But, while one might assume that he’d want to keep the church away from anything that even resembled or was associated with idolatry, Paul doesn’t see that as necessary. That’s overkill. It’s not a particularly conservative stance for the former pagans or the Jewish-Christians among him.

But, Paul isn’t done here. There’s a second part to his argument.

For while he argues that the meat is fine to eat, he’s worried about the emotional & spiritual state of those who might eat it, or see it eaten. Some former pagans may have grown up sacrificing to idols, and participating fully in the sacrificial cults of idolatry. For them to then go back and eat the same meat offered in the same ways, may feel like backsliding.

Some of them can’t handle it. They want a clean break from the past. AND, watching others seemingly participate in the sacrificial system sets off bells and whistles in their heads.

There also may be some Jewish-Christians in their midst who have desperately tried to stay as far away from anything resembling paganism, that to do so now just feels wrong.

It may not actually be wrong, but it sure feels like it.

So, Paul says, that while the meat is technically ok to eat, if it hurts the faith of other people—if it damages the spiritual health of other members of the Body—then Christians have a duty to fore-go the meat, and help out their brothers and sisters in Christ.

What does this have to say to the Church today? Well, we can be a pretty conflicted bunch. I think it’s immeasurably helpful to remember that even in the New Testament Church, in the years and decades immediately following the resurrection, Jesus’ followers weren’t on the same page about everything. Even big things like idolatry.

I think this shows that not everything—even the first and second commandments—has an easy interpretation. Different Christians, who hold Christ in the highest regard and who faithfully participate in His Body, can disagree on things.

It also says, at least as Paul is concerned, that reason is a valuable tool in interpreting what’s right and wrong in the Christian faith and life.

And, perhaps most importantly, we find that even when you have the “correct answer,” that’s not enough. There are pastoral and spiritual implications of keeping the whole Body together. And those implications are more important than being right.

Sometimes, for the sake of the Body of Christ, it’s better to choose the salad, and hold off on the hamburger.

At least for a while.

The Author

follower of Jesus, father of two, husband of one, Episcopal priest, with one book down, one blog up...surrounded by empty jars of nutella


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