The second most interesting topic

July 13 — 1 Corinthians 8; July 20 — 1 Corinthians 10:9-22

Jul 7, 2014 by

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If the previous lesson was about sex, the next two concern the second most interesting topic: food!

Finger

Finger

But the two texts are different. Chapter 8 asks if it’s OK for believers to eat idol-meat. Chapter 10 warns of the danger of eating with the wrong people in the wrong places.

Beginning in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul responds to questions that the Corinthian believers raised. Their question in chapter 8 goes something like this: “Since we now know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ we don’t see any problem eating meat sold at the market that was consecrated to an idol. What do you think, Paul?”

For all but the rich and powerful, meat is an expensive and uncommon commodity in Corinth. Most meat comes from animals offered in sacrifice at a temple honoring some deity in the Roman pantheon. Since the gods of both Greeks and Romans conveniently like only the smoke and gristle from the burning sacrifice, the animal is later butchered and the meat sold at market. The poorest 90 percent of Corinth’s inhabitants rarely eat meat unless some is handed out at a pagan festival.

The question of idol-meat is obviously raised by the wealthier, educated Christians in Corinth, patrons of the churches who likely follow the urbane and educated Apollos and who can afford to buy this meat. They have been criticized by the more law-observant Jews — “those of Peter” — and by new converts from polytheism who still identify this meat with the gods themselves (8:7). The patrons want Paul to support their practices.

Paul’s advice is surprisingly nuanced. He agrees with the “liberals” that food will not affect our relationship with God (8:8). But such liberty can be a stumbling block to those with more tender consciences. If others see you eating this meat and follow your example against their conscience, you may be guilty of destroying them and sinning against Christ. In that case, don’t eat meat at all!

Are there different kinds of foods today that raise ethical questions?

What is the “table of demons” in 10:21? Whatever Paul means by this phrase, he is adamantly opposed to eating at this table. No nuances here!

The cultural background leads us once more to the wealthy male patrons of Corinth’s churches. Many of them hold positions in the civic government and have hopes of rising higher among the ranks of Corinthian civic leadership. They are expected to attend banquets held at the local temple of Asclepius, the healer god. It is an honor to be invited. Indeed, it is the only way to get ahead in the world.

These banquets reinforce the ironclad hierarchical structures of life in the empire. The time together allows for networking and strengthening patronage relations: “If you do this for me, I’ll do that for you.” It’s the traditional all-male smoke-filled room where things are really decided.

The dessert menu is followed by drinking, music, dancing and sexual enticements. Paul considers this meal the “table of demons.” What he means is that there are demonic realms and force fields of life that actively resist the values of God. “You cannot,” says Paul, “partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (10:21).

I have taught 1 Corinthians several times in groups where we role-played Chloe’s house church — where higher-class patrons argued with their working-class and slave clients about these meals. After one lively debate, it looked to me like the patrons had won. They absolutely had to attend these banquets or they could never get ahead. They might lose their jobs — and then who would support these house churches?

Are there Christians in our churches today who justify their need to have one foot in the church and one foot in businesses or political structures that increase inequality and ignore the poor and powerless? What would Paul think?

Reta Halteman Finger is retired from teaching Bible at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. She co-authored Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation (Herald, 2013), a study of 1 Corinthians.


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