Chapter 14 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans isn’t easy to understand. It’s not a passage that comes up frequently in the cycle of Church readings. What is Paul saying to his audience? And what is the Holy Spirit telling us today?
Welcome anyone who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions. One person believes that one may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. The one who eats must not despise the one who abstains, and the one who abstains must not pass judgment on the one who eats; for God has welcomed him.Who are you to pass judgment on someone else’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:1-4).
This passage needs to be understood in the context of Jewish dietary laws. For centuries Jews had adhered to a set of dietary laws, passed down from Moses, that forbade a number of foods, such as pork. Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:17-23), and God further revealed to Peter in a dream that all foods were clean (Acts 10:9-16). It’s hard to overstate what a difficult shift this was for Jewish Christians. Some continued to follow the old rules, while others ate of the newly permitted foods. As more and more Gentiles were added to the believers, they had no tradition of following the Jewish dietary laws and didn’t adopt them. Thus some tension existed in the Christian communities between those who abstained and those who partook of certain foods like pork. The temptation for both groups is spiritual pride – not only justifying one’s own actions but looking down on those who act differently. Paul is having none of this. He is telling the Christians in Rome that it’s okay to eat pork if you want to, and it’s okay to abstain from pork if you want to. What you cannot do is judge one another. We are all servants of the same master, our Lord Jesus Christ, and He who knows our hearts is alone fit to judge us.
“Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while whoever abstains, abstains for the Lord and gives thanks to God. None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written:
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So [then] each of us shall give an account of himself [to God] (Romans 14:6-12).
As Christians we have taken on a new way of life. Our life belongs to Christ. We live for Him, unite our sufferings to His, and through death pass from this life to eternal life with Him. He is our only judge. We should concern ourselves with what he thinks of us rather than what other people think of us. We are called to share the good news with others and teach them to follow all that Jesus commanded – yet we cannot judge them, for we all our sinners. One person may have committed more serious sins than another, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind. Nor are we always the best judges of the seriousness of sins. The Pharisees were outraged when cups went unwashed, but were blind to their own spiritual pride.
Then let us no longer judge one another, but rather resolve never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; still, it is unclean for someone who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being hurt by what you eat, your conduct is no longer in accord with love. Do not because of your food destroy him for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be reviled. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy Spirit; whoever serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by others. Let us then pursue what leads to peace and to building up one another. For the sake of food, do not destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to become a stumbling block by eating; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. Keep the faith [that] you have to yourself in the presence of God; blessed is the one who does not condemn himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because this is not from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14: 13-23).
Salvation comes through Jesus alone, but Jesus is also leading each of us on our own unique journey to heaven. When Paul says “nothing is unclean in itself; still, it is unclean for someone who thinks it unclean,” he is telling us to take heed of what God is calling us individually to do, and what to avoid. We could reframe Paul’s statement any number of ways. It’s okay to get married, but if God is calling you to the priesthood, it’s not okay for you to get married. It’s okay to become a priest, but if God is calling you to be a husband and a father, then it’s not okay for you to become a priest.
Paul sums up this passage in the final verse: “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” The continual challenge for the Christian is discerning God’s call and responding to it, which we can only do through His grace that we receive through prayer, works of mercy and most especially the sacraments. Our response to God’s grace, even in the best of times, can feel like a two steps forward, one step back sort of movement. Know that God is still with us when we fall and is patiently and gently leading us on our journey. Keep the faith, persist in prayer, and do not judge one another, especially fellow Christians, for they have their crosses to carry too.
Image: Romans 14:8 (downloaded from dailyverses.net).
Pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day for the salvation of souls.