Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians addresses several community problems, but we decided not to tackle all that text in our Sunday liturgies. That's arguably for the best (unless you're a Protestant). So think of each of our liturgical selections from the letter as a short description on a menu, not an entrée itself. You can always order an entrée and enjoy it, and that means opening your own copy of the letter and chewing on it. There's nourishment there for your spirit, for your community, and maybe a way to help your community nourish its neighborhood and the world.
This Sunday the menu reads:
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or
Greeks or the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
The meaty question
behind "whether you eat or drink" is an early church controversy arising from the cosmopolitan Gentile milieu of ancient Corinth. In pagan temples there, worshipers and their priests regularly sacrificed animals before the idols of their gods. We don't know how much animal flesh the gods consumed, but there were plenty of leftovers, so the worshipers and the priests could take some home, and the temple could sell some through local markets.
What's this have to do with giving offense to Jews, Greeks (Gentiles), or the church? Well some felt that the meat was tainted, in a moral/spiritual sense, by passing through idolatrous liturgies in the pagan temples. To partake of it would seem to assent to the validity of the pagan worship and to affirm the reality of their gods. Furthermore, Christians of Jewish background took a harder line on this than some Christians of Gentile origin. (That difference is one you would expect.)
And remember Corinth is in Greece
, where philosophers had long been asserting the power of reason, and democratic advocates had long opposed tyrants and thought-control. So some Corinthian Christians argued that the squeamish ought to get over it because the idols are just that, the pagan gods don't really exist, and we all should just know better, not letting ourselves be restrained.
Saint Paul's pastoral response is on the side of restraint. He bluntly prohibits Christians from participating in pagan sacrifices, and deftly proposes Eucharistic food and drink as alternatives that are real and that bind us to Christ. But as for food previously offered to idols, he recommends avoiding it, no matter how smart one's theology. That's a kindness to the whole community, reducing scandal and division. Eating those goods, while permissible, is not useful. There's a lot, Paul says, that's permissible but not useful.
Finally to wrap up his wrap-up of his lengthy discussion, Paul says, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." He's referring to his overall restraint in asserting his rights. In prior verses he said he could demand material support from the Corinthian church, as apparently other missionaries had, but he does not. He didn't travel there because the Corinthians hired him, but because Christ's gospel compelled him, and that was enough to make him forego certain rights.
We're quite willing to declare some things tainted
, and we sometimes boycott them. Union members don't cross picket lines. Lovers of justice and advocates for the poor don't buy goods that come from sweatshops. Remember when the farm workers in California asked us not to be grapes until the growers recognized their union? I do, and I remember how critical I was then of a seminary classmate who bought grapes, for a Labor Day picnic, no less. I was not as kind and understanding as Saint Paul would have wanted. Lots of American Catholics boycott the political party of their working-class parents and immigrant grandparents because the party's wrong on abortion rights. The alternative party's disdain for many a Catholic social-justice position bothers them less.
There are some big, complex and scandalous elephants in the room, that would split our church and nullify our mission to be a sign of saving unity in the world
(Vatican II, Lumen Gentium
, chapter II, paragraph 9). We're looking for ways to be truthful and faithful without alienating Christians whose priorities haven't developed the same way ours have. (What an artful sentence!) We want to hold it together.
But the spirit of this age urges every side to be more emphatic, more extreme, more divisive, more derisive of our foes, more oblivious of our own contradictions. It feels like we're walking on eggshells. It's uneasy in the church, but far worse in national politics, where we can't invoke any higher power. There it feels like the gates of hell! May they not prevail.
As I was writing this message, sadly I learned of the death of Patrick Fuller, once of Arnold, Missouri and lately of Carmel, Indiana. I've admired and loved Pat since he joined my college seminary class in 1965. His honesty and generosity were among the things that made him successful in business. He loved the church and its missions of charity, serving several terms as Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus in Indiana, and establishing libraries of healthy spiritual books for inmates in numerous federal prisons. He was devoted to his wife Kris and their children and grandchildren. He was unafraid to change his mind. Pat liked these messages and the live discussions over Zoom, usually bringing in friends from church. Rest in peace, Pat.