Where's The Beef?
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Recent news reports informed us of the suit filed against ABC for their undercover report on a supermarket chain. ABC smuggled miniature cameras into a supermarket under the guise that their reporters were new employees. The cameras caught the supermarket employees in compromising statements and activities related to the handling of meat products. The supermarket sued ABC because of their deceptive reporting practices and won their case against the network.
Some say ABC's investigative reporting practice is one issue related to the stores; the other issue is whether or not their meat products are safe to eat, regardless how the information became available. Whether or not ABC was deceptive in its reporting practices still doesn't answer the question about the cleanliness of the supermarket's meat products. The public needed to be reassured that the supermarket meats were safe for human consumption. This suit demonstrates that there was not one, but two issues behind this story.
There was an earlier case similar to this, in which persons needed to know if meat was safe to eat. The issue wasn't whether the meat was safe to eat physically, but whether it was safe to eat spiritually. In this case it wasn't the Food and Drug Administration that was called as a consultant, but Paul, our ever-popular consultant on practical Christianity.
Corinth was a metropolitan city, with persons of many traditions and heritages residing in and passing through town. Some of these persons engaged in the pagan ritual of sacrificing animals to idols. The idols were picky about what they ate, and so were served only the finest meats; prime and choice would have been their favorite grades, provided the cuts were sliced against the grain, like the finest jerky. Though they preferred the best cuts, the idols never ate much. There were always plenty of leftovers. Not wanting to waste the meat, it was taken to market where it fetched top dollar, as do all the best cuts.
In Corinth there was a community of Christians which shopped at these markets. Some of these Christians would purchase the idols' leftovers and enjoy a sandwich in the idol's temple. They were occasionally seen eating this meat by Christians who were new to the faith, and the new Christians had their sensitivities pinched, because the food had originally been sacrificed to idols. So a question arose in the Corinthian Church: was this meat safe for Christians to eat if it had originally been sacrificed to idols?
It seems there were some Christians scrupulous enough to recognize a dilemma here. What was OK or not OK for a Christian to do? Clearly, these Christians took their Christianity seriously and didn't want to do anything that might offend God, so they were on the lookout for anything that might not be kosher, for lack of a better term. And we understand where they were coming from. We don't need to worry about whether or not the meat we eat has been sacrificed to idols, but scrupulosity remains an issue in the church.
This kind of scrupulousness is more prevalent than I had realized. About 25 years ago, Father Thomas Tobin founded a group called Scrupulous Anonymous that eventually numbered in the thousands. Scrupulous Anonymous promotes self-help for persons burdened with anxiety or fear that they may have made a mistake or overlooked something important. Members are typically plagued by doubts about their having done the right thing.
Robert Raines tells the story of a priest who was responsible for hearing the confessions of the nuns under his care. The nuns weren't prone to getting acquainted with many sins, but must have felt they should have something to confess. Reflecting on their confessions, the priest said, "It's like being stoned to death with popcorn."
Not sure whether some Corinthians were being over scrupulous or not, they wrote to Paul and asked his opinion: is it OK for Christians to eat meat offered to idols? Paul gives them a straight answer but takes it another step.
Certainly, Paul says, the meat is fine to eat, since you and I both know these idols have no real existence; the meat offered to idols is no different than any other meat. We're no better off and no worse off if we eat the meat. No need to be overly scrupulous on this point. But Paul continues....
Not everyone has this knowledge, however. There are new Christians who still consider the meat idol's food. When they see you eating this meat, their conscience may be defiled, because they are still weak in the faith. Hence, be careful that your Christian liberty doesn't become a stumbling block to the weak.
In fact, Paul says that even though the meat is fine, he won't eat it in front of new Christians because it may cause them to stumble. Paul's conscience was as emancipated as anyone else's, and he was willing to go a long way with them, provided due consideration was given to the consciences of "the weak."
It's to Paul's credit that he was able to see this issue from a more important perspective. The Corinthians thought the issue was whether or not it was permissible to eat this meat, but Paul realized that was a secondary issue. In other words, Paul was able to differentiate between the content of the issue (the meat) and the process of the issue (how to handle eating the meat). The process with which an issue is handled is almost always more important than the issue itself, and Paul demonstrated this by focusing on the process of how it affected other Christians, not the meat itself.
Take, for instance, the congregation which sponsored an annual church dinner for the community. One year a few people proposed a change in the menu. The disagreement over the menu erupted into a schism that split the congregation. Some might say the issue here was the content: what to have for dinner. Let's face it, churches don't erupt like this over dinner menus. I would venture to guess that it wasn't the menu, but the process through which the church determined the menu that caused the schism.
Paul has given a good example for differentiating between content and process. If Paul had focused on the content (the meat) and had suggested, either way, whether the meat should or should not be eaten, he may have set up a schism in the Corinthian Church. Instead, Paul saved the day by focusing on the process: how does eating that meat impact other Christians?
It's tempting to get caught up in the lesser issues of meat or not to meat. But Paul pointed out the larger issue of process: how does our Christian freedom influence those who are vulnerable to our example? Paul has decided, "If food is the cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall." Process is more important than content.
Haydn McLean New Holland, PA