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Our personal rights are not absolute

Friday, September 02, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am

QUESTION: What point is St. Paul making in his First Letter to the Corinthians when he says, “But make sure that this liberty of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9)?

ANSWER: St. Paul is well aware of the opinions of the Greek-speaking world about individual rights. Greece prided itself in being the birthplace of democracy, and so one’s rights were a fundamental aspect of personal and political life.

The Christian community in Corinth, a city in the midst of the Greek-speaking world, was also very aware of this understanding of rights. The specific context of the discussion in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is about meat that was likely sacrificed to idols.

Corinth was such a diverse city that it had many temples to a vast array of gods. At these temples, many animals were daily sacrificed to these gods. While only a small part of the animal was actually burned in the offering, the rest remained for removal from the temple area. There were butcher shops surrounding these temples providing meat for sale. Very likely this meat had been part of pagan ritual sacrifices. However, because of the abundance, it was often for sale more cheaply than at other locations not near temples.

This presented a real-life question for Christians. Were they permitted to purchase and eat this meat? Many Christians maintained that the idols were mere human creations of silver, gold, stone or wood. They were, in fact, “no gods.” So any animal sacrificed to them was insignificant on many levels. Why not purchase the cheaper meat at the stalls and shops near these temples? And so they did. Apparently some other Christians who were new to the Christian faith were scandalized that their fellow Christians were eating meat that had been involved in sacrifice to idols (which they had worshiped before becoming Christian).

It seems that they complained to St. Paul, who ponders the question and responds in this letter. His reasoning is that they have every right to purchase this meat. However, if their exercise of that right is detrimental to the spiritual welfare of other Christians, they should not exercise that right in view of their love for those who are new to the Christian faith.

These words of Paul were written almost 2,000 years ago, but they raise some important questions for us today. It seems that in our culture some feel that their rights are absolute and some tend to view their rights only as they serve their needs.

In the Christian perspective, our rights are clearly not absolute. They must always be seen in view of the rights of others as well as the common good. Thus, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christian community, our rights must be understood in a wider context than that of our own lives. That means our families, communities, schools and workplaces must be considered when we think about the use of our rights. We do have rights, but we also have responsibilities.

Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.


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