Idol meat: a parable for today


Scripture: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13 Nigel Bunce

In today’s Scripture, St. Paul asked his congregation in Corinth. Is it OK for Christian believers to eat ‘idol meat’?  That is, food offered to idols.

Why discuss this in a homily? I don’t know any supermarkets in Guelph, Milton, or Burlington that sell idol meat.

St. Paul told his congregation in Corinth not to eat “idol meat” (meat sacrificed in a pagan temple). It’s not inherently sinful, but it sets a bad example. We look at contemporary situations where “Don’t do it” is the best Christian response. image from www.


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Animal sacrifices: idol meat

Religious rites in the ancient world involved animal sacrifices. You killed the animal to make it holy it, to buy the god’s favour. Hopefully, that would lead to a good harvest or success in battle.

It was the same in first century Judaism. After Christmas, we read how Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. They bought two small birds for sacrifice to “redeem” their son from God. Rich people would sacrifice sheep, goats or cattle.

Some of the animal’s meat became part of the temple ritual. Some would feed the temple priests and staff. But there would be loads of meat left over. The temple’s “outlet store” sold it to the public. Paul’s problem was that all the temples in Corinth were pagan. So it was ‘idol meat’ because had been part of the animal blessed to worship the idol in the temple. 

Paul’s argument about idol meat to his Corinthian congregation

We Christians know that the statues in pagan temples are not really gods. But most other people in Corinth only know about the local practices. And even some of our own members can’t easily shake off the old ideas.

So, if you eat meat from one of the pagan temples, other people may think that you believe in its god. Therefore on balance, it’s better to avoid idol meat from pagan temples. Then, you won’t confuse anyone else about who God really is. That shows respect and love.

The relevance today

Part of the relevance of this is setting an example. You can’t really expect the kids not to use drugs if Mom and Dad get stoned at the weekend. It’s not fair to say that you can handle booze OK if someone in the family has a drinking problem. It’s better if you refrain.  Just as Paul told his people in Corinth not to eat idol meat.

Limits on free speech

This is another example.  Most of us support the idea of free speech in general. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits, among other things, “making ay law … abridging the freedom of speech [or] infringing on the freedom of the press …”

Technically, it may be legal to say whatever you want even if it offends other people. But legal or not, to give unnecessary offence is not a loving way to behave. And, there are legal limits. In Canada, hate speech is not allowed. In France, Holocaust denial is illegal.

Much was said in the recent US Presidential election that would have been better left unsaid. As Christians, we should try to love our neighbours. To espouse justice, kindness, and humility.

The case of Samuel Paty

Late last year, French history teacher Samuel Paty showed his students some caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Obviously, I don’t condone the subsequent beheading of M. Paty. But kindness suggests that one should not give gratuitous offence to our Muslim brothers and sisters.

But France is notable for its double standard on this question. Hate speech is illegal, but free speech permits satirizing any religion, no matter how offensively. Therefore, to ridicule Islam through offensive cartoons does not count as hate speech. But why give gratuitous offence? Some call this self-censorship. But knowingly to give offence is unkind. And so, for us, un-Christlike.   Whether or not it is legal. 

Once to every man and nation …

I chose the hymn Once to every man and nation to accompany this homily. The author, James Russell Lowell, was a 19th century American poet.  He used poetry to express anti-slavery views. Lowell was variously a Harvard University professor, the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly (still published today), and US Ambassador to Spain.

I find that many phrases of the poem are profound, and relevant to life today. Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the fight of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side. Think fake news. It’s purpose is deception. It’s falsehood.

Yet we can’t decide just once, for all time, to side with truth. How often have we (certainly I) thought, “If I could play that scene over I’d do better.  I would speak up against injustice.” But, alas, the choice has gone, by forever. It’s too late. The moment has gone. Maybe next time …


What about, New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth. The word uncouth means strange, or especially rude and unmannerly. For Lowell, time had made acceptance of slavery uncouth.  In my young days, murderers were commonly executed. Today, most Canadians find it barbaric.

Likewise today, we find colonialism, racism, and all forms of discrimination to be uncouth, objectionable. Times change. Ancient good isn’t polite or acceptable today.  Times change. It’s often hard, especially for older people, to keep abreast of truth.

Idolatry, then and now

But let me return to our Scripture. Paul’s problem was about eating meat from a pagan temple. In his day, idolatry usually meant making a physical object into a god. A graven image in ‘Ten Commandments language’.

Today, I don’t know anyone who literally worships stone statues. Time made that ancient good uncouth, strange, outmoded. Instead, we use the word idolatry for excessive love of money, of consumerism, or even of the US Constitution (note that I am saying “excessive love!”).

Even St. Paul might agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong with money, or consumer goods, or even the US Constitution. They are all valuable in different ways. I don’t think I’m excessively devoted to my TV or my washing machine.

But recent events have shown that we can make free speech into an idol. Time can make ancient good uncouth. Sometimes, the most loving option may be to hold one’s tongue. Or, think before sending out a Tweet on Twitter.

To sum up

St. Paul’s example of eating idol-meat is indeed uncouth, strange, today. But I learned that eating that meat was not wrong in itself. Rather, it set a poor example to others. Kindness, respect for other people, suggested, “Don’t do it.” Amen.