In the Roman period, many ordinary people ate most of the meat they consumed at religious banquets In both Judaism and the pagan religions, animals would be sacrificed to God (or a god) and the blood would be poured out as an offering to the divinity. Certain parts of the animal would be given to the priests and the rest returned to the person offering the sacrifice to be served in banquets to friends and neighbors.
This created the dilemma for the first Christians which St Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians. Should a Christian eat the meat that his neighbor had offered to Jupiter or any pagan divinity? Would doing so be an acknowledgement that there were many gods and goddesses, as the pagans claimed? Would they be “taking communion” with these gods?
St Paul presents two important principles in his response. First, he affirms that the idols which the pagans worshipped were nothing, and that the food offered to them was nothing special either. Christians would not sin by eating their fill. But there was a more important consideration: what would less- informed believers think if they saw their leaders eating at these festivals? They may be led to think that the pagan gods are real and that their faith in one God may be weakened. “Therefore,” Paul affirms, “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat again, lest I make my brother stumble” (v. 13).
Ordinary Christians vs. GnosticsThis controversy exposed a divide in the early Church between those educated in classical philosophy and ordinary believers. Some educated considered themselves to be “Gnostics,’ these in the know, and sometimes looked down on the rest. St Paul had little sympathy for their attitudes and spoke with some derision, “For if anyone sees you who ‘have knowledge’ eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?” (v. 10)
St John Chrysostom spoke even more harshly: “Don’t tell me that such a man is only a shoemaker, another a dyer, another a brazier; but bear in mind that he is a believer and a brother. Whose disciples are we? – of fishermen, publicans and tentmakers! Are we not followers of Him who was brought up in the house of a carpenter; and who deigned to have the carpenter’s betrothed wife for a mother, and who was laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and who had nowhere to lay His head – of Him whose journeys were so long that His very journeying was enough to tire Him down; of Him who was supported by others?” (20th Homily on 1 Corinthians) Followers of an itinerant carpenter-preacher have no cause to look down on fellow believers because they do not know philosophy. By God’s grace, they know Christ.
Not a few groups of early gnostic Christians ended by devising their own belief systems, often denying that God was the source of the material creation, something they were too “spiritual to admit. One could rise above the material, some taught, by acquiring gnosis (superior knowledge) not obvious to the ordinary man. They found their salvation, not in their union with Christ, but in the acquisition of gnosis. Groups of Gnostics could be found in the East until the rise of Islam.
St Paul’s response to the elitism of the Gnostic Christians was to encourage them to put the welfare of the weaker brethren ahead of their own. Yes, Paul said in effect, it’s ok to eat the food at pagan festivals, but it’s not ok to scandalize brethren who don’t under-stand how this could be. And the reason for this is that we are all members of the one body of Christ: “But beware that somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. And because of your knowledge, shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (vs. 9-12).
St Paul would make this principle a cornerstone of his directions to the new churches he would organize. Not only should the intellectuals look out for th ordinary believer, those able to put their faith into practice should care for those who do not. As he told the Galatians, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:1-3). Not only the intellectual elite, but also the spiritually adept, need an antidote to pride: caring for those less proficient than themselves, rather than looking down upon them.
A Matter of ConscienceSt Paul characterizes those who may be scandalized at pagan banquets as having “a weak conscience” (v. 9). In every man there is an understanding of right and wrong. Conscience has been described as “man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (Vatican Council II). Deep within himself man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey. When a person does this, he is said to be “following his conscience.”
Christians should feel obligated to form their conscience in accordance with the word of God rather than the dictates of the culture in which they live or their personal sentiments. Developing such a Christian conscience is one aspect of the believer’s interior life. A person who ignores self-reflection remains weak and susceptible to every changing fad. When faced with a moral dilemma, he is unable to make his decision based on clear principles – biblical or otherwise – and usually does just what “everyone else” is doing. Like their first-century forebears, they have a weak conscience.
Food Offered to Idols TodayA few years ago a group of Pentecostals in Australia mounted a campaign against Cadbury chocolates, claiming that the company was offering their candy to idols. Their “proof” was that the packages were imprinted with the halal insignia, evidence that the candy was offered to the “Muslim idol,” Allah. The insignia merely signified that there were no pork products or other prohibited substances in the candy (some cream fillings have gelatin stabilizers). As St Paul said, “… if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.”
We well may encounter groups in our multicultural societies today who actually offer food to idols. Hindus and hare Krishna devotees, for example, have the custom of prasadam (food transformed into the grace of God, as one writer expresses it). These would be vegetable offerings that are “acquired without paid or suffering on the part of any creature,” offered before an altar in a meditation rite, then mingled with other foods, once the god or goddess has had a chance to partake.
Could you accept such food in the spirit of friendship with which it was offered, without acknowledging the god or goddess to whom it was offered? What do you think St Paul would say?