1 Cor 8:8-9:2
Today we read from one of the letters of the Apostle Paul to the believers in Corinth, that is 1st Corinthians. We read only a small portion of the letter that has to do with eating meat and offending our brother, which applies directly to our preparation for Great Lent. However, I would suggest to each of you not to simply be content with what you heard today from this letter, but to go home and read the whole letter carefully. And not only to read it once, but to read it over and over – perhaps as much as to read from it every day during Lent so that every week you will have read the entire letter. This way, by the end of Lent you will have read this whole letter seven times. I suggest this because this letter addresses some of the problems of daily life that the Corinthian believers faced while living in a non-Christian society – many of these problems are the same ones that we face on a day to day basis even today as we live in our increasingly non-Christian society. The words of the Apostle do not just apply to those in the Church then and there – but they apply to us who are living in the Church here and now.
Why is this letter so important to us today? Let us use just this small portion that we heard this morning as an example to answer this question. Today we read that the apostle was addressing the problem of eating “meat sacrificed to idols” which some considered to be an act of apostasy and a denial of the faith, while others considered the distinction to be meaningless as idol worship was itself meaningless in comparison with the true faith. The Apostle, having already said that “meat does not commend us to God, whether or not we eat “ points out that the important issue is whether or not we offend our brother. If I “sin thus against my brother”, if I offend him by my actions, “I will eat no flesh while the world stands, lest I offend my brother”.
It is not uncommon during Lent for every one of us to look around and see how strictly everyone else is keeping the fast. We are quick to take note of when a brother seems to pay no mind to the fast and go on as though the fast is meaningless. We all want to go up and correct that person and make sure they know that they are not properly keeping the fast. Or perhaps it is the exact opposite when we see someone else being overly strict and reading every ingredient label down to the last unpronounceable chemical name to insure that not even a spec of anything not fasting will enter their house, let alone their mouth. And then we want to go and tell them not to focus on the details, but to remember the important things, like prayer or charity or being kind to others and let the “small stuff” take care of itself. Either way we risk doing exactly what the Apostle warns us against – to offend our brother by our own actions.
But it’s not only about food. Let’s replace “meat” with any number of other activities of daily life that can be affected by Lent. Instead of “eating meat sacrificed to idols”, what if we say “watching television”, “going to parties”, “drinking beer (or any other alcohol)”, “engaging in marital relations”, “wearing make up and dressing up”, “surfing the internet/reading social media” or even just “listening to music”. All of these and more are activities that people approach differently during Great Lent. And if we see someone who takes a different approach then we do, then we begin to condemn them and want to correct them – or perhaps we roll our eyes and decide that they are just fanatics. Perhaps we even try to “push” our own practices on them, demonstrating our more perfect knowledge of how to keep the fast so that they might “get the idea” and take Lent more seriously, or maybe just relax a little.
Whatever the situation might be – the particulars don’t matter – what is at issue here is not what that other guy does, but whether by my own actions or words I offend my brother. I can keep the strictest fast imaginable but if I have offended my brother, then it is worthless. If by my actions or words I have offended someone else, then the sin is not theirs – it is mine.
The Apostle puts a high priority on avoiding this sin, so much so that he says, “if (this action) offends my brother then I will not (do this thing) while the world stands, lest I cause my brother to be offended.” This is a drastic action and one that we can all take to heart during the fast. The purpose of the fast is not primarily to “eat healthy” or to “keep from hurting other living creatures” or to “increase our ability to give to charity” or similar things. The purpose of fasting, and especially fasting during Great Lent, is to put into practice the commandment of our Lord to “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.” That first step, to “deny yourself” is one of the most challenging things that we undertake to do – and as with all good things, it requires help from God. We live in a “liberated” and “free” society, we have the right to do almost anything we want (as long as it doesn’t harm others). That is the basis of all the laws that we have – they define and prohibit those things which cause undue harm to our neighbor. We can say almost anything we want, because we have the “right” of free speech; we can eat anything we want – our grocery stores are full of an unending variety; we can see/read/consume any activity no matter how harmless or how dark and sinful it may be in the privacy of our own homes via the internet; we have great freedom to pursue and sate any and all of our passions with little hindrance. This is the world in which we live and the way of life to which we have become accustomed.
But the Gospel tells us something else – our Lord Jesus Christ says to us “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself…” You may have the right to say anything you want – but if you offend your brother by your speech, then you have sinned. You may not be doing anything illegal (or maybe only a little illegal) – but if you cause your brother to be offended by your actions, then you have sinned. You might live a strict and pious life, but if as a result your brother is offended – then you have sinned. (Let’s not make the mistake, however, of confusing “causing offence” to your brother and the arousal of guilt in the other person from seeing your example – but again that arousal of guilt cannot come from you instructing, pushing or forcing the other person. You should simply live your life before Christ to the best of your ability and let the Holy Spirit prompt and bring about whatever change is possible in that other person). Great Lent is the one time of year when we focus all our efforts on this one thing – on the denial of our self, the denial of our passions, the denial of our fallen and sinful nature. (While we incorporate this at all times during the year – during Great Lent it becomes our primary focus).
In the rest of this letter, the Apostle touches on all kinds of topics that arise in the daily life of those in the Church: sectarian and political strife, pride, unchastity and sexual impurity, legal contentions (i.e. lawsuits), marital strife and the issues of a well ordered household, fasting and diet, care for the Church and the pastors, participation in the sacraments, order in the Church, social roles (especially gender roles) and so on. In the midst of all this, the Apostle proclaims the “more excellent way” the way of love – that is imitating and embodying the love of God for us as we relate to our fellow man. Read this whole letter of 1 Corinthians over and over again throughout Lent. Strive to put into practice the instructions of the Apostle in your daily life and in doing so, deny yourself. If you do this, then you will indeed have a profitable fast – one which brings you closer to the Kingdom of God.