Corinth was one of the great cities of the Greek peninsula. She perched herself on the Mediterranean, arms open to welcome traders and sailors and people from every walk of life. Gods too! O my yes, the people brought all kinds of exotic gods from Egypt, Rome, Greece, the Far East and she made them all welcome. Even the Jews set up synagogues in Corinth. Among them a born-again Pharisee named Paul. That’s why we have his letters we call First and Second Corinthians.
Even years later, when Paul was in Ephesus, he never forgot the people of Corinth. One day, as he was working a friend’s loom, a slave tugged on his sleeve, “Are you the Pharisee from Tarsus? My master told me to give you these letters. He’s been asking for you at every port since Thessalonica.” Paul gave him a coin, knowing his owner wouldn’t have shared what he’d been paid to deliver the letters. He recognized the two seals. Silas and Philip. Two friends in Corinth. “No,” thought Paul, “two friends of mine, but not of each other.”
He broke the seal to Philip’s letter first. The salutation was graceful, the hand, elegant. Philip was a little vain of his Greek education. “We are doing well,” he had written. “Many among us have become quite polished in the faith. We have meals together, and regular discourse. Some have risen quite above the superstitions of the city.” Then Paul opened the parchment from Silas. It was tattered along the edges. Silas had scraped off what he’d written more than once before he finished. “Brother Paul, it is so hard for us. We’re struggling in the faith. We meet together, and the others talk down at us. We just sit in silent torment. We don’t know what to do.”
Paul shook his head, read on. “We all bring food to share together. We bring beans and lentils and vegetables, but they bring meat we know has been sacrificed to pagan gods. They wave it at us on meat forks like swords. They laugh to see us flinch. Paul, how can anything so evil smell so good? Tell us what to do.”
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Let me explain. Corinth was a warm climate and they didn’t have fridges. A housewife couldn’t hang a quarter of beef in her pantry. Every morning she went to the market to squeeze fruit and sniff vegetables and when she’d bartered for the best she could afford, she turned down the street behind the temples for her evening pot roast.
Since a little girl she’d watched pilgrims lead cattle, sheep, and poultry to the temples. She’d heard the priests shout incantations above the animal din. She’d smelled the smoke when the priests burned a trim of fat, tuft of feathers, sometimes a few hairs from the head of a young bullock. The priests took just enough to symbolize the sacrifice. Their servants took the rest out back where the butchers bid on the choicest cuts. Then the meat merchants carried the sides of mutton and quarters of beef to their stalls across the street. The profit from the sales went back into the temple treasuries. How else could the temples stay solvent? How else could a housewife buy fresh meat any day she wanted?
The best meat sales were the festival days when pilgrims brought their finest stock to the temples. She and her neighbours prepared their own feasts, and when they were gathered ‘round the table groaning under the weight of the meal, her husband would raise his cup and toast the god of the feast day, his neighbour toast another, and they’d all eat like gluttons till they were holding their bellies and groaning too.
Paul sighed. He read the letters again, this time between the lines, understanding more than they realized. The small congregation in Corinth was still going to the synagogue together, and after service, going to each other’s homes for more hymns, to read his letters, and a feast of brotherly sisterly love. But recently their Christian feasts had degenerated into gluttony like their pagan neighbours. Philip’s party had been eating temple meat, Silas’ party watching, aghast, while eating their own beans and lentils.
Paul worked long on his letters. Every afternoon he carried them to the lecture hall he’d rented from Tyrannus. He debated them there before his students, sometimes debating as if he were Phillip, sometimes as if he were Silas. His voice formal, smooth, he’d gesture in the Greek style of oratory, “Come, let us reason together. I know there’s only one God. You know there’s only one God. Let us agree then these idols are no more than pagan chunks of stone and metal. So tell me…how can burning a few hairs of a heifer’s forelock at a chunk of bronze harm the one who eats the veal?”
Then Paul would drop his arms, his face take on a humble, stubborn look. “We used to worship those chunks of bronze, and when we see you eating what’s been dedicated to them, we feel like we’re still worshipping them.”
Then Paul would straighten his back, push out his chest, strut back and forth. “Friend, friend, use the brain the good Lord gave you! When you swear off a tasty hunk of lamb because someone waved it first at a tarnished chunk of bronze, you’re just showing how weak your faith really is. What kind of Christian witness cowers before something less significant than a sign post?”
Silas would answer, “The Jews won’t touch it, how can we?” But Philip had already interrupted with a dismissive wave of his hand, “You’re weak. I’m not. Why should my freedom be limited by your limitations? Don’t begrudge me my spare ribs, and trust me, I won’t begrudge you your,” Philip sniffed superciliously, “lentils.”
Paul’s students went wild. Some cheered Philip. Some Silas. They waved their arms and shouted and stomped their feet. Two faced off at each other shaking their fists. Paul watched in silence, then held up his hands for theirs. “Thank you for your…help. Philip is right,” some students jumped to their feet, “no, no, hear me out. Philip is right, but he’s wrong, too. He’s right that we are no worse off for what we eat, no better off for what we don’t. He’s wrong to think that was even the question. The question is, can it ever be right to doanything that troubles our brother and sister in Christ? Silas was sincere when he worshipped idols. He’s just as sincere when he worships the one true God. His faith was never an intellectual exercise. He doesn’t have it in him. What he does have is the human condition we all have, our doubts, faith, our convictions, hesitations. Christ has welcomed him anyway; can we do less?”
“Philip knows he’s smart and he thinks that makes him right, and that’s where he’s most wrong. Knowledge isn’t the sign of a Christian. Doctrine isn’t either. You want to know what the sign of a Christian is! Tolerance! The sign of a Christian is when we care more about each other’s needs than our own freedoms. Philip should give up eating temple meat not because it will hurt him, it can’t, but because it’s hurting his brother. Now I know what to write. Yes, I’ll write them tonight.”
It was late. Paul headed home to his little room and table behind the weavers’ shop. It was as if two others walked beside him, a Greek scholar strutting on his left, a humble man of the people on his right. At first they seemed to be arguing behind his back. But as they walked, it seemed to Paul, they began to interrupt each other less frequently. To pause before they spoke. To listen. By the time they’d reached the door of his friends’ shop the three were walking in unison and shared tolerance. “And in love,” thought Paul, “I’ll remind them about love, too.”
There are three lessons for us here. The first is that what is safe for you may not be safe for me. You may be able to stride safely over a temptation that trips me every time. But if Paul were here today, he’d remind us how even our examples can hurt others weaker than ourselves. An indulgence that hurts another isn’tfreedom; it’s sin.
Here is a second lesson. We can’t decide everything with just our minds. God gave us hearts to use too. We can be bright, well read, and proud of what we’ve learnt. But if that’s all we are, we’re hollow and incomplete. God doesn’t care if I can outsmart a computer. Not because he knows that will never happen, but because he cares that I act with more love than a computer can, or I do today.
And here is the third lesson. God wants more from us than just a token sacrifice. He’s not a pagan priest settling for a few hairs of a heifer’s head, or a Sunday morning of our week. He wants our whole beings for our whole lives. As he first gave us. Let us return ourselves to him this, fully, gladly, today and every day.
Copyright 2003, Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.