The words of the day are “brother and sister.” We would expect that the reading for today would be fasting since this is Meatfare Sunday. And true, the topic of our reading of 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2 is eating meat, the very thing that we will abstain from throughout Great Lent.
However, our reading is about eating “meat offered to idols” in pagan temples. This is not our question but a question for the Gentiles in the Roman Empire. The reason we do not eat meat in Great Lent has to do with the disciplines of repentance and control of the passions. It would seem that the passage, therefore, has no application to us in the 21st century.
However, we might gain some insight into our observance of Great Lent if we look at the moral principle behind Paul’s answer to the question of his day. He says, “Therefore if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13).
Consideration for Our Fellow Members of the Body of Christ
Paul here teaches that whether we eat meat or do not, we should show consideration for our fellow members of the Body of Christ. We are social creatures whose behavior influences others. Whatever we do, others observe it and interpret it according to their own knowledge and experience. Thus Paul instructs us that we should be careful not to do and say something that would influence others in the wrong way.
Three Things to Consider
St. John Chrysostom says that there are three things that we should consider about our fellow members who might be misled by our behavior (Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew). First, they are “weak.” They may not have the strength of faith that we have gained through the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Second, they are “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ (vs. 11). Causing them to stumble in their journey of faith is like hurting our dear brothers and sisters of our natural family. Third, they are fellow believers “for whom Christ died” (vs. 11). When we cause them to fall through our careless actions, we “sin” against them, that is, we wrong them (Strong’s #264). But by harming the soul of others we also “sin” against Christ (vs. 12) for Christ is their head and they are members of His body (Colossians 1:18).
As we enter the doorway of the Lenten arena of spiritual discipline, we confront a seeming paradox. Our spiritual disciplines are personal and private as Jesus said “Whenever you fast, do not make a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they distort their faces so that they will be noticed by people when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16-18). Thus, our spiritual disciplines are our choice according to the guidance of the Spirit to each. They are not piety to be paraded in front of others.
On the other hand, today we hear Paul’s teaching that whatever we do, we should keep the salvation of the soul of our fellow members in mind. Orthodox fasting is personal but isolated. It is individual but never disconnected from the Body of Christ. How we observe the spiritual disciplines of Lent can either strengthen us and our fellow believers or it can weaken us—and them. So then we must be careful how we talk about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Above all, we should not compare our observances with others as the Pharisee did in the Parable of the Publication and Pharisee. Instead of comparing our practices, we should share with one another the spirit of Lent, the spirit of repentance and turning to the God of mercy, the God who gives strength to the weak and grace to the penitent.