Early in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he addresses the issue of whether or not it’s okay to eat food that has been offered to idols. We need a little background here because this is actually a fairly complicated issue. William Barclay, the Scottish theologian, reminds us that “sacrifice to the gods was an integral part of ancient life. It might be of two kinds, private or public. In private sacrifice the animal was divided into three parts. A token part was burned on the altar…; the priests received their rightful portion…; the worshiper himself received the rest of the meat. With the meat he gave a banquet.” So the question becomes, can I attend the banquet where the meat came from a sacrifice to an idol? If people can’t do this, they won’t be able to attend many social occasions.
To make matters worse, the meat left over from the public sacrifice was sometimes sold to markets, so people might inadvertently be eating meat from a sacrifice. People at this time believed very strongly in demons and evil. They believed that spirits settled on their foods, trying to get inside a person. To avoid this, you dedicated some meat to some “good god.” It would seem that somehow all the meat in Corinth was connected with a heathen god! And we won’t even discuss the question of “was it Kosher?”
Paul is dealing with two different groups at Corinth; the Jewish “rigorists” in the Christian community who were well versed in the law would not want people to eat such food, and the “anti-rigorists” who felt that as followers of Jesus they have been set free from such details. Paul is addressing a question that, at first, seems to have absolutely nothing to do with us: can we eat food that has been sacrificed to idols? He reminds the church at Corinth of what they know: they know that “there is no God but one,” but not everyone has this knowledge, not everyone knows this. Paul says “We know that no idol really exists” but that some people are so used to idols that they still think of the food that they eat as being offered to an idol because their consciences are weak.
Here’s the point. Eating this food makes no difference to us, but people are looking to see what we do. If people see us eating this food, they may think it’s fine to go ahead and eat it. In this case we might say sometimes we know what we know because we see how others use their knowledge.
Let’s set this in a modern setting. Okay so we don’t eat food sacrificed to idols. But we might, oh, gossip. We know we don’t mean anything by it, but others listening might think it’s okay to gossip because we do. We might say something nasty about the driver who just cut us off; we know we don’t mean anything by it, but our passengers (our kids, maybe?) might think it’s fine to call people names. We might uncomfortably laugh at a co-worker’s racist or sexist joke, “going along to get along,” but someone else, who is also uncomfortable, might think it’s okay to laugh because we did. I’m sure you can think of more examples.
It can be a slippery slope. Paul is reminding us that we need to think about others; we have knowledge but what is the impact on our brothers and sisters in these sensitive situations? There’s knowing what’s right and then there’s doing what’s right. “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.”
What do I know? I know that “knowledge” alone isn’t enough; knowledge needs to be tempered by love. What do you know?
Connie Knapp is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown and a participant in the Commissioned Ruling Elders program of the Hudson River Presbytery.