Friday, February 06, 2015

Choosing to Love

Choosing to Love
1 Corinthians 8:1-13[1]
I grew up in a family where it was very important to be smart. Like many families, education was seen as a means of advancement. The more education you could get, the more successful you were likely to be. Or so we thought. And since I wasn’t much of an athlete, and didn’t really see any prospects for myself outside “being smart,” I embraced that view with a vengeance. In High School, I was like a lot of my friends—I only did what I needed to do. But in college and in my graduate programs, I went the extra mile to perform at the top of my class. I used to spend hours looking up one little detail. To some extent, it was due to my curiosity. But underneath it was the conviction that in order to succeed I had to be “smart.”
Of course, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with being smart. The problem comes when “being smart” becomes your whole reason for being, that which gives you a sense of worth in life. And along with that temptation there’s another, more subtle temptation: the tendency to look down on those who aren’t as “smart” as you are. Being “in the know” can bring with it a tendency toward arrogance. Sometimes this is obvious—we’ve all known people who (at least in their own minds) are smarter that we are and don’t fail to remind us of that every chance they get! But even for those of us who work hard to better ourselves through education and don’t flaunt it, there can still be an underlying tendency to look down on others. It may be so subtle that we’re not even aware of it ourselves!
The problem is that when we look down on others, it’s difficult to be truly kind. It’s difficult to practice the kind of love that seeks what is best for others. That’s what was going on behind our lesson from St. Paul. There was a group in the church, possibly the wealthiest and most successful people,[2] who claimed that their knowledge allowed them to do what others found offensive. In this case, it had to do with taking part in meals that were held in the temples of local deities, eating food that had been dedicated to false gods. Well, this group, the ones who thought themselves to be “smarter” than others, insisted that from a biblical perspective there is only one true God. And that means that the idols that their friends worshipped had no real existence. The “intelligent” conclusion was that taking part in such meals, which may have been simply a part of their social calendar, would do them no real harm.
St. Paul must have found himself to some extent between a rock and a hard place on this one. I think that’s one reason why this passage is a bit complicated. The problem was that the “smart” people were right in what they claimed. And Paul affirms with them that “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Cor. 8:4). Not to do so would be to go against the entire witness of the Hebrew Bible. It is a continual theme that idols are false and powerless and it is useless to worship them. And so, from their perspective, the “smart” people in Corinth had a valid claim that there was nothing wrong with attending these meals with their pagan friends.
But Paul wanted to make it clear to them that this wasn’t the only factor involved. It wasn’t just about them. There were others in the congregation who had some serious problems with the idea of a Christian participating in a meal in the temple of a pagan idol.[3] Very likely they were Gentile Christians who had been converted from worshipping those false gods. So the fact that the “smart” folks in the church were, from their point of view, essentially participating in idolatry might influence them to waver in their commitment to the Christian faith.[4] As a result, Paul says to the “smart” ones, “by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed” (1 Cor. 8:11).[5]
St. Paul insists that kindness is always more important than being “smart.” Love always trumps the arrogance that can come from knowledge. As St. Paul says it, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).[6] That is, when we define our lives by how much we know, it tends to make us “puffed up” with pride. But love “builds up” by influencing us to think not just about ourselves, but about what we can do to help others.[7] I like the way the Phillips translation puts it: “while knowledge may make a man look big, it is only love that can make him grow to his full stature” (1 Cor. 8:1, Phillips).
That brings up another factor. When we define our lives by how “smart” we are, it can very well stunt our own development. The pride and arrogance that go along with the quest for knowledge can block the kindness and love that enable us to truly reach our full potential as human beings. Now, of course, as a person with a Ph. D., I’m not advocating that education is a bad thing. I value my education and I know that it played a significant role in making me who I am today. I’m all for anybody who tries to improve themselves through education. But knowledge alone, being “smart” by itself, cannot truly fulfill our lives. As we engage in the quest for knowledge, we must do so not just to make ourselves “look big,” but rather so that we will have something to give to our world. St. Paul reminds us all of the love God poured out into our lives through Jesus Christ so that we can choose to love those around us, which is the true meaning of our lives.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/1/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 137, where he discusses the possibility that there may have been a socio-economic distinction between the “strong” Christians who used their “knowledge” that there is only one God and that idols have no real existence to justify participating in idol feast and the “weak” Christians who were recent converts from paganism.  He says, “The wealthier Corinthians would have been invited to meals in such places as a regular part of their social life, to celebrate birthdays, weddings, healings attributed to the god, or other important occasions.”  He continues, “To eat the sacrificial meat served on such occasions was simple social courtesy; to refuse to share in the meal would be an affront to the host.” Cf. also David E. Garland, “The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed to Idols (1 Cor 8:1-11:1),” Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 (Summer 2003): 174-76.
[3] Cf. Garland, “Dispute Over Food,” 183-84, where he makes a convincing argument that Paul shared this conviction. He says, “For Paul, idolatry is the vice that leads to all vices (Rom 1:19-32) and prominent in the catalog of the works of the flesh (Gal 5:20). Idolaters (among others) will not inherit the kingdom of God ( 1 Cor 6:9). He conveys his disapproval of idol food by the very term he uses for it—είδωλόθυτον. Idol worshipers normally used Ίερόθυτον (10:28) to refer to something ‘offered in sacrifice to a deity,’ and the term είδωλόθυτον [something offered in sacrifice to an idol] does not appear in papyri or literature before 1 Corinthians.  It has a caustic, polemical edge since the word είδωλα [idol] connoted to both Jews and most Christians something detestable (Deut 29:17), opposed to the living God (1 Thess 1:9; 2 Cor 6:16), lifeless and ‘dumb’ (1 Cor 12:2), and demonic (Rev 9:20).” Cf. similarly, E. Coye Still, Iii, “Paul's Aims Regarding Ειδωλοθυτα: A New Proposal For Interpreting 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1,” Novum Testamentum 44 (no 4, 2002):333-43.
[4] Cf. Garland, “Dispute Over Food,” 188: “The Christian with a weak conscience does not have the knowledge to make correct moral judgments. Paul worries that this person's conscience might follow the example of those presumed to have knowledge and eat idol food as truly offered to an idol, that is, as a sacrificial act. He will be led astray in his moral judgment to think that it is permissible for Christians to pay homage to both Christ and pagan deities.” Cf. also Hays, First Corinthians, 141.
[5] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 142, where he says that Paul in effect confronts them with “biting irony”: “Christ died for this person, and you can’t even change your diet?” Cf. also Garland, “Dispute Over Food,” 187: “Christ died for them (8:11). This act of love that brought them into God's family requires that they respond to others in the family with love—putting others' needs and interests ahead of their own.”
[6] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 145: “The central message of this chapter is a simple one: Love is more important than knowledge. Paul calls for a shift from gnosis [knowledge] to agape [love] as the ordering principle for Christian discernment and conduct. Rather than asserting rights and privileges, we are to shape our actions toward edification of our brothers and sisters in the community of faith.”
[7] Cf. Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 141: “οἰκοδομεῖν [to build up] in Paul does not refer primarily to the “edification” of the individual … , but to the building up of the community.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:635-36: “It is love (for one’s neighbour) which builds the community.   p 636  If this does not do it, the community will not be built.”

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