Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Of gods, rights and responsibilities

Read I Corinthians 10:23 – 11:1

A few years ago, I had the chance to visit the ruins of Pompei in Italy. I was impressed by the number of temples there dedicated to the various gods of the Roman pantheon. Each street corner had its own little temple to the glory of some particular god. It was explained to us that each god had his or her own area of influence: commerce, love, weather, friendship, agriculture, work, etc. People would come and sacrifice animals on the altars of these little temples in order to ask for help or to give thanks for a favour. What happened to all that meat? It would find its way to the market and eventually to someone’s dinner table.

The Christians of Corinth lived in the midst of just such a pagan culture. A problem often arose for them: should they buy this meat that had been offered to idols? Should they eat this meat when it was offered to them during a meal? They all agreed that they should not participate in the worship offered to these idols, nor offer any sacrifices at their temples. But if these gods did not exist, if this cult was empty and vain, why not eat the meat? Hadn’t Paul preached that salvation in Christ freed us from all religious laws? Hadn’t Paul taught that salvation is to be found in our faith, and not our deeds? Hadn’t he even said that “everything is allowed?”

In today’s excerpt, Paul answers this question with a sentence that we should all engrave on our hearts: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.” Paul agrees that the meat offered to idols has no meaning in itself and that Christian freedom gives us the right to eat it. But… and this really is an important point… one has to ask oneself what impact such a decision will have on others. If my Jewish friend, whose law teaches this meat is not to be eaten, is scandalised by my action, shouldn’t I hold back? If my pagan friend interprets my action as an acknowledgment of the god, should I not abstain? If a Christian brother or sister is weak in his or her faith, should I not eat something else for the sake of the community?

We live today in a world where everybody speaks of rights. The “charter of rights and freedoms” has become the new bible of our society. But who speaks up to remind us of our duties and our responsibilities?

Personal rights are not absolute. Life in community, love of others is more important. There are times when I should sacrifice a personal right out of love for others, for the greater good of the community. What point is there in exercising my rights if I thereby destroy the community which is giving me these rights? The language of rights needs to be enriched by a superior language: the language of love.

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