Sunday, January 28, 2018

Weak and Strong—Whatever

I remember in seminary we frantic students, just trying to keep up with heavy readings and papers due all at once, used to engage in strenuously absurd debates about the “weak” and the “strong.”  We, without proper exegesis, thought that Paul was teaching that weak people were inferior to strong people who could eat meat sacrificed to idols to their hearts’ content. Like us!

Our level of hysteria about this teaching of Paul to the Church in Corinth (I Corinthians 8:1-13)  stood in direct correlation, if not cause and effect, to our own painful uncertainty about what we were doing studying God when we could hardly breathe from the strain of our, yes, weakness: believing that studying God might just bring us closer to God.

The lector who read this Pauline passage today in our parish church is a very competent reader, an intelligent man, and a master of grammar. He did pretty well, only stumbling once over Paul’s rhetoric and hopelessly run-on sentences. Poor Paul suffered from too many semi-colons, if nothing else. And we? Do we suffer from fearing we might be “weak”? Do we blame Paul for our imagined spiritual deficits?
I hope I have obfuscated enough to make myself sound like Paul, whose image is even blurry. It’s a cover-up for how truly weak I do feel, because I am not able to help one of my adult children the way I think a strong  mother should. I can love; I can be present; I can listen without judgment; I can talk to compassionate souls; I can pray silently and mightily that all will be well but never say that out loud because I don’t know.

Is this what Paul meant by “weak”?  Sort of, yes. Paul was writing about the state of one’s conscience with respect to certain cultural expectations or personal wounds we do not understand. I can not know or understand. I can cry.

Back to scripture. Historically, sacrificing animal flesh to the gods was customary atonal practice—bringing people closer to God. Paul acknowledged that for some people such a practice had spiritual value. Christ’s reconciling work however rendered this practice idolatrous. “Food does not bring us close to God.” Christ does.

BUT—here’s the kicker: The “weak” of conscience still believed, for whatever reasons, that such practices would bring them closer to God. Those who knew better, the “strong” of conscience, would sin against Christ if they failed to respect the conscience of the “weak.”

My late aunt, an aggressive convert to Roman Catholicism, believed it necessary to the salvation of her immortal soul to eat fish—never meat—on Fridays. Her rival sister, my mother, thought this was “stupid.” They argued. I agreed with my mother. [Well, as a child I agreed with her. Today I think I'd be better off fasting every day, for soul and body management at 79.]. Mostly, we avoided having my aunt for dinner on a Friday, but if we did have her, we did NOT serve meat out of respect for her  beliefs, letting our own judgments go—at least for that night. 

I’d love to tell you we were doing this for Christ’s sake, but I couldn’t swear to it. I hope I am in Christ with my vulnerability and helplessness, but I can’t swear to it. And so: Amen.