Psalm 63:1-8(9-11), 98 (Morning)
Psalm 103 (Evening)
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 18:19-33
“‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.”
Paul had an interesting bunch of folks under his guidance in Corinth. Most of them were Gentiles, and they all were living in a fairly cosmopolitan city under the auspices of the Roman Empire, with at least a dozen temples, shrines, and other assorted whatnot devoted to the Roman gods. The folks at Corinth would have had many festivals and events related to those gods going on during any given calendar year. It was a common belief among the ruling class of the Roman Empire that when the populace in a territory participated in these festivals and/or worship, it helped bring stability to the region. For the average Joe and Jane in Corinth, it would have been considered perfectly normal and sensible to participate in these activities–in fact, it was very likely encouraged by the governing class.
Something that gets a little lost on us and our 21st century minds is that sensible citizens of Corinth would have been engaging in worship to the Roman gods as a matter of course, simply because of the enmeshed cultural and social ramifications of it, and, if one did not, the risk of drawing unwanted attention by their refusal. Our minds don’t always grasp that idol worship really wasn’t abnormal in that culture.
Yet, Paul tells them something rather uncomfortable, and possibly even dangerous: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Obviously, there was nothing unlawful about worshiping the Roman gods. Obviously, there were theological reasons as to why Paul thought it was a bad idea to participate much in what would have been considered a normal part of society in Corinth. He goes on to qualify a few situations regarding food–buy what’s sold to you in the meat market, eat what your non-Christian hosts offer you when there’s been no discussion as to its origin, but if someone tells you that the food had been offered to idols, refuse it–not because it will do something horrible to your eternal soul, but for the sake of the conscience of the person who informed you.
In short, he’s asking the Corinthians to think about this in terms of the shared cup and the shared bread–whether an action builds up this shared community or not.
Paul’s words can still create discomfort in us, all these centuries later, as there are plenty of things that are lawful in our society, and even innocuous when we engage in them in moderation, that, for certain people, or in certain circumstances, just might not be a good idea, simply because they don’t build up the community of believers. It’s certainly lawful to do things like use disposable paper plates, attend a $200 a plate fundraiser dinner, drink alcohol, or buy a Powerball ticket–but are there times these things don’t build up our community of believers? (I only pick those because I’ve done them all recently and they came to mind.)
We’re not likely to encounter any idol-worshipers in the sense Paul meant when speaking to the Corinthians–but with a little reflection, we can probably come up with the idols each of us is prone to worship now and then. The answers vary for each of us, but we probably all share the commonality that worshiping them seems to plug a hole in our self-esteem (at least temporarily.) Paul’s words, however, remind us that we need to think about these things in terms of community more than in terms of our perceived wants, needs, and longings.
What perfectly lawful behavior in your life might be worth considering modulating in light of your faith community? What is an idol in your life worth setting aside for the sake of that community?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.
“Moloch the god” by Unknown – the Bible. Via Wikipedia.