I am not one to stir up controversy, and yet I feel compelled to do exactly that. I grew up knowing that the lines from a beloved nursery rhyme were actually sardonic words mocking the horror of the Black Death. From this knowledge, gained at such an impressionable age, I felt called to devote my life to sarcasm and mockery. As I grew older (and wiser), this belief in the “secret” meaning behind this rhyme was substantiated. The “Ring around the rosies” could only refer to the red rash that developed on the victims’ skin, a rash which would soon turn into painful black boils. “A pocket full of posies” was clearly talking about the ancient practice of trying to ward off an airborne plague through pleasant odors (it is common knowledge that airborne viruses smell foul and can be fought off by a “mask” of pleasant aroma, hence, the use of posies). “Ashes! Ashes!” clearly refers to the burning of dead bodies to stop the spread of the disease. However, because the British version of the rhyme has the words, “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!” referring to sneezes, it could also be that “Ashes! Ashes!” is also an onomatopoeia for sneezing (is it just me or is it shameful how weak the British “A-tishoo!” sneeze sounds compared to the good ol’ American “A-choo!”). And “We all fall down,” is, obviously, dying. But in preparation for writing this blog using this obvious interpretation of the nursery rhyme, I discovered I was wrong and that the rhyme has nothing to do with the Black Plague (which, yes, does call into question the validity of my spiritual gift of sarcasm). Shockingly and appallingly, this nursery rhyme is simply a child’s game where they hold hands, dance in a circle and then at the end, all fall down. Who knew? All that to say, a little ditty can be easily misunderstood.
In 1 Corinthians 6:13 Paul quotes a catchy little saying of which the Corinthians were apparently quite fond. In fact, it became a life axiom by which they could quickly make ethical judgments. It went like this:
“Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”
See what I mean? It’s very catchy. There are things, the Corinthians said, that have no moral repercussions. Take, for instance, eating. What you eat has no moral implications attached to it (unless you include cannibalism, but that’s not something I can sink my teeth into today). And why does eating have no moral overtones? Because in the scope of things, they are temporary and inseparably attached to all that is fleeting and passing. In short, temporary things don’t really matter in the moral scope of things, things like what you eat, what you wear, what job you do, what hobbies you enjoy, what you do in your spare time and so forth. What matters is eternity. If something has eternal repercussions, either for good or bad, we must treat it carefully and wisely and think about it thoroughly before acting. If what we do now counts forever, then we must approach it as a serious investment. But if what we do now doesn’t count in the grand scheme of things, we can do as we please.
An example might help. I had a salad for lunch, and soon it will be coffee time. Neither of these are moral issues. I could have chosen to have a sandwich, and I could choose to have a cup of tea instead of drinking the nectar of heaven’s bean. God doesn’t care about any of these things. After all, as the Corinthians would say, “Food is for the body and the body is for food, and God will destroy them both.” Or the purpose of food is to provide nourishment to the body, and the purpose of the body is to process that nourishment; but both of these things are simply temporary bodily functions. No big deal. No moral ramifications. Now, you know the Corinthian position . . . except for one small nuance. We can see what that nuance is in verse 13b: “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” (If you see that the two halves of these verses are parallel to each other, give yourself a star. If you are rather stunned that the conversation moved from eating food to having sex, join the crowd!).
What in the world is going on? Maybe it would be helpful to retrace the Corinthian’s thinking here. Just like there are no moral overtones in what we eat (“food is for the body”) and there are no moral overtones in what the body does naturally (“the body is for food”) and since they are both temporary and rooted inescapably in this present age (“and God will destroy them both”), therefore, there is nothing immoral about having sex since sex is simply just another one of those transitory bodily functions like digestion. And since there are no moral issues involved in the choice of eating a salad or eating a sandwich, so there are no moral issues involved in having sex with a spouse or with a prostitute. Here’s the Corinthian perspective in a nutshell: since we know some bodily appetites are amoral (like eating and drinking), then all bodily appetites are amoral (like blonds vs. brunettes). Therefore, if you hunger for it, go for it and don’t give it a second thought. After all, it is temporary. God is going to destroy the body; and therefore, everything we did with it will be forgotten. The only thing that matters is eternity. Now, as we will see next week, those crazy Corinthians are way off balance in thinking that what we do with our body doesn’t matter. Yes, there are some things that don’t matter in light of eternity (for example, whether today’s cup of coffee should be Guatemalan Antigua or Costa Rican Tarrazu). But other things matter a whole lot, and relationships and sex are definitely in that second category (but we will save Paul’s argument for next week).
All that to say, sometimes things appear as simple as a nursery rhyme. They are clear and straightforward and fleeting. But there are other issues that aren’t that easy to figure out. They are complicated. Now, there is much more to say about this passage, and we will do so next week. But for now, here is the takeaway about the use of our rights that we all should consider. When making a decision, if our decision has eternal implications, then we must be far more thoughtful, wise and discerning. What we do now matters. Who we are matters. Why we do certain things counts. We are kingdom people, and we must live in light of eternity. However, if the issue is set in a temporary and fleeting context, we have much more freedom to act. If a waitress brings you tea instead of the coffee you ordered, you are free to exercise your rights and make sure you get the coffee you need. And need is not too strong of a word, for as someone once said, “Decaf coffee only works if you throw it at people.” But in the exercise of our rights, we must be kind and gracious and patient and gentle. Failing to do so, transforms an ordinary, fleeting decision into something that will cast a shadow into eternity. How we go about doing ordinary things makes them charged with eternity.
Flash Rosenberg said: “I believe humans get a lot done, not because we’re smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.” Here’s my takeaway for today: How we get things done, the big and the small, the choosing to exercise our rights or the choice to refrain from using those rights has to be done in light of eternity. For the Christ follower, our conscience cannot be our guide. God’s eternal kingdom should be. Part 2 next week!