Brothers and sisters, food does not bring us close to God. For neither shall we gain any advantage if we eat, nor suffer any loss if we do not. And yet, beware lest perhaps this right of yours become a stumbling block to the weak. For if a man sees you, who "have knowledge," sitting at table in a place dedicated to idols, will not his conscience, weak at it is, be emboldened to eat idol offerings? And through your "knowledge" the weak one will perish, the brother or sister for whom Christ died.
Now, when you sin in this way against the brothers and sisters and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food scandalizes my brother or sister, I will never again eat any more meat so as not to scandalize my brother or sister. Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? And if to others I am not an apostle, yet to you I am. For you are the seal set upon my apostleship in the Lord.
This Epistle reading should be considered in a context of the Sunday of the Last Judgment and the imminent Great Lent. But first, let's put this reading in proper historical context.
What is Saint Paul saying? And why?
In the ancient times people sacrificed many animals to pagan gods. After the sacrifice, the animal was cooked and consumed. Poor people could not afford to offer large animals as sacrifice, and they did not eat meat often (in fact, at no point has humanity consumed as much meat as we do today. Meat was, if not a luxury, then at the very least a special meal, even for the rich). During festivals, when many animals were sacrificed, meat was available for all to share.
Eating in a dining hall of a pagan temple meant eating sacrificed meat, for sure. Very often, meat sold in the market would also have been sacrificed (we talking here about predominantly pagan towns, like Corinth, not Jewish towns). Even normal banquets opened with the pouring of a fluid offering (usually wine) to some god or goddess (just like Jews and Christians gave thanks for their food before eating), so that most meals in pagan regions were somehow consecrated to a deity.
Food consecrated to other gods had long been a problem for Jews, and then later for Christians. If Jews or Christians knew for a fact that a certain meat for sacrificed to pagan gods, they would avoid consuming it, even if it meant death. Poorer believers, who might rarely have meat except at the pagan festivals, would have to give up a cherished opportunity to eat meat.
St Paul here is addressing those Christian converts from paganism, who perhaps did not see much wrong in eating sacrificed food, while they definitely knew that it was not allowed (because it was a betrayal of the One, True God). He admonishes the early Corinthian Christians to avoid arrogance - this supposed "right" (privilege) and "knowledge" they think they have can lead others astray and cause themselves to stumble.
St Paul reminds that eating food will not bring us closer to God, nor abstaining from certain foods will hurt us. The point here is not food itself. It's the behavior - sitting in the pagan temple and eating meat, which would cause others question their conscience, question what is right.
Translating this to today's world: if you notice that certain things you do or say confuse others and cause them to stumble in their faith, then stop! Of course in our times following Christ and leading a Christian life can confuse people and even trigger them to do some really filthy things. In this case, you are not doing anything wrong, keep Christ in your heart, in your mind, and on your lips. If others don't like it, it's their problem.
But let's come back to the point of the reading. If, for example, you decide to break your fast during Great Lent with a nice ham and cheese sandwich (which I do not recommend, unless you have medical reasons to do so), then you better make sure there are not believers around you. On the other hand, if you are constantly angry because you "have to" fast, and you catch yourself taking out your anger at your children, your spouse, your co-workers, random people in the store, then for the love of God, go have a pastrami sandwich at Subway, as long as the love of Christ returns to your heart (if it doesn't, come and speak with me).
In short, we have this great calling of being Christ's disciples. Make sure you don't stumble yourself, and above all make sure your behavior doesn't become a stumbling block to your brothers and sisters. You can repent for your actions, you can't do it for others'.
Yours in Christ,
Father Aleksey - your friendly Singac priest