(1 Corinthians 8:1-13)
When traveling through the South, you might come across a confection known as “divinity.” It has been around more than 100 years and probably originated in the South because pecans were frequently used in the recipe. Corn syrup was a popular sugar substitute in the 1900s, and divinity candy was one of its creative uses.
One maker of “Old Fashioned Pecan Divinity” gushes that “these wonderful confections are like a taste of heaven.” But no one knows for certain how the white candy got its name. Someone was probably meddling in the kitchen, stuck their finger in the goo and tasted it, and thereupon pronounced it “simply divine.”
The white candy treat, according to Wikipedia, “is a nougat-like confection made with whipped egg whites, corn syrup, and sugar. Optional ingredients such as flavors, chopped dried fruit and chopped nuts are frequently added.”
Why is this important?
Because food is a huge factor in healthy relationships — both human and divine. Food is like honey — “sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24). Food has the power to calm a troubled spirit, a peace that’s preternaturally serene, like an autumn leaf floating downstream.
Food is an integral aspect of social interactions. “The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It’s an old adage, but still rings true. The best way to a woman’s heart is similar, but often involves chocolate.
Are you having relationship trouble? Producing your loved one’s favorite food is sure to help.
But what about your relationship with God? Is food involved?
Frequently. In the Shinto religion of Japan, devotees may offer rice, sake, rice cake, fish, fowl, meat, seaweed, vegetables, fruits, sweets, or salt. When Buddhists visit a temple or begin construction of a building, they might light incense and offer oranges, apples, or other fruit, as well as rice and vegetables.
Food for the gods is a topic in the Bible, as well. In ancient Israel, one might bring a prize heifer, an ox, a lamb, or a pair of turtle doves as an offering that might serve not only as a sacrifice, but later, a meal for the priests. Food for Yahweh might also include grain offerings from which flatbread cakes might be made. (See Leviticus 6:8-30.) Jesus Himself was known as agnus Dei, and in the sacrament of the eucharist, the body is ritualistically “eaten” and the blood is quaffed as well, leading to wild, unfounded rumors in Neronian Rome that Christians practiced cannibalism.
So, there’s strong evidence to suggest that for millennia, we mortals have believed that the gods are appeased and pacified with some good food. And at the core of our faith, there’s a vigorous theological notion that lifts up Jesus as the ultimate food sacrifice to mollify an angry God separated from humans because of sin.
John Wesley famously thought that cleanliness was “next to godliness,” but this did not settle the question of how one can best get close to God. What does it take for God to consider us BFFs?
In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 8, we learn that food offered to idols was a vexing problem in the early church.
What are the ingredients of a divine recipe guaranteed to bring us closer to God?
The short, quick answer: not food. See verse 8: “Food will not bring us close to God.”
So, if food is not the way to God, how does one get close to God?
Most New Testament scholars agree that the apostle Paul was crazy smart. He was a Pharisee, which means he knew Jewish law inside and out, and he admits that he was “advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age” (Galatians 1:14). He was taught and mentored by Gamaliel, a doctor of Jewish law, and an eminent Jewish scholar who sat on the Sanhedrin, the highest court of justice in Judaism and similar to our Supreme Court. He himself may have sat on the Sanhedrin, although this is not certain.
Yet, the apostle, who would do more to codify the Christian faith and shape its theology than any other person, had a dim view of knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up,” he wrote. “Anyone who claims to know something, does not yet have the necessary knowledge” (vv. 1-2).
The church at Corinth was arguing about whether Christians could in good conscience purchase and eat food that had been first offered to the gods in the temple perched on the Acrocorinth that looms over the city.
What’s important for this discussion is not the apostle Paul’s answer but rather the fact that everyone had an opinion that had already been mixed, stirred, and baked and was now hard as concrete.
We forget that having opinions, as did every member of the Corinthian church, does not make our opinions valid. For example, in the opinion of many …
- Beatles singer Paul McCartney died in a car accident in 1966 and a look-alike was installed in his place.
- George Washington had wooden teeth.
- Hitler did not die in a bunker.
- You need to drink at least eight glasses of water every day.
- You’ll get cramps if you go swimming right after you eat.
- LeBron James is NBA’s GOAT.
- We only use 10% of our brains.
- You swallow eight spiders a year while sleeping.
We believe what we believe, don’t we? We forget that opinions are not facts. We forget that what we believe to be the truth does not necessarily mean it is a fact. According to the Pew Research Center, we have trouble distinguishing between a fact and an opinion — the latter often confused with the former.
Might we consider that it is okay not to have an opinion? To adopt an opinion without doing serious research is lazy, easy and a cop-out. It is far better to acknowledge this, and simply say that you’re not conversant with the issue and cannot form an intelligent opinion and therefore will not offer one that might only contribute to the confusion. In cases like this, it is better, as the adage goes, to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Did these Corinthian Christians believe they were entitled to their opinion about food offered to idols? One gets the feeling that the apostle Paul thinks they were not so entitled. And maybe we aren’t either — the belief that we are notwithstanding. Too many people, Christians included, are like the Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” Indeed! No, we are only entitled to our opinions if we can offer reasonable arguments for them. No inherent right exists that obligates others to — as one commentator notes — consider our opinion “as a serious candidate for the truth.”
What brings us closer to God?
Not food. Not divinity. And not our opinions.
Nor how smart we believe we are. This idea is closely aligned with the above. But there’s a different nuance. Ever notice how stupid smart people often are? We’re talking about the Bernie Madoffs of the world, or people in highly trained professions who lie, cheat, thieve and murder. These people are smart people. So why do so many mess up in spectacular, self-destructive ways? Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein et al., Will Smith at the Oscars, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin re the college admissions scandal, Princes Andrew and Harry, Jussie Smollett, Matt Lauer, Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton … the list goes on.
Why do they — all of us — do the things they do?
The list of explanations begins with pride, or arrogance. The apostle Paul uses the expression “puffs up.” Literally, inflated. Like a needle has been inserted into one’s head and a pump has inflated one’s sense of importance, until the ego is larger than the brain. When this happens, people do really dumb things and often think dumb things. You know it’s true.
We are proud people. We think we won’t get caught, that no one will notice, and that we’re smarter than the law, our colleagues, our friends or even God. In the Bible, think of smart people like Jacob, Moses, David, Jonah, et al. Each of them made bad choices.
Food will not bring us closer to God. Being educated will not bring us closer to God. And being proud will not bring us closer to God, who “opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
God has a preferential option for the poor, but not for the proud and arrogant.
Not our wealth. This is a no-brainer. God doesn’t care about the size of our bank accounts. God simply is not impressed.
Jesus famously noted that, “it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Then he added, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24).
Most of us live on the edge of enough. But if we have more than enough, we might be less likely to nurture a deep relationship with God. At least Jesus seemed to think so.
For one thing, we’re happy with our personal comforts. We’re “at ease in Zion” and enjoy lying on “beds of ivory” and lounging on our couches, and dining on beef and lamb at our tables (see Amos 6). We’re comfortable and don’t want to be discomforted. We’re content. We’ve no particular desire for movement toward God or away from God.
We are happy with where we are, and where God is — that is, leaving us alone.
Food will not bring us closer to God, nor will education, our IQs, or our wealth.
Our showy religious practices won’t either. Recall chapter 13 of this very letter. There, the apostle says that as far as God is concerned, it doesn’t matter if we speak in tongues of “mortals and of angels,” or if we have “prophetic powers,” or if we have “faith so as to remove mountains,” or if we “give away all our possessions.” God is still not impressed.
We love the grand gesture. There’s something about smug self-righteousness that we love. Like the proud Pharisee boasting about his religiosity, his piety needed to be seen. There’s a coolness about being seen as someone spiritually deep or centered.
But Jesus didn’t think religious ostentation was cool. Instead, He was, as someone has noted, the most anti-religious founder of all the religions that have been founded. He had little sympathy for punctilious Pharisees with their fringes and tassels.
So, if we’re thinking that God is impressed with our church attendance and offerings — which are good things, to be sure — then think again. We can carry our Bibles to church and volunteer to be liturgists or read the Scriptures during worship. We can teach Bible classes. We can even go to seminary and become ordained preachers!
Or — and this clinches it — we can don T-shirts that proclaim, “I’ve read the final chapter: GOD WINS,” or “Jesus Strong,” or “LOVE GOD, BRO.” Fine. But it’s not enough.
Food will not bring us closer to God, nor will education, our IQs, wealth or religiosity.
So, what will bring us closer to God?
Love in action. Another way to answer this is, “Doing love.”
Paul says that although “knowledge puffs up … love builds up.”
The first image is that of a bicycle pump inflating a tire — until it explodes. The second image is of a carpenter building something beautiful and aesthetically pleasing.
The word is agape. This is building love. This is love that acts. This is love that looks out for the other person.
For Paul, this means that although he has no problem eating food offered to Aphrodite in the temple on the Acrocorinth, he will not eat such food in the presence of those whose conscience might thereby be weakened. His liberty is not license (see v. 9), and Paul is careful to use his liberty in a way that builds, not destroys. For him, there’s a nexus of liberty and love, and it is perhaps the most powerful link in human experience.
So, if you want the recipe for divinity, then you’ll need ample quantities of the flour of agape love, and more than a cup or two of the milk of human kindness, seasoned with mercy, forgiveness, gentleness, generosity, and peacefulness.
It is a recipe that warms the heart of God.
This is the love that brings us closer to God.
It is simply divine. Pure divinity.