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.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How shall I make a return to the Lord for his goodness?

Read I Corinthians 9:16-23

I found myself in a real fix one day. Or should I say, one very early morning. I had decided to drive from Timmins to Ottawa at night, a distance of close to 800 kilometers. At around four in the morning, on the road between Temiskaming and North Bay, I ran out of gas. Those who are familiar with that stretch of highway know that it wanders through about one hundred kilometers of uninhabited forest. I waited nearly an hour before a car passed by. Luckily, the driver had mercy on me and picked me up. We found an isolated gas bar some thirty kilometers later where I picked up a few gallons of gas. My good Samaritan offered to drive me back to my car, which I gladly accepted. In return, I paid to fill up his own gas tank.

Wasn’t it normal that I should respond to this man’s charity? The gas I paid for him was little compared to the service he had rendered me, to the time he had sacrificed. I’m sure he didn’t want to dawdle so on his way to Toronto. Courtesy required that I pay back a bit of the favour he had done for me. I have no glory to claim for my act. In telling the story, he is the hero, not me.

This is also Saint Paul’s attitude in the verses that are proposed for this Sunday’s second reading, as he explains to the Corinthians how he understands his mission as an apostle. He has no glory to claim for this mission. He is not the hero of his story. To the contrary, all glory should be given to the Lord who delivered Paul from darkness and made him enter into his wonderful light. For Paul, his ministry is not a favour he is doing for God: it is an obligation laid upon him because of the great generosity God has shown him.

Paul goes even further. As an expression of gratitude, Paul tries to do without any help from those he is evangelizing. Not that he doesn’t have the right to it. But in this case, Paul would rather work with his hands to gain a salary, so as to remain free in his relationship with the Corinthians.

This allows him to come among the Corinthians as a friend rather than as an employee. He comes to share their lives, to participate in their community. This sharing in a life of friendship will be the privileged way for him to spread God’s Word. This he does for the good of the Corinthians themselves. He has already received the only reward he seeks – salvation in Christ – and he has received it not as a reward but as a gift.

Thus is it still today for those who know the love of God. Whatever we do that is right or beautiful, whatever services we render, whatever acts of compassion we make, these are but a response to the extraordinary generosity that has already been shown to us. Christian life is never a search for reward, but the heart’s response to a love that has been given freely.