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September 13, 2018 - Helping Others...Even When They're "Wrong"

Thursday of the Twenty-third Week in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings

We live in an intellectual society, with an unprecedented amount of knowledge at our fingertips, thanks to the Internet.  It can seem easy to do a few minutes of searching on know a fair amount about any given subject.  We like that feeling of being right, of ‘knowing.’  As the first reading says, it ‘inflates with pride.’ Catholics are just as attracted to this as anyone, but we have another source of knowledge that is very different; our conscience.  The problem is, we all have one, and they don’t always agree, even when they are “well-formed.”  So what do we do about these disagreements?  Our readings today help answer this question.

Paul is talking about something very foreign to us: eating meat that is dedicated to idols.  For anyone who may need it, here’s the backstory: the pagan society surrounding the early church had many gods, and as animals were slaughtered and butchered, the butcher often dedicated the meat (and by extension, all who ate it) to his favorite god.  Many of the converts to Christianity came from this idol-worshipping society.  In their conversion, they felt they had to totally cut themselves off from all idol worship, because it was such a regular part of daily life; it was a constant temptation for them to go back to their old way of living.  Conversely, for Jewish converts, this is a non-issue. Their view is basically, ‘if someone mumbles hocus-pocus over the meat, they’re praying to a god that doesn’t exist, so their words have no power; they are nonsense.’

Who’s right? Paul’s resolution is nuanced.  Yes, eating idol-dedicated meat won’t hurt your soul.  But all people should follow their conscience as long as it is not directing them to sin.  Avoiding idol-dedicated meat is only inconvenient, and having a ‘wall’ between their current and former ways of living may be helpful.  So if your fellow Christians’ conscience tells them that they need to do something ‘extra,’ don’t argue with them.  Let them follow their conscience.  And if it has an effect on you, help them follow their conscience.  For instance, when the early church had community meals, Paul was saying they should serve no idol-dedicated meat for the benefit of those with a weak conscience.

In our Church today we have no shortage of these types of disagreements about practical living that are not completely settled by church teaching.  For instance, how do we keep the Sabbath holy in a culture that no longer supports Sunday rest?  Are all forms of natural family planning good?  What type of liturgy is best in our particular culture? Who can receive Communion, and when?  Each of these has plenty of definition and clarity, but also plenty of open questions and ‘extras’ around the edges that are not church teaching.   What’s important is not who is right; that puffs us up with pride.  What is important is, are we helping our brothers and sisters form their consciences, and follow their consciences?  That, according to Paul, is the loving action that ‘builds up.’  That loving action is our call.  The gospel never calls us to be ‘right,’ it calls us to love.

This way of thinking is a breath of fresh air in our polarized society!  It helps us to follow the gospel call to “love your enemies.”  When we love them, we have no room in our hearts to judge them.  We are called to be more generous in our interactions with others.  Let us assume others have a good motive, instead of an evil plan.  When we return good for the evil we receive, it breaks a cycle of argument and pride, and replaces it with love and peace.

May the Spirit of Peace and Understand guide and encourage our daily living in a diverse Christian community.  Amen.

-Chris Nieport