In the nine months that we’ve lived in Cambodia, we’ve learned to look at a lot of things differently. Some you will easily guess, things we’ve mentioned before like transportation or food. But others have been less obvious. For instance, there have been a lot of stories, examples and illustrations from the Bible that are starting to take on a new light. Washing feet is a necessity after walking the streets of Phnom Penh in flip-flops each day. Certain passages get a twist in translation, like the Lord’s Prayer — give us our daily
bread rice. Eating food sacrificed to idols is much more relevant in Cambodian culture than in America.
Recently I was coming home from the market when I noticed one of the many doll-sized houses that sit on a stand outside a human-sized home. It was beginning to rain so someone thoughtfully had placed an umbrella over the house. (I wished I had my camera out, but the tuk tuk was going too quickly). A couple homes down, a woman brought a full bunch of bananas and a cup of steaming coffee to place in front of her spirit house on a stand (everything the family spirits might need for a healthy breakfast)!
Most homes and businesses in Phnom Penh have spirit houses like these outside their front door. These are part of a system of beliefs meant to protect the occupants and the property against malicious spirits (and human thieves). As part of the belief, Cambodians traditionally leave offerings of fruit and drinks, as well as burning incense. But, from time to time (particularly Buddhist holidays), that fruit will then be offered to monks or to guests. How should Christians respond?
It’s just food, right? It’s just bananas or coffee or hard candy — and as I Corinthians tells us “…food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”
But as we have asked some of our friends, they have explained the significance of this food in Cambodia. Culturally, by eating the food given to the household spirits, it signals to everyone around that you believe in the spirits and trust them to take care of your life. Just as Paul warns later in I Corinthians, this can be confusing for both Buddhists and new Christians alike.
Furthermore, for Christians, politely declining to eat the food can be a fantastic way to witness to a family. I’m amazed by the stories of many of our friends who were able to share their faith in Jesus because they or a family member politely refused to participate. So we choose to follow their example and don’t eat the offered candy from the spirit house! We away from the spirit houses on the ground too, so he doesn’t eat the food!
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
I Cor 10:25-33