Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

Personal freedom and the greater good

Sign: Silence/Silencio

January 31, 2021

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Preachers may be flummoxed to encounter today’s New Testament reading that includes an entire chapter of 1 Corinthians, and a chapter on meat sacrificed to idols at that!

However, what might seem like a bewildering text from which to derive a relevant sermon is a treatise chock full of insights that remain applicable to the present time.

Love over knowledge

Much of 1 Corinthians 8 might be summarized as an argument for the priority of love over the pursuit of knowledge. Paul takes on this topic by starting with where the Corinthians are at in their thinking as they consider eating meat that has previously been sacrificed to pagan idols.

Although the earliest manuscripts of 1 Corinthians would not have contained punctuation, the choice to include quotation marks in 8:1 is a good one since the phrase “all of us possess knowledge” makes more sense as Paul’s quotation of a Corinthian slogan than as a part of his own argument. As this chapter unfolds, it becomes clear that Paul has little interest in the so-called “knowledge” of the Corinthians, and in verse seven, he blatantly contradicts the slogan from verse one by arguing that all do not have knowledge. Rather, in verse 11, Paul notes the potential of this knowledge to destroy others rather than to build them up in love. Paul will return to this hierarchy of love over knowledge later in 1 Corinthians 13 as he upholds love above spiritual gifts and knowledge (13:2, 8).

Paul develops the priority of love over knowledge more in 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 as he states that anyone laying claim to knowledge proves their very lack of the same. Such a person stands in contrast to one who loves God and thus benefits from being known by God. While the use of the term “knowledge” here (as opposed to “wisdom”) makes this text somewhat distinct from earlier chapters, the heart of Paul’s message in chapter 8 echoes similar sentiments from 1 Corinthians 1-3 where Paul pointed out that the world did not come to know God through wisdom (1:21), that he himself did not preach with words of wisdom (2:4), and that the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God (3:19). In short, although the language of chapter 8 is slightly different, the sentiment is the same.

Paul likewise connects to other chapters with his development of the theme of upbuilding. In 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, Paul used an analogy to construction to describe the building of the Christian community. Now in chapter 8, Paul takes up the issue of the maintenance and upkeep of that building. In short, Paul suggests that love builds up the community (8:1). This work of mutual upbuilding comes up again later as Paul discusses the practice of spiritual gifts. In chapter 14, Paul uses this criterion of upbuilding as the measure for assessing the efficacy of spiritual gifts and prioritizing prophetic gifts over gifts of speaking in tongues (14:4, 17). Thus, Paul’s discussion of upbuilding here in chapter 8 fits well within the larger scope of the epistle’s message.

The pursuit of liberty as sin

Beyond prioritizing love, Paul also hopes the Corinthians will realize the harm that their so-called “knowledge” is wreaking upon some community members. To address this, Paul continues with his strategy of quoting slogans from the Corinthians as he quips, “There is no God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4). Paul’s method of addressing this quotation proves different from his negotiation of the earlier slogan. While Paul had no qualms about overturning the Corinthian claim to universal knowledge (8:1, 7), Paul acknowledges that the Corinthians’ monotheistic theology is not incorrect, and he affirms as much in verses 5-6 where he agrees with the premise that the so-called “gods” of this world are powerless idols.

Yet, for Paul, this knowledge alone is not enough to justify the individual freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, especially when that impulse has the power to destroy. Given that not all believers possess this knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:7), Paul observes that what can be a liberating force for some has the power to destroy others (8:11). In short, knowledge can be leveraged as a weapon against the very people for whom Christ died (8:11). Thus, Paul is uninterested in appeals to individual rights when the wellbeing of others is at stake.

To drive this point home, Paul equates wrongs done against fellow believers with sinning against Christ himself (8:12). This rhetorical move of equating the weak in the community with Christ is not far removed from Jesus’ own move of equating the Son of Man with “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). Likewise, one might detect a similar connection to the Lord’s Prayer’s petition for forgiveness from God to be doled out in a measure equal to the forgiveness provided to others (Matthew 6:12). In short, for both Paul and Jesus, ecclesiology is not radically distinct from Christology when it comes to ethical action.

Sacrificing personal freedom for the greater good

Congregations today are not likely engaged in active debate about the propriety of eating meat that was previously sacrificed to idols. However, as the recent COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, there are other issues facing our congregations that might benefit from Paul’s ethic of love. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches struggled with a host of questions: Is it safe to meet in person? Should masks be required if meeting in person? People of faith vehemently disagreed on their answers to these questions.

While Paul was not addressing this, or any particular modern issue, the larger ethical principle that he espouses remains relevant: take care that your own liberty does not become a stumbling block to others (verse 9). This principle applies in any number of scenarios where faithful followers of Christ might otherwise disagree: on consuming alcohol, on the use of profanity, on styles of clothing, and other personal choices. While these matters are culturally different from the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul’s instructions nonetheless remain timely.