The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
After all that we have been reading so far in St Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, chapter 14 comes as a bit of a shock.
In chapters 1 to 11, St Paul has been discussing God's plan of salvation. In chapters 12 and 13, he writes about how we should respond to all that God has done for us in Christ and how it should affect our relationships in the world, both with each other and with those in authority. Then, after having warned the Roman believers that the Day of the Lord is at hand at the end of chapter 13, he follows it in chapters 14 and 15 with what seems a relatively trivial subject in comparison: discussing the believer’s diet and whether we can have meat with our vegetables or whether we should stick to just vegetables!
After all that has gone before, it seems a pretty big come down and something of an anti-climax. It would not perhaps be quite so bad if St Paul only spent a few verses on it. In fact, St Paul devotes 30 verses in our Bibles to the subject. This is nearly double what he spends on the Holy Spirit in chapter 8. So why is this issue so important to him?
To understand why it is, we are going to need to understand something of the cultural and historical context.
Firstly, by the time St Paul wrote the letter to the Roman believers, the Church was made up of both Jews and gentiles. In Rome, gentiles were, in fact, in the majority. Coming from such different backgrounds, how Jews and gentiles related to each other and got on with each other on a practical day to day basis was a major issue.
The Jews, after all, were already worshipping the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and had been doing so, albeit imperfectly, for many centuries. They had been expecting the Messiah, and they were familiar with the Scriptures. The gentiles, however, came from a pagan background. Some had some knowledge of God through their attendance as guests at synagogues, but many did not, and all would have been involved in idolatry in some form or another. The pagan gods were everywhere in the first century.
Secondly, those from a Jewish background had a lifestyle grounded in God’s Law. The Law made one day special and gave specific instructions on what could and could not be eaten. Sabbath observance and keeping kosher were not optional extras for the Jews. This is something we don't quite understand today, but for Jews it was central to their identity. Indeed, many Jews in the past had chosen to die rather than work on the Sabbath or eat pork, which was forbidden in God’s Law. Furthermore, much of the meat available in the meat markets of the ancient world had previously been offered in pagan sacrifices or had not been slaughtered in the way that the Law required.
So, for many Jews, it was easier simply not to eat meat and to stick to vegetables. In that way, they could be sure of keeping the Law’s requirements.
Thirdly, worship in the early church centred around a meal, not just a symbolic meal, which is what we have nowadays on a Sunday, but a proper meal (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). When Jews became followers of Christ and found themselves mixing with an increasing number of gentiles within the Church, how that meal was prepared and what was in it was for many both a religious and social issue.
How much of an issue it was can be seen in St Paul's letter to the Galatians in which St Paul describes how he and St Peter had a very public argument over it. St Peter, we learn, had routinely eaten with gentile believers in Antioch, but when Jewish believers arrived from Jerusalem, St Peter withdrew from eating with the gentiles in order not to upset the Jewish believers by eating in a way that the Jewish believers would have found contrary to the Law. St Paul was horrified at this and said so, rebuking St Peter publicly (Galatians 2:11-14).
The Roman Church itself seems to have consisted of several small groups of believers. These were predominantly gentile in composition, but by no means exclusively so. It seems that some were made up of Jewish believers and those who sympathized with them. These Jewish groups, in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Law, kept the food laws and ate only vegetables. Many of the groups, however, ate what they liked.
This made fellowship between the groups difficult, which was bad enough, but worse still, those who did not eat meat passed judgement on those who did, and those who ate everything despised those who only ate vegetables.
It is, then, to these different groups and their members that St Paul addresses his comments. It should be said that while this was an issue in Rome, it wasn’t only an issue peculiar to the Church at Rome. We know that it was a problem more generally in the Church. We argue today over sexual issues; they argued over food. Food and sex are always issues that get people worked up!
St Paul is certain that what a believer eats no longer matters and that the food laws in the Law no longer apply. St Paul himself calls those who take this view the ‘strong in faith’. He is also very clear that those who think that the food laws do still apply are ‘weak in faith’.
There were thus two types of believers in the Roman Church: those St Paul calls the ‘weak’ and those he calls the ‘strong’. What we have to remember, however, is that those St Paul thought weak in faith certainly did not think of themselves in this way. As far as they were concerned, they were obediently keeping God's Law, which was why they were so judgemental of those who did not. For their part, those who ate all things believed that those who ate only vegetables were limited in their understanding, which was why they despised them.
The reason that this was such an issue was that their differences were preventing the different groups from coming together to worship God and to have fellowship with each other. Given the problems and challenges the Church was facing from outside, it certainly didn't need to add internal division to them.
The way St Paul tackles this problem is very interesting. We may have expected him to do so by discussing the issue itself and attempting to explain to those who did not eat meat why it was okay for them to do so. In other words, that St Paul would to try to sort out the division by getting the believers in the church to agree on one single position, but he doesn't.
St Paul does not see the question that needs to be answered as being whether they eat meat or not, but whether they accept one another or not, and acceptance of one another means accepting differences of opinion. Consequently, St Paul starts chapter 14 by urging the strong to accept the weak. St Paul writes:
‘Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on opinions.’ (Romans 14:1)
Now St Paul can take the position he does because he thinks the food laws are a matter of indifference. However, while he is convinced that the food laws no longer apply, he accepts that for some they can be a way of demonstrating their desire to honour God. I am not sure how convinced the weak who kept the food laws would be by what St Paul writes. They ate only vegetables because they thought that this was what the Law demanded. For them, this was not a question of human opinion or something that they had any choice in but about obeying God’s Law. I am sure that St Paul would have realized this, which suggests that what St Paul writes is designed principally as an appeal to the strong. He does seem predominantly to be addressing the strong. Hence, St Paul can write ‘we who are strong’ (Romans 15:1), as if the strong are his principal audience.
St Paul tells them that rather than claiming their right to eat meat or protesting their freedom, the so-called strong are, firstly, not to despise those who eat only vegetables, and, secondly, they are to be willing to give up their right to eat meat in order not to upset their brother or sister in Christ.
All this seems a bit removed from us today. People are vegetarians, of course, but it has nothing to do with keeping the Old Testament food laws! St Paul, however, in the process of discussing this issue gives us some principles, which are very relevant to us and to every age.
Firstly, we need to choose our arguments.
St Paul was not averse to telling people when he thought they had got it wrong. I have already referred to his argument with St Peter at Antioch. The letter to the Galatians itself is strong stuff in which St Paul severely reprimands the Galatians for what he sees as their abandonment of the Gospel. This is the key to understanding St Paul’s approach. It is why he begins chapter 14 by writing that they are to accept the one who is weak in faith but not to pass judgement over ‘opinions’.
St Paul is clear in his own mind that those who ate only vegetables were weak in faith and have not understood the implications of having died to the Law. Equally, he doesn't see any threat to the truth of the Gospel in those who only ate vegetables continuing not to eat meat as long as they, in turn, don't judge those who do. What St Paul thinks is all important is whether someone seeks to live for God and honour him by what they do. If a believer is able to offer what they do to God with thanks, then St Paul thinks they should be left alone to get on with it. Each person has to decide for themselves how they live. St Paul writes that each one should be fully convinced in their own mind (Romans 14:5).
Secondly, we are accountable first and foremost to God.
Now this sounds all very liberal and individual. We each do what we feel is right for us. Except, for St Paul, it is not quite like that. We have to be able to offer what we do as individuals to the Lord with thanks for it. The one who eats should be honoring the Lord by eating and the one who does not eat should be honoring the Lord by not eating. St Paul has already made it clear that there are some behaviours that are never honoring to the Lord and which we cannot thank him for. Drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, and jealousy, for example. Other behaviour, while not necessarily being a logical outcome of the Gospel, is in itself morally neutral, but it can become something good if offered with thanks to God. The person to decide whether a particular behavior is good or not is ultimately, of course, God himself. And decide he will. As St Paul writes:
‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each one of us will be held accountable to God.’ (Romans 14:10-12)
If we think that God will not be pleased if we do something or if we are not sure whether we should, then we should not do it ‘for whatever is not of faith is sin’ (Romans 14:23).
Thirdly, just because we can do something, does not mean we must.
Something can be good in itself or even morally neutral and done by us to honour God, and yet there may still be a reason for not doing it. That reason is out of consideration for a brother or sister in the body of Christ. St Paul makes this plain in chapter 15. St Paul writes:
‘Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.’ (Romans 15:1)
Even when a brother or sister has failed to understand fully what the Gospel allows us to do, not only do we ourselves not have to do it, there are times when we definitely should not do it. We are to go out of our way not to harm or cause distress to a brother or sister. If we cause our brother or sister grief, we are no longer walking in love (Romans 15:14).
This does not mean that we have to listen to unreasonable or irrational demands from people, but it does mean that getting our own way is not what we should be most concerned about. What we should be concerned about is being able to join together with each other in loving acceptance of each other, so that with one voice we may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:6).
We need, then, to pray:
- that God will grant us the wisdom to know when we need to argue for the truth and the courage to do so
- that whatever we do will be honouring to the Lord
- and that in all things we will put the love of others before the love of ourselves
‘For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.’ (Romans 14:7-8).
Our Lord himself tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our being and our neighbours as ourselves. It is not necessarily easy, but nor was it easy for Christ, writes St Paul, to take on the reproaches of us all (Romans 15:3). We are now called to honour him, so that we may indeed with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
May God grant it to be so.