We’ve all been selfish.
Don’t deny it. You know you have, too. I definitely have. So much that I have in my life is because I wanted it. I’m not an extreme tightwad, but it’s safe to say that I don’t just go throwing money around. However, if there is ever something that I decide I want, I normally look at the budget, talk to my wife, and figure out a way to make it happen.
This may include large purchases such as the car you drive or the house you live in. It might even be a fancy toy like a boat or a motorcycle. However, it can also go down all the way to the types of socks that you buy and where you go for lunch. So much of what we have and do revolve around what we personally like and want. In a way, we are all selfish to an extent.
But should we be that way? You may be thinking, “But Jonathan, you can’t say that I’m being selfish just because I go eat where I want. Why should I take anyone else’s opinion into consideration if I’m going by myself? I’m not making them eat there.” That sounds logical, but keep in mind that we don’t go to heaven by basing our actions on our own logic (Proverbs 14:12).
The congregation in ancient Corinth had some issues. Read I Corinthians, and that’s easy to see. There were divisions (1:10-13). They were overlooking outright sin (5:1-2). They were suing each other (6:1-11). Before we beat up on them too much, we need to understand that they had a tough life. They were living in a world with LOTS of pagan worship. All kinds of temples to false gods and goddesses were in Corinth. Many of them may have had family members who still worshipped that way, and some of them may have been trying to leave their past life of idol worship behind. So, it’s no wonder that we get to I Corinthians 8 and find that they have questions about whether or not they can eat meat that has been sacrificed to an idol.
Let’s look at some back story before we critique the Corinthian Christians too much. Since Corinth was a major hub for commerce and trade, there were a lot of people that passed through the town (imagine living in a tourist town like Orlando, FL). That’s why it was such a central location for idol worship. That also means there were lots of businesses created that catered to these travelers. When you have a lot of people who go through an area on a trip, they are going to need to eat somewhere. I’m mean, it’s not like they could go home and cook something for dinner. There would have been gathering places with dining halls, somewhat similar to our modern day restaurants. However, many of these dining halls were located in the precinct where the idol temples were located. Why do you think they did that? One reason might be because that’s where a lot of people were gathered. However, another reason is that there was access to fresh meat. Where do you think that meat came from? That’s right. Sacrifices to idols.
Meat may have been taken straight from an altar and then served to a group for a meal. The group may have not even been there specifically for the idolatrous worship. Maybe it was a social gathering. Maybe it was a business meeting. There may have been reasons that Christians needed to eat with a group, very much in the same way that we go out to eat with groups of people today.
So what was the Christian to do if they needed to go eat with a group, and it happened to be at one of these temples where they were serving meat sacrificed to idols? In I Corinthians 8:1-4, it appeared that the Corinthians who asked Paul this question were trying to use the justifications of “well, we know that idols aren’t real” and “we know that there’s nothing unique about the meat”. So what’s the big deal? We may be there, but we aren’t participating in the idol worship. We are just eating with some buddies or coworkers.
This was selfishness through and through. Paul made it clear to them that they were looking at the entire situation through the wrong shade of glasses. It wasn’t about what they knew or didn’t know. It didn’t matter that they weren’t there for idol worship. It was about something so much bigger. When they made the decision to put on Christ in baptism, just like you and me today, they made the lifelong decision to be part of something so much bigger than themselves. They are now part of the body of Christ. Everything they did should have been done with the body of Christ in mind. They believed that just because they had “knowledge” that the idol worship was in vain meant they could just ignore that it was happening, but that was so far off base.
So, how could they possibly cause a weak Christian to stumble and sin? Imagine you have a new Christian who has just been converted out of a life of idolatry. They then see this fellow Christian who has been a believer for decades and who is looked up to and respected in the Church, and this older and wiser Christian is at the temple eating a meal. Maybe this new Christian would see that and think to himself, “Well, I thought I had to break all ties with idol worship, but maybe it’s OK to keep just a little bit of connection. That’s a relief. It will be much less awkward at the family reunion since now I won’t have to be the only one staying away from the idols.” In that situation, Paul would have looked at the older, wiser Christian and said, “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (I Corinthians 8:11). That statement alone should cut deep. If Paul had said that in today’s language, he might have said, “Good job. Because you just knew there was nothing wrong with it and you just knew that you would be OK, your brother may go to hell. Christ spilled His blood for that man, and you ruined it. How’s that knowledge working out for you now?”
Life isn’t about us. It’s not about what we want. When we made the decision to put on Christ in baptism, everything changed. We made the lifelong commitment to be a small piece in the larger puzzle. We are now part of the body of Christ, and God forbid that we should do anything that would hurt that body. For Paul, he said he would never eat meat the rest of his life if it kept a weak Christian from sin (I Corinthians 8:13). For us, what are we willing to give up if we knew it would protect the soul of another. If the answer isn’t “anything”, then we have a lot of self-reflection to do, because we may just be selfish.