First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 4

William Loader

Epiphany 4: 1 February  1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Paul is responding to another worry expressed in the letter from Corinth. Clearly some in the community saw no problem in eating meat which had derived from the temple slaughtering where the animal would have been considered an offering to an idol. It may have been difficult even to get meat which had not been through such a process. It made sense to say: we eat it and we see no problem because we don't believe in idols anyway. Perhaps Paul himself would do so on occasions and perhaps those who think like this could point to Paul's own behaviour, or, at least, his theology of freedom from such considerations.

Such freedom belongs, for Paul, within a context of responsibility and especially of love. Paul never seems happy with absolutes. Knowledge and insight is always relational. People are always in focus. Underlying his thought constantly seems to be: and what does this mean for those around me and for my relationship to God. The relation to God and to people are inseparable for Paul. In some ways it reminds us of Jesus' saying: the sabbath was made for people not people for the sabbath. People matter most. Correctness according to the Law or correctness in knowledge or even doctrine must be considered in the setting of the overarching doctrine of multidirectional love.

The problem at Corinth seems to be not that those who do not believe in idols are wrong, but that there is always more to consider than being right. Many people still struggle with this problem. When getting it right (whether at the conservative or liberal end of theology and practice) is foremost, people usually get relationships wrong. At worst we see it in fanaticism. It can also express itself in intolerance and insensitivity. There is a criterion of truth that concerns itself with faithfulness (or being true in a different sense) to my neighbour. I can be right but fail really to listen and engage. Most people in marriages and similar relationships will have had such experiences. Winning the argument and working through the relational issues can be quite different things. The latter often courts the scornful comment that these are irrational issues.

Paul is not happy with people being right; he wants relationships to be right, too. In fact he would not have separated the two. Relationship matters most. This is why he can go straight on to speak about being known by God. It means known, not known about. So the so-called knowledgeable (whose insights are not in dispute) appear to have acted from a self-assured superior stance. Paul may be asserting that all have knowledge without exception; or he may be citing what this group was saying: we all have knowledge. Paul immediately brings love into it. He does not argue with the knowledgeable about their belief in only one god and in Jesus. On the contrary he asserts such central belief, using what might well have been a set formulation. That statement has the effect of affirming that God is God of all and of us and that Jesus is Lord of all and also the basis for us being who we are. Had he filled this out more, he might have pointed out that even this statement of belief sets everything, therefore, within a Jesus-shaped understanding of God, where love matters most and that is the very basis of our identity.

He then addresses the particular problem, which appears to have arisen because converts from idol worship had difficulty doing such things as eating meat offered to idols. We need to bear in mind that much sacrifice in the ancient world had to do with communion with the god by eating the meat of the sacrifice (as also in the eucharist). Paul might have tried to help them see it was nothing and they needn't worry. Instead, Paul appears to work with less psychologically naive presuppositions. These people (whom the others call 'weak', a term which Paul also picks up and uses) are not simply going to turn round and make the rational jump into freedom. They have difficulty. To be with them means to take their situation into account. It is not a matter just of being right, but of doing the 'right thing', the caring thing, by them. Paul's assessment is that this will mean abstaining where it would create problems for them. This is generous and sensitive love.

Love has to be informed and situational. We know too little of the situation to be able to assess whether Paul's advice was appropriate. Given what we know it certainly makes sense and we can certainly connect with where Paul is coming from and learn much from it. It should not, however, cease to be what it is, that is, situational advice about love, and become a general rule for every situation. Sometimes it is necessary to do things which will cause offence to some. This is not a general rule about avoiding upsetting people. Such an approach could not make sense of the life of Jesus, let alone his death!

So the issues need assessing in each new situation. It might mean for some abstention from alcohol in communities where alcohol is a huge problem, or, at least from insensitive use. It might enatil issues of sensitivity about dress, food, and a range of other behaviours. But it cannot and should not be used as a weapon by individuals or groups to hold others to ransom (eg. offending others by ordaining women, liberating slaves, taking a different approach to sexual orientation, etc). We are better to come at such situations from the centre not from rules. The centre is truth in love, Christ in God. The centre is compassion and understanding. In each new situation we need to decide. The issue is always relationships, seen in the context of God's will of wholeness for people. It can never just be about being right or about getting people by hook or crook to do things our way.

Gospel: Epiphany 4: 1 February Mark 1:21-28

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