1 Corinthians Series, Bible Study Lesson 9
by Reta Halteman Finger
Sex, food, money, and prestige—how does Paul manage to sound so contemporary?
Actually, he doesn’t. He deals with these issues, but they are sometimes hidden behind conventions of ancient rhetoric. In the previous lesson on 1 Corinthians 8, it wasn’t hard to see how Paul combined eating meat with concern for tender consciences. We can also look ahead at chapter 10 and note that he again discusses eating meals. But why does he change the subject in chapter 9 and start talking about himself ? “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (9:1). Why tout your own résumé in the middle of an entirely different topic?
I didn’t get it either until I read a couple commentaries. Yes, the presenting topic in chapters 8 and 10 is food, meals, and table companions. But the overarching theme is idolatry—having one foot in the sphere of “this world” and the other in the kin-dom of God. In Rome’s imperial value system, nothing set the elite apart from ordinary people as much as did meals—what you ate, with whom you ate, when you ate, and even how you were ranked at a banquet.
But Paul has a big problem with such hierarchical values and practices. His vision of God’s reign on earth is egalitarian with special concern for the poor and hungry. He knows how entrenched such idolatrous thinking becomes the higher one ascends on the socioeconomic ladder. So he uses the example of his own life to show his house churches the cost of switching allegiances from Caesar to Jesus. Though he argues forcefully for the right to receive wages for work (9:1-14), he himself refuses a salary. He knows it would come from wealthy patrons of house churches—so they could boast about their own house-philosopher!
Had Paul accepted this support, he would be obligated to honor his patron at the expense of all lower class believers in his churches, just like most politicians today are obligated to the rich and powerful who finance their election campaigns. Instead, Paul insults the patrons’ honor by working as a manual laborer in a rented shop sewing tents. (Acts 18:1-3).
Verses 19-23 are sometimes used to argue the need to assimilate into our surrounding culture—“I have become all things to all people in order to save some” (9:22). “If you minister to rich people, it’s okay to be rich to keep up with them.” But the context implies the opposite. Paul gives up higher class privileges to identify with those deemed inferior. In the final paragraph (9:24-27), he compares his sacrifices to that of disciplined athletes in the Isthmian Games to be held near Corinth around that time. Paul calls for believers to imitate him, as he imitates the downwardly-mobile Christ described in the hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.
We can imagine elite patrons feeling rebuffed and angry as this letter is read in the presence of the entire house church of mostly poor people. It’s true that Paul approves eating meat at private meals with unbelievers—unless someone with a conscience against it identifies it as idol-meat (10:27-30). Again, Paul does not come across as rigid.
But worse is still to come. Imagine! In 10:14-22, Paul calls their upper-class banquets the “table of demons”! Here Paul contrasts participation in the community’s agape meal and Lord’s Supper with participation in the “good-old-boys” banquets held in the local public dining hall for up-and-coming citizens. This meal allows for networking, strengthening business and political ties, and reinforcing patronage relations. It’s the traditional all-male “smoke-filled room” where things are “really decided.”
These meals always begin with a bread-breaking ritual for whatever god(ess) they have chosen to honor. After the main course the drinks are mixed and the first cup poured out to the same deity. The dessert course may well be slave prostitutes of both genders for music, dancing, and, in our parlance, “hook-ups.” For Paul, this is the idolatrous table of the Imperial Domination System God opposes. It is a parody of a Jesus-Supper in the house church. “You cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons!” Paul thunders (10:21).
This brings us back to our present issues of sex, food, money, and prestige. Both Paul and Jesus in the Gospels are very clear that divided loyalties don’t work in the kin-dom of God. When we try to keep one foot in each world, the force-field of secular values of materialism and classism—the need to feel superior to someone else—drag us away from our other allegiance. For people with many privileges, as most of us are in this culture, what shall we give up to identify with those of fewer privileges?
Conversely, some of us women may be in positions and relationships where others pull rank over us or belittle us and our abilities, or pay us less than men in the same jobs. As one of those poor or enslaved women listening to Paul’s letter in the presence of church patrons, will you have the courage to stand up to them when they “eat at the table of demons”? Are you in a comparable situation today?