Should I eat food offered to god images in a Buddhist temple ritual?

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A young Christian girl, Meijung, accepted an invitation to celebrate a Buddhist holiday with three of her friends. One of her friends is a Roman Catholic, another is a Baptist, and the third, in whose home they are meeting, is a Buddhist. After the girls went together to the temple with their Buddhist friend's family and saw and learned the significance of the rite, the Buddhist friend's mother invited Meijung and the others to share the food that had been used in the Buddhist ceremony.

One of the two other Christian girls accepted immediately. The second declined, saying that she could not eat food that had been used in a Buddhist rite. It is an awkward moment. Meijung did not know what she should do.

Meijung, Shuching, Reyhei, and Shuo had been close friends since they met in primary school in Taipei when each was nine years old. They have shared nearly everything: clothes, experiences, and opinions. At school, they were inseparable, frequently attending social events together. Though of different religious faiths, they have often talked of the common features of their respective religions. To be sure, on a few occasions, they had disagreed about their points of view. Though these conversations were usually animated and sometimes intense, these moments did not threaten their friendship.

Today, however, Meijung was shocked and confused. For the first time in almost eight years of friendship, a breach had suddenly opened between the girls, and it had happened quickly and unexpectedly. The three Christian girls had been invited by Shuo, who was Buddhist, to celebrate a religious holiday with her.

After arriving at Shuo's home and engaging in "girl-talk" for a half-hour or so, Shuo finally said, "Let me explain to you about this day and the ceremony we will attend.

"Buddhists have many different feast days throughout the year. Fortunately, the one today falls on a Saturday when we are not in school. Like all faithful Buddhist women, my mother has prepared special food for today: pork, fish, fruit, and wine. We will take this food and some flowers to the temple, where my family and I will dedicate the offerings to God. After placing the food at the altar, we will worship and pray for about half an hour, giving the gods time to eat the food, drink the wine, and smell the flowers. Then we will return home. Any questions?"

"Do you believe the gods consume the food and wine?" Shuching asked.

"Oh yes," replied Shuo.

"Does any of it ever disappear?"

"Not that I can tell, but I believe they eat and drink," Shuo said.

When Shuching appeared incredulous, Meijung responded: "I can understand. Isn't it somewhat like the Roman Catholic belief about the elements used in Holy Communion?"

"Yes," said Reyhei. "Though the communion bread and wine don't appear different after they are consecrated, we believe they become Christ's true body and blood."

At that point, Shuo's mother, father, and two brothers entered the room. "Are you young ladies ready to go?" the father asked.

"I think so," said Shuo. The girls stood, and they all left for the temple.

The walk was pleasant, only about ten minutes from Shuo's home. Each of the Christian girls -- Meijung, Reyhei, and Shuching -- had seen the temple many times. None of the three, however, had ever been inside. It was a 200-year-old structure, beautiful on the outside and even more impressive within, thought Meijung.

There were sixty or seventy people already inside. Each family appeared to be engaged in its own private ritual. Shuo indicated a place where her three friends could sit and observe. The ceremony of placing the food, wine, and flowers, and lighting the incense at the massive wooden altar took only a few minutes, but there followed a time of quietness, the lighting of more incense, and prayers. To Meijung, each of Shuo's family appeared to be deep in thought. Eventually, the father stood, and then so did the others. Shuo turned to her three friends and whispered, "God has had enough to eat." She and her mother then picked up the dishes with the food on them, poured the wine from the glasses back into the bottle, and placed all the containers in a basket. Quietly, they all left the temple.

No sooner were they outside than Shuo's brothers excused themselves by saying, "We're going to watch the regatta that begins at 12:30." The father indicated he was going to get a newspaper and some pipe tobacco.

As Shuo, her mother, and her three friends began walking toward Shuo's home, the mother said, "It is lunchtime. Would you girls like to come and share this food with us? I have more at home because I prepared a lot."

Reyhei immediately said she would like that, but Shuching stopped and said, "I apologize. I am very sorry. Please do not think I am rude or ungrateful. But I cannot."

"Why not?" laughed Shuo. "Do you have a date this afternoon?"

Lowering her head, Shuching said, "No, I do not have a date."

"Then why don't you join us? We have plenty of food."

"I cannot eat food that has been used in worship."

Meijung had already guessed the reason for Shuching's reluctance, but it was a terribly awkward moment. Shuo's mother did not appear to be offended, but Shuo blanched.

In a tone of hurt and bewilderment, Shuo asked, "Meijung, what about you? Will you come and eat with us?"

How should Meijung respond?

What does the Bible say? 5 key passages

  1. Matthew 15:1-18
    That Which Defiles
    15 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"
    3Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.' 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is 'devoted to God, 6 they are not to 'honor their father or mother' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

    8 'These people honor me with their lips,
       but their hearts are far from me.
    9They worship me in vain;
       their teachings are merely human rules.'"

    10Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them."
    12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?"
    13 He replied, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit."
    15 Peter said, "Explain the parable to us."
    16"Are you still so dull?" Jesus asked them. 17 "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them."
  2. Mark 7:14-23
    14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them." [16] [a] 17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn't go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body. (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
    20 He went on: "What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person's heart, that evil thoughts come -- sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person."
    Note: aMark 7:16 Some manuscripts include here the words of 4:23.
  3. Romans 14:13-23
    13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
  4. Acts 15:19-21
    19 "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."
  5. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
    Concerning Food Sacrificed to Idols
    8 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that "We all possess knowledge." But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
    4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that "An idol is nothing at all in the world" and that "There is no God but one." 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
    7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
    9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol's temple, won't that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

This case study, as originally written by Alan Neely, appeared in Christian Mission: A Case Study Approach. © Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY. Edited and used by permission.

    -- Howard Culbertson,


When invited to eat food that has been offered at a Buddhist temple, Christians need to approach the situation with respect and sensitivity to both their own beliefs and the beliefs of those who prepared the food. Here are a few considerations:

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