I Corinthians 8:1-13 (Mark 1:21-28)
February 1, 2015
“O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror. I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me. I must be a h*&% of a man. O Lord, it’s hard to be humble. But I’m doing the best that I can.”
Mac Davis, the writer and performer of this little ditty, loomed large in my youth. As I understand the back story of this song, Davis was performing at some huge awards show, or big concert, or something along those lines. He was staying in the most exclusive of exclusive hotels, in the plushest of plush suites. But he was staying there all alone. So he wrote this parody of someone who is at the top but without love, and trying to figure out why. I’m assuming this song isn’t truly autobiographical, but who knows.
It’s a fun song to sing, and my friends and I would belt it out in our best Music City twangs. But I also think it is a brilliant illustration of what it means to be, in Paul’s words, “puffed up.”
Paul has used the term, “puffed up,” in his other dealings with churches, and in this first part of this first letter to the Corinthians, we hear these words again. “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols; we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
The controversy that Paul addressed over eating food sacrificed to idols was a big one. Should followers of Jesus eat this food? Or not? The issue was brought to Paul’s attention by a previous communication from some of the members of the church. When Paul wrote that “all of us possess knowledge,” he was quoting from a letter written to him from the Corinthians. Some church folks believed that because they knew that idols were nothing and the meat sacrificed to them meant nothing, it should be fine to eat it. Food was just food, whether it had been used as a sacrifice or not. Idols had no meaning for them, because they had knowledge of the true God.
This idol meat was standard fare at the larger community meals these early Christians would have attended. It was a staple served at every function held in their larger social circle. To not eat this meat would have been rude at the very least. Again, the Corinthians knew it had no meaning, so why the fuss?
Paul wasn’t worried about the effect the idol meat would have had on these particular members of the Corinthian church. However he was worried about the effect it would have on the weaker ones in the faith. These weaker members were probably gentile converts who had long ties with the larger pagan society. Eating that meat was directly tied to their former beliefs. These weaker ones were most likely much poorer than the Corinthians who had written to Paul. They would have been excluded, not only from the social circles the other complaining church members ran in, but also from their educational systems. If they were to see older, supposedly wiser, Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols, what would they think? What would that do to their faith?
Paul wrote, “Their conscience, being weak is defiled. Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of ours, this consequence of your knowledge, doesn’t become a stumbling block to the weak.”
Sure, Paul told them, you know that food is not the channel to either the gods or to God. You know it, but you have to be careful. Don’t let this great knowledge of yours make you arrogant. Don’t let your knowledge puff you up so much that you cause a weaker one to stumble and pull away from the faith.
In other words, be humble. Do not get puffed up with all you supposedly know. Most importantly, set a good example. Realize that someone else may not have the same knowledge you do; that they may be less mature in the faith than you. Understand that these younger, less mature believers may be struggling with letting go of their former beliefs and ways. You may be able to set yourself apart from a particular society and live in it at the same time, but can they? Do not be a stumbling block to someone else.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
Perhaps the message that Paul was really trying to impart to these conflicted Corinthians was don’t get cocky. Use your knowledge for good; not as a weapon that can inflict terrible harm on others. What you really need to know is this; without love you don’t know anything. It is only love that will build up your community. It is through love that these weaker ones in the faith will grow strong. It is only love that will burst the bubble of your arrogant knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
Beautiful, beautiful words. But here’s the problem, or at least, here’s the challenge with Paul’s statement. How easy it is to misinterpret his words about knowledge, and twist them from an indictment of arrogant belief in what we think we know to seeing knowledge/education as elitist. Personally, I love knowledge. I love education. I love learning and I love teaching. I grew up in a home where education was valued. The statement “if you go to college,” was never spoken in my home. It was always, “when you go to college.” I admire my parents for many reasons, but one is that when many of my friends’ parents were giving into “white flight” in the face of bussing, etc. and putting their kids into private schools, my parents stubbornly refused. If you want public education to also be excellent education, you have to stay in it, stay involved.
Yet I also realize that education is not the end all be all of life. I have met people with an 8th grade education who are more intelligent, thoughtful, and reflective than some who have a doctorate. I learned rather quickly that a diploma is no guarantee of wisdom. While I do not think that Paul is denigrating education in this passage, I do think he is exhorting the Corinthians to understand that knowledge alone is not enough. It is what you do with it and how you use it, especially when it comes to your treatment of other people that is the real issue. It is most assuredly hard to be humble when your knowledge is based on knowledge alone.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
While Jesus’ first action in his public ministry in Mark’s gospel was to perform an exorcism, this was not a Hollywood brand of exorcism. The passage begins with Jesus going to the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath and teaching. But his teaching was unlike any teaching the people had ever witnessed before. He taught as one with authority and unlike the scribes. The people may not have understood where this authority came from, but the unclean spirit did. This may be the first time we hear of an unclean spirit recognizing Jesus’ true identity in Mark’s gospel, but it certainly will not be the last time. The spirit that possessed the man cried out to Jesus, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Certainly, obviously, Jesus’ identity as the Holy One of God is the source of his authority. But the people witnessing his teaching and his exorcism did not know that. They did not understand that. They just knew that his teaching was different. It was new. It was authoritative.
Jesus’ authority lay in his identity, but the essence of who he truly was and the message he came to proclaim was not based on dogma. It was based in love. It was love.
Jesus was God’s love incarnate. No, this love was not mushy sweetness and light. It was urgent. It was invasive. It would upend, overturn, and overthrow every expectation the people had of God and love and the kingdom. But that does not detract from the truth that Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ knowledge, Jesus’ teaching and wisdom was based and founded and grounded in love.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Jesus was and is love, realized in flesh and blood. His proclamation of good news was that in him the law, the teachings of the past, the prophecies of the prophets, and the realization of the kingdom of God was fulfilled. He was God’s complete love for them, for all of creation, in their midst. He was Love with a capital L, and he was there to build up – their relationship with God, with one another, and the kingdom.
Knowledge is a wonderful thing. I don’t take it for granted because it seems to me that willful ignorance has caused and continues to cause more harm, damage, and destruction in our world than anything else. But valuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone can lead to arrogance. It too can do great harm. But knowledge that finds its source in love opens our minds and our hearts to God and to one another in a way that knowledge alone can’t. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. So maybe the question to ask ourselves today and every day is not just, “What do we know?” But “What do we know and how do we love?” Let all of God’s children say with full knowledge and overwhelming love, “Alleluia!” Amen.