1 Corinthians 10:23-24 “ ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.”
I don’t know where the quote “Everything is permissible” comes from, but it is obvious from Paul’s writing in many places that it is something that he agrees with on a basic level. Of course it’s also clear from his writing that he doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as sin or that no behavior can be considered wrong. But like his statements about not being a stumbling block in Romans 14, Paul has obviously been hammering home to the Corinthians that Christian faith is not ultimately about a legalistic approach to morality.
They want to know, for instance, whether they can eat meat that has been offered as a pagan sacrifice. Since most of the meat sold in the market had first been offered to a pagan god, it wasn’t always easy to tell. There were no “pagan-free” labels on the meat packages. So some in the church had become vegetarians rather than risk God’s wrath and judged anyone who ate what they considered to be tainted meat.
Paul has been trying to tell them the same thing that Jesus told his followers…it’s not what goes into your mouth that’s the problem. It’s what comes out. It is the attitude of the heart and the spewing of hatred and venom that gets God’s dander up…not what you eat or drink. But because Paul has been so adamant in saying that what people eat or drink doesn’t matter, it sounds like people have been pushing back and misinterpreting his “Everything is permissible” approach.
And so Paul has to respond. Because something is not technically illegal, says Paul, it doesn’t mean that it’s either helpful or constructive in a given circumstance. He will elaborate on that a few years down the road when he writes Romans 14. If what you’re doing is upsetting the faith of others, it doesn’t matter if it’s legal. Don’t do it. It’s not about you. It’s about them. Christian faith is about right relationships, not about a legal set of do’s and don’ts. If the relationships are in jeopardy, then being technically “right,” doesn’t matter a single bit.
We live in a society that is very focused on what is legal. Paul is saying that’s the wrong question. The question is not whether it is legal. The question is whether it is good. Does it help or hurt our relationships with others? Does it strengthen or weaken faith? How might life be different if we focused on what was beneficial for others rather than what was technically legal?
Maybe your fence is legally five inches onto my property. I could make you move it…it’s legal. Will it help my relationship with you? Will you be likely to embrace my faith as a result? Maybe a prisoner doesn’t have the legal status to accord him or her the rights of the Geneva Conventions. Does it help our international relationships to subject that prisoner to harsh treatment? Maybe it brings us needed information. Was any information gleaned at Abu Ghraib constructive in the long run? Paul is clear that when he is talking about whether something is beneficial or constructive, he is talking about being beneficial for others, not ourselves. Being legal may get you off in court. It is not what God is looking for.
As Christians, we are freed from the Law. But just because it is legal, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. The Golden Rule still applies, and it is still true that God will return to us according to the measure we have used with others. Seeking the good of others is, in the end, seeking the good of all.
Thank you, Lord, for our freedom. Help us to use it with love. Amen.
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