Recently, I received a summons to jury duty. Due to the pandemic, part of the process of preparing jurors is now done virtually. The summons instructed me to respond to the juror’s questionnaire online and to watch two videos about the responsibilities of jurors. The first video was, for the most part, identical to the video that played in a loop in the waiting area assigned to potential jurors prior to the pandemic. The second video was a warning against using one’s cellphone, tablet, or computer to find further information about the trial; this video replaced some of the in-person instruction formerly given at the courthouse. The warnings against using technology to search for information about a trial were repeated so many times that it made me laugh. Evidently, this is a chronic problem for the courts.
Significant social problems inevitably generate warnings and attempted solutions like the second video I mentioned above. Today’s second reading is another example of a response to a significant social problem.
Paul wrote, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God”. (1 Cor 10:31-32) This statement was a response to a problem in the church community at Corinth. Apparently, the problem was associated with the ancient practice of serving, at large social functions, meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. The precise nature of the problem is unknown, but there are some likely possibilities.
It could have been the case that some members of the church community participated willingly in public banquets where meat that had been sacrificed to idols was served. These Christians knew that the pagan gods were human inventions and, therefore, not worth worrying about. Other members of the church community, however, might have objected on the basis of a sensitive conscience; Paul’s recommendation was to “avoid giving offense,” that is, to avoid anything that would offend someone with a sensitive conscience.
Alternately, it could have been the case that some members of the congregation had experienced taunting by pagan neighbors who made fun of the Christians’ aversion to idol worship. Being mocked is not sufficient reason for great fear but, perhaps, some members of the congregation felt slighted and were tempted to retaliate against their pagan neighbors. Paul’s advice to “avoid giving offense” applies equally well in this situation: one’s Christian witness is invalidated when one retaliates against the inappropriate behavior of others.
Paul’s advice to “avoid giving offense” is especially poignant today. We live in a culture that teaches us to offend as many people as often as possible. I would, in fact, say that our obsession with getting all we want by any means necessary constitutes a god as false as the idols worshiped in the ancient world.
Paul based his advice on the acknowledgment that food or drink cannot be holy or unholy in themselves; rather, it is human behavior that sanctifies or desecrates created things. Further, one’s behavior either sanctifies or desecrates one’s life. This insight applies directly to us.
The overarching value espoused in every area of life today, from academics to pastimes to politics and sports, is not merely to achieve but to embarrass, insult, and denigrate one’s competitors or opponents. Activities that were formerly competitive have become combative and destructive. Paul’s advice from long ago stands as a good reminder that harm done to one person is harm done to all.
It is delusional to think that one can insult or threaten one’s neighbor without harming all of society. It is childishly selfish to create or escalate conflict. It is foolishly irrational to offend other people intentionally and then, to complain about being offended in return.
Paul was suggesting neither that one should merely acquiesce to the opinions of others nor that one should ‘try to be the better person.’ Paul’s suggested response to situations in which others might take offense at one’s actions is a statement of a basic and non-negotiable value in Catholicism. Catholicism admits no possibility for being uncharitable and allows no room for withholding mercy. The cultural values of winning at all costs and getting all that one wants regardless of consequences are forbidden to us.
The next time that you are tempted to retaliate against an offender or to insult someone who disagrees with you or to humiliate someone you dislike, please remember that to “love one’s enemies” (Mt. 5:43-48) is a commandment from Jesus; it is not merely an aspirational value. In today’s second reading, Paul applied that commandment to the awkward social situations that arise inevitably in one’s life; he said, “Avoid giving offense.” (1 Cor. 10:32) If only we would apply this teaching to our lives!