Never Alone

The Feast of Saint Joseph

1 Corinthians 10:14–11:1

Paul has just finished arguing that the “strong” Corinthians (i.e., those who chose to eat idol meat) are not as invulnerable to the powers of idols as they might think they are.  Indeed, Paul suggests that they are in danger of incurring God’s judgment, just as the Israelites were punished by God for idolatry in the wilderness.  Thus, Paul begins this next passage by encouraging the congregation to “flee from the worship of idols,” to turn tail and run, because the spiritual dangers of idol worship are far greater than the Corinthians have imagined.  He appeals to members of the congregation as “sensible” people, which was probably one of the Corinthians’ favorite designations.  Using the example of the Lord’s Supper, Paul asks (expecting the answer to be “yes, of course”) whether the “bread that we break” and the “cup of blessing that we bless” are means by which we share in the body and blood of Christ.  He explains that the Christian community is “one body” with Christ and each other (more on that in a few chapters), because members of the community share in “one bread.”  Paul demonstrates this further by explaining that those who share in meat that has been sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem are “partners at the altar.”  It seems that these illustrations are boilerplate Eucharistic theology for the communities Paul founded; he asks all of these questions in such a way that the Corinthians probably would have nodded along in agreement.  If all of these illustrations are true, therefore, what is Paul’s implication?  Hearkening back to 8:4, he doesn’t mean to suggest that idols are real.  Rather, he is arguing that, just as eating the bread at the Lord’s Supper is a sharing in the Lord’s body, so also eating meat that has been offered to a “demon” is a sharing in that demon.  Paul argues that knowingly partaking of food that has been offered to a demon and partaking of the Lord’s Supper are mutually exclusive.  He ends this line of argument with a reference to the divine punishment that Israel had experienced in the wilderness: do you really want to make God jealous and put him to the test?

In these final verses of chapter 10, Paul summarizes the argument he has made since introducing the subject of idol meat.  Having finished warning the “strong” Corinthians, he returns to the tactic of arguing for the sake of the community as a whole by recalling the rhetorical strategy of quoting a popular Corinthian slogan and offering a counterslogan of his own.  In this case, the Corinthian slogan is, “All things are lawful.”  Paul responds twice, saying, “not all things are beneficial” and “not all things build up.”  Paul makes it clear that he is speaking of the community as a whole when he suggests that members of the community should seek the advantage of others, rather than themselves.  The next few verses are striking, because Paul essentially suggests that, while one shouldn’t knowingly eat idol meat, one shouldn’t seek to be an inconvenience to avoid eating idol meat.  Everything belongs to the Lord, so one should only avoid eating meat if someone explicitly says, “this has been offered to idols.”  Only then does Paul suggest that one should abstain from eating meat.  I think we’re meant to presume that the “other” who hypothetically provides this information is another member of the Christian community, rather than a nonbeliever.  This is consistent with 8:12; Paul clearly believes that we should be concerned with the consciences of our fellow Christians.  While our liberty should not be judged by another’s conscience, we should not wound another’s conscience with our liberty. 

Paul concludes his discussion of idol meat by suggesting that everything we do should be done for the glory of God.  Whether we eat meat or abstain from eating meat, we should be careful not to “give offense” to anyone in the community.  We should attempt to imitate Paul, who has become “all things to all people.”  In other words, we should think of others in the community before we think of ourselves.

“What is hell?  Hell is oneself.  Hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections.  There is nothing to escape from and nothing to escape to.  One is always alone.” — T.S. Eliot

I am absolutely fascinated by Paul’s conclusion to his discussion of idol meat.  The way he had been arguing, I expected him to tell the Corinthians that they should employ the strategy used by Jewish members of the community: abstain from eating meat altogether in order to avoid the risks associated with idol worship.  Surpringly, Paul relents, telling the Corinthians that they should take precautions against eating idol meat, but do not have to go so far as to stop eating meat altogether.  Indeed, Paul seems be concerned for the feelings of the potential pagan hosts of the Corinthian Christians; he enjoins his congregation “not to raise questions” about what they are eating when they visit someone’s house.  For Paul, concern for the other is not limited to other members of the Christian community, but for everyone a Christian might encounter.  Even though the Church is a “different kind of community,” part of the Christian commitment to community is tied to the acceptance of hospitality without raising self-righteous questions that might embarrass one’s non-Christian hosts.  On one hand, Paul sees this as an evangelistic opportunity; he notes that he tries to please everyone so that they may be saved.  On the other hand, being hospitable is the mark of someone who knows how to live in a community, and if one cannot function in the community of the world, one will not be able to participate effectively in the life of the Church.

T.S. Eliot observed that “hell” is embracing loneliness, forgetting the connection that I have to everyone around me and wallowing in my self-absorbed introspection.  And I think that many people regard Lent as a lonely time in the Church year.  It is easy to imagine that Lenten disciplines are solitary endeavors, individual crosses to bear, opportunities to work on my relationship with God.  The reality, however, is that Lent is meant to encourage community.  Though our disciplines are individual, we experience them in community: if we’ve added devotional time to our day, we are also called ensure that that can happen without sacrificing our relationships with each other.  If we’ve given up dessert, we are called not to let this get in the way of birthday celebrations for family and friends.  Lent is about taking on individual disciplines in community.  Walking the “pilgrim way of Lent” together reminds us that even in our darkest hours, we are not alone.

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