Paul writes: Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement 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 of us will be accountable to God.
Is Paul really saying it is the strong who eat everything in sight and the vegetarians are week? Let us take a close look at this text. What is Paul really trying to say?
For a start, it is a good idea to note what Paul is not saying. He is not saying anything about who is and is not loved and saved by God. We Christians always seem to be checking up on who is in and who is out, who is doing the “right” things to be saved (despite the very definition of the phrase: free gift of grace), so it might be a good idea to point that out here at the beginning. In fact, that might be the point of it all.
The Fork and Knife Debate
Reading this scripture all by its lonesome, it sure seems like it says being an omnivore is the strong position to take at the dinner table and vegetarians are the weaker diner. However, Paul is speaking to the why and not the what. The food on the plate of the hearers of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was chosen based on what was believed to be necessary for salvation, not personal or even ethical choice. At least, not in the way we would consider it.
Today, we might choose a meat free meal for all kinds of reasons from health to personal preference and taste to concerns for ethical treatment of livestock and the environment. Those reasons were not on Paul’s mind at all. The meat or no meant debate of his day centered round what was needed for salvation. In other words, what was necessary to please God enough to be saved. There were those in the early church who believed as a Christian certain behaviors and restrictions absolutely had to be observed. Such as, for one example of many, abstaining from eating certain foods. There were also others on the exact opposite side, saying all foods were permissible now, thanks to Jesus. Paul’s words to them are not basically: kale bad, cow good. Instead it is more along the lines of: rules=salvation bad, freed in Christ good.
Woo Hoo! Now that is some good news! Put that bacon, mayo, and cheese back on the last of the summer tomato sandwiches! Or not, and eat a whole plateful of heirloom cucumbers, squash, corn, and slices of those beautiful tomatoes! It does not matter because it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles (Matthew 15:11)
Thanks for clearing that up for us Jesus. Because that is ultimately Paul’s point here. Both sides of the table contemn the other and it should not be so. If food was not the point of difference, then which days either side of the table considered holy would be another controversial point to argue over and use as a reason to judge one side better than another. But it is not what’s going into the mouths but what is coming out that really matters.
Who are you to judge the other side, Paul says, regardless of which side is yours, God is the judge, not any of you.
Forks vs Knives: A Metaphor and Example
Christians are very divided these days over many things. Political and social differences can make it appear that we worship entirely different deities from the ones across town or in another part of the country. Would Paul have an opinion on the urgent topics of the day that affect so many? You bet he would! He had an opinion on everything! (see: everything he ever wrote) Would he still urge all of us on every side of the table to refrain from passing judgement on the PEOPLE of the other side? Yes, I believe he would.
I must confess I find that hard to write, but it is none the less still true. The law we are called to follow is love God and love neighbor. And, if we are to believe Jesus’ new commandment for us, that includes our enemies, too. For Jesus, it is always going to circle back to love. Much as that can be frustrating, it is true. All The Time.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
But, you may say if you are like me, there is so much wrong with what those Christians are doing! They are not being loving of us or of anyone else for that matter! They are missing what it really means to be a Christian!
I hear you. I really do. That is why it is so hard to do this kind of loving-across-the-table business. There is no caveat in the law of love that says you do not have to follow this law if your neighbor is a jerk. Seriously, I have searched it out pretty thoroughly in the hopes there is a way around, but there is not. There is no footnote, no tome of legal precedence, that allows exceptions.
There is nothing that says we must agree with, endorse, or adopt our neighbor’s behavior in order to love and there is nothing that prevents us from working diligently in the exact opposite direction, perhaps seeking to lessen or altogether change the impact of their words and actions. There is also nothing about loving neighbors, and even enemies, that suspends wise assessment of behaviors, consequences, and actions as well as the call to strive for justice and peace.
According to Martin Luther in the Small Catechism, we “…..do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” That is a fine way to begin loving our neighbors, even those we see as sitting directly opposite us. Not an easy way, but a fine way. It does not require defense of opinions we do not agree with. Instead, it requires the defense and well-speaking of our fellow human beings and never forgetting that whatever the differences, they too are a beloved of God.
None of this is easy, especially during such divisive times as these. But turning to a more contemporary prophet: Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Christ did not command us to love because it was easy or because he wanted us to be weak. God knows the strongest thing in the world is love. It rolls away stones and gives courage to the fearful. It is even stronger than death itself.
And That Is The Point
In this section of Romans, Paul is illustrating a concrete way to exercise that love and the freedom to do so in Christ. There are always going to be disagreements and differences of opinion and action in the name of faith, some as simple as a tomato sandwich and some as difficult as life and death. There are times when these disagreements will call us to work in opposite directions. Yet still, even there and even then, just as even here and even now, it is love that will always be the most powerful path.