I am someone who has had some sort of deep, in-born desire to be right, to do it right, and to get it right all my life. Now, in my late 40s, I am someone who has come to know the terrible limits of that way of being—the limits of my ability to be right and do it right and get it right and, deeper, the ultimate dissatisfaction that comes from a fixation on being right and doing it right and getting it right, anyway.
These days, I find myself longing for more kindness and gentleness— from myself and others. And these are hard times for kindness and gentleness.
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul was trying to help the Christian church in Corinth through a conflict that had arisen within their congregation. It appears that some in the church wanted to be free to eat food that had been used in the worship of idols. Since they knew that these idols were no threat to the one true God, that this food was just food, then there was no reason for the meat to go to waste.
The problem was that others in the church still worried about the idols. These folks believed that to eat the food that had been used in the worship of idols was to compromise their devotion to God. They wanted to completely separate themselves from this idol business.
Paul agreed that there was really nothing wrong with eating the food. The food is not the issue Paul is addressing here.
The issue Paul is getting at has to do with the fact that one group in the church, an intellectual, well-educated minority, was taking Paul’s idea of freedom in Christ to mean that they could just do whatever they thought was right without regard to everyone else in the church.
These who were in the know had their theology right. They believed there was only one God, and they knew that the idols were not actual gods but just lifeless objects. So in their way of thinking, even if the meat bought in the butcher shop had been previously used in a pagan sacrifice, they could eat it with a clear conscience. And they were right.
They had progressed beyond the superstition of being worried about so-called idols. And if they could understand this perfectly well, then, in their minds, everybody else in the church ought to be able to understand it as well. And, regardless, they ought to be able to exercise their freedom to do as they saw fit, anyway, no matter what the other people thought about it all or what effect it had on them.
But here is what Paul says: I don’t have a problem with eating this food, but if my eating the food is a cause of someone else’s stumbling or falling, then I will never eat this meat again.
Paul’s central message here is actually a simple one: love is more important than knowledge. Love trumps knowledge. Instead of asserting our rights and privileges, we ought to be shaping our actions toward what will build up our brothers and sisters.
The circumstances of this scripture seem a long time ago and far away, but the truth is that every community of Christians, not just the one in Corinth all those years ago, would do well to look at themselves in the mirror of 1 Corinthians 8 and ask whether there are ways in which they are using knowledge as a weapon rather than an instrument of love.
Whether the knowledge takes the form of Bible-thumping certainty or sophisticated intellectual superiority or passionate conviction on all the “right” causes, if it divides the community and causes the knowledgeable ones to despise those who are not as advanced or less certain or less-experienced or not as mature it is not meeting the highest standard of love set forth by Paul and by Jesus himself.[Richard Hays, Interpretation: First Corinthians, p. 145]
Knowledge puffs up, Paul says, but love builds up.
It is very difficult to balance all this— to balance my own freedom vs. my care for others in the community, to balance my own growth and progression on issues vs. someone’s else’s reluctance to change.
It is not my prerogative, just because I feel pretty confident in my knowledge of things, to run over my brother or sister who is unsure, who is hesitating, who is being stretched, who isn’t quite where I am.
Bulldozers crush and push down and run over. Bulldozers are not loving.
Now this doesn’t mean we never have conflicts—or that we should never have conflicts. When Paul says not to be “a stumbling block to the weak,” his effort is not to protect the weak from being offended. Paul’s effort is to not cause them to imitate the behavior of others to their own detriment.
There are a lot of things we could say here about not catering to the whims of every moralist or legalist who raises a voice, about not keeping silent in the face of injustice.
Paul does not even say that the discussion of eating food offered to idols ought to be avoided, lest someone be offended. In fact, Paul’s letters consistently urge that the church should be a forum for moral discussion.
The scenario from 1 Corinthians 8 simply asks that every member of the community be taken seriously—even those without knowledge—and that our actions reflect a compassionate and even self-limiting consideration for fellow members of the body of Christ. [Texts for Preaching, p. 131]
A young father puts up a basketball goal in the driveway of his home as soon as his first child is born. Imagine two very different scenes. I’ll leave it to you to decide how much, if any, of this is autobiographical.
In the first scene, as soon as he gets home from work in the afternoon his five year old daughter is waiting for him with a basketball in her hands. They head out to the driveway together. She begins to dribble the ball with both hands. He immediately stops her and shouts, Double dribble! and takes the ball from her and scores a basket for himself.
He gives the ball back to her. She runs with the ball. He stops her and shouts, Travelling! and takes the ball from her and scores another basket himself.
She tries to shoot. She can hardly get the ball all the way up to the rim. He blocks her shot, swats it away, and yells at her to get that weak stuff out of here. She runs back into the house crying. He celebrates his victory outside by himself.
Scene two: A young father’s five year old daughter is waiting for him, and as soon as he gets home from work, she approaches him with a basketball in her hands. They head out to the driveway to play.
She begins to dribble with both hands. He puts his hands on her shoulders and steers her in the direction of the basket and cheers her on. She runs with the ball. He pretends to try to take it from her but misses and falls down dramatically. She giggles.
She wants to make a basket, but she can’t quite throw the ball high enough. He picks her up and holds her high above his head, and she drops it over the rim and into the basket. He celebrates her victory. They high-five. He picks her up again, swings her around, and they fall into the grass laughing.
Doing it wrong never felt so good.
There will come a day when he will expect more, expect her to know more, to do it right. He will work with her and talk with her and teach her. He will use his knowledge not as a weapon but as an instrument of love and growth.
But for now, right now, getting it wrong is right. Losing for love. Limiting himself for love. It’s not that big of a deal. Any decent parent does it. It almost sounds like something Jesus would have done. It sounds like something God did, in fact, in the person of Jesus.
He emptied himself… being born in human likeness…. He humbled himself.
It’s more important to be loving than right.