What’s the Deal with “Idol Meat”?

OK. So, several folks have noticed that while I seemed willing to jump into the whole deal about Spiritual Warfare in last week’s Sunday texts, I completely ducked the whole deal about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and their controversy over “meat offered to idols.” This was, in fact, a calculated effort on my part and played some role in my sermon planning for the weekend. It was not, however, in any way meant to ignore this important topic.

“Idol Meat” is the short-hand used to discuss the portion of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that discusses whether or not it is allowable for Christians in Corinth to consume meat sold in markets that had previously been used in animal sacrifices to Greek and Roman Gods. While strange-sounding to our contemporary ears, this was a very common place practice in the ancient world. Most ancient religions dictated that only certain portions of animals be actually offered to the gods. The rest (in particular the portions best suited for human consumption) were allowed to be consumed or otherwise used by priestly classes. Thus, in areas of large population density, with large numbers of sacrificed and relatively small numbers of priests, animal portions left over after sacrifice were routinely sold back to the community, thus providing a stream of income for the temple and its priests.

In light of Idol Meat’s prevalence in the culture, St. Paul takes a relatively middle-of-the-road stance on the issue. He remind us that as “an idol is nothing”, eating meat offered to idols cannot change our status with God and therefore is not harmful. However, he cautions us to be careful in our liberty lest our consumption might challenge those newer to the faith. Like so many things, at the end of the day we need to strive not to  be a stumbling block to others.

Now, what, if anything does this have to do with us? The last time I checked, none of the meat that I bought at the grocery store had been slaughtered to appease any idol (except maybe Consumerism). Would a more contemporary Paul have something to say about vegetarianism or veganism or our need to be careful in our consumption of alcohol or gluten in church? Perhaps.

More likely, I think that Paul would point to the deeper cultural differences that are at stake in the passage.  The notion that “an idol is nothing,” seems like a no-brainier to us. For those converting to Christianity from faiths steeped in reverence for and sacrifice to idols, giving up this notion would be a major culture-shock. I wonder what kind of culture-shock folks who come to the contemporary Christian faith experience. How might we be more mindful of not taking for granted things that they are deeply wrestling with?

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