Lectionary Commentaries




Sunday, October 24, 2010

Zachary William Mills, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Associate Pastor, Hyde Park Union Church, Chicago, IL

Lection - 1 Corinthians 10:31 (New Revised Standard Version)

(v. 31) So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

I. Description of the Liturgical Moment

Many Christian congregations offer annual youth day services. In fact, at the conclusion of the first decade of the twenty-first century, with a host of issues adversely affecting youth, more churches in the United States and abroad are recognizing the need to support youth, celebrate their gifts, affirm their leadership and listen seriously to their concerns. Violence, sexually transmitted diseases, an ever soaring high school drop-out rate and poor health are just a few of the serious issues young people face each day. By offering annual youth day services, Christian congregations attempt to publicly acknowledge the importance of these issues while equipping young people and their families with the relevant resources necessary to surmount them.

In general, a youth day service is a worship service designed for, and often by, youth. In African American churches, youth day services offer black youth significant opportunities to craft liturgies, coordinate worship services, lead worship, preach sermons, use their various gifts, and function as serious leaders in the community. Creativity is encouraged and, what may appear as unconventional methods to older adults, are celebrated. Often during these services, a central theme is emphasized. The worship service is crafted around this theme to address the particular concerns, issues, or aspirations of young people.

While youth day services acknowledge the grim realities facing youth, they primarily accentuate the creative resilience of youth in subverting those forces attempting to minimize, silence and destroy them. Furthermore, these services invite participants to celebrate and open themselves up to the creative power of God to use innovative and unconventional means to thwart the structural forces negatively affecting youth. Finally, by acknowledging the rich repository of gifts young people represent in contemporary congregations, youth services discredit tacit and explicit assumptions that ignore or despise young peoples’ creative energy. Youth day services emphasize young peoples’ God-given adeptness in articulating their own experiences through their own unique idioms.

This liturgical moment (Youth Day: Youth and Health) reveals God’s concern for what we do with our bodies since God uses our bodies to accomplish God’s work.

II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: 1 Corinthians 10:31

Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter

American youth are increasingly suffering from severe health conditions. As I write this commentary, youth between the ages of 12-17 are experiencing unprecedented levels of gross obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. Poor diet and lack of exercise are chief contributing factors. However, the crisis in youth health is more complex. American corporations are spending millions of dollars in marketing to make foods high in fat, cholesterol, sugar, and caffeine appear more attractive. As parents log more hours at work — out of necessity to provide for their families or to satisfy unhealthy career ambitions — less time is spent seriously monitoring their children’s diets or their amount of exercise. Fast food and television become quick solutions. Very seldom is the issue of poor personal diets, and particularly poor personal diets among youth, ever discussed in terms that explain their communal implications especially in the Church. As our children become unhealthier, the Church is much too silent. Scarce are sports programs at churches, basketball games, softball games, work-out programs and healthy cooking instructions for parents. This is such an easy thing to do but we are not doing it. Nor are we prevailing upon schools to feed our children healthy meals at school while removing soda and snack machines. Again, this is something that we could easily do.

Part Two: Biblical Commentary

The influence of unhealthy cultural values on people of faith constitutes the historical background for 1 Corinthians 10:31. At the time Apostle Paul composes 1 Corinthians, the city of Corinth had become a “bustling, cosmopolitan business center.”1 The city was an international hub for trade. People came from miles around eager to immerse themselves in the eclectic commerce in Corinth. The economic climate of Corinth nurtured a deeply competitive, entrepreneurial culture that was obsessed with success. Consequently, this culture bred values of self-promotion, arrogance, greed and rampant individualism.

Yet, this constellation of values surrounded the Corinthians from birth until death. Therefore, whenever people in Corinth converted to Christianity, they would inevitably carry over into their Christian spirituality the cultural values that characterized their pre-Christian culture.2 Many of these Corinthian values were antithetical to those Jesus taught which caused some Christians in Corinth to engage in questionable behavior.

For example, some were eating food dedicated to idols and various deities. Just as Christians gave thanks to God for food before eating, people of other religious traditions honored their deities before meals. This connection between food and pagan gods was seen more clearly during banquets or public festivals honoring a particular deity (like Poseidon). Food at these events was often dedicated to the deity being honored.3 The excess meat from festivals was usually given to the masses. This meat often showed up in the marketplace, and even ended up in local eating establishments.4

These practices confused new converts who were taught to only serve God but who constantly witnessed some Christians eating food sacrificed to idols and other deities. Some struggled with religious fragmentation — not knowing whom to follow, Christ or the deities of their pre-Christian existence. Others abandoned their faith altogether because of the contradiction existing among Christian leaders who exhorted fidelity to the God of Jesus Christ while seemingly maintaining a loyalty to a network of idols and foreign deities.

Paul writes this letter to the Corinthians because he is concerned that certain negative values in Corinth are negatively affecting the behavior of new Christian converts there. Individualism and the worship of other deities in particular are values sown tightly into the social fabric of Corinth.  Peoples’ desire to be self-promoting individuals fueled their impulse to engage in behaviors (eating food sacrificed to idols, for example) without understanding that their actions were connected to a larger context.

Interestingly, Paul makes sure that the Christians in Corinth know that their Christian beliefs do not necessarily prohibit them from eating food sacrificed to idols. As long as a person receives the food by thanking God, there is not a problem. The problem occurs when someone, exercising their freedom to eat what they wish, leads another believer to think that the person eating the food is also worshiping the gods for whom the food was sacrificed. For young Christian converts still trying to dethrone the idol gods in their lives, seeing more seasoned believers eating food sacrificed to idols would be very confusing.

Our scripture, 1 Corinthians 10:31, appears after Paul has done extensive teaching about his “freedoms” as an apostle. Paul is free to eat what he wishes and to make a living from preaching the gospel. However, Paul acknowledges that exercising his freedom could hinder someone else’s growth in Christ. Therefore, Paul is disciplined in refusing to make full use of his freedom.  He intentionally resists certain actions because they can potentially lead others astray and consequently damage the body of Christ. Eating food sacrificed to idols threatened to cause damage to the body of Christ. Paul sacrifices certain personal rights for the sake of the community.

In relation to the issue of youth and health, we can learn a lot from the circumstances in Corinth.  As believers in Christ, we too inherit unhealthy values from the cultures in which we are reared.  Like the Corinthians, we also can inherit preoccupations with individualism and idolatry. Therefore, youth — and their families and their spiritual communities — must begin thinking more communally when making dietary decisions. We, like Paul, are free to eat what we wish. Yet, God has called each of us to be ministers of Christ. Our ministries can help mend the brokenhearted, illuminate dark places, and resurrect dead things to new life. People are literally waiting for a ministry like ours for rescue and revival! We must keep our bodies in prime condition for service.

If poor diets and a lack of exercise make us unable to offer the services God called us to offer, then we are potentially denying others the ministries they need to survive. So, when we harm our bodies by poor diets and a lack of exercise, we are damaging the body of Christ. It takes great discipline to sacrifice certain freedoms for the sake of personal and communal transformation — to continually ask how personal choices can bring God glory.

Many factors contribute to poor diets. Individualistic impulses to consume what we want when we want; idolatrous acts of turning to food instead of God for comfort in times of trouble; and poor self-esteem caused by traumatic experiences can all lead one to eat and drink all kinds of junk to fill emptiness. The problem of the poor physical health among youth, just like the problem of spiritual health among the Corinthians, has deeper roots than simply bad habits. Paul teaches us that in any generation there are unhealthy aspects of one’s cultural environment that can seep into one’s spiritual life. There is some stuff under the surface that must be unearthed before meaningful change can occur. It is time to begin the process of excavating all the bad influences, distorted perspectives, empty values, parental neglect, painful experiences and unjust advertising campaigns that are influencing youth into poor behaviors about the foods they consume and the way that they treat their bodies.


This text teaches us the importance of viewing every aspect of our lives as something that can bring glory to God. Paul does not establish a strict criteria defining what classifies as an action that glorifies God. Paul says WHATEVER we do should be done for the glory of God. We are living epistles who are read by others. We are walking, talking advertisements of God’s love, justice, and mercy. Therefore, WHATEVER we do we can do to the glory of God. There is no action too mundane to be potential good news. God can use WHATEVER we do as a testimony of the good news of Jesus Christ!

Descriptive Details

The descriptive details of this passage include:

Sounds: Paul diagnosing the Corinthians’ illness like a doctor giving bad news about a health condition; the seductive advertising campaigns of those convincing others to eat food sacrificed to idols much like contemporary advertising campaigns convince us to eat foods high in salt, cholesterol and sugar;

Sights: The body of Christ damaged, divided by individualism, greed, and idolatry; and

Smells: The alluring aroma of the choice food sacrificed to idols.


1. Thiselton, Anthony C. First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.,  2006. p. 1.
2. Ibid., p. 9.
3. Keener, Craig, S. 1-2 Corinthians. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 75.
4. Ibid.



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