Finding new freedom in Christ
This passage in Romans 14 might seem a bit strange to our ears today without a little catechesis. It becomes clearer to us when we recognize and remember that Paul is addressing new converts to Christianity from Judaism and pagan backgrounds. There is a complicated discourse that precedes our passage for today about not judging others for their various dietary practices. What is that all about?
To understand this serious dispute that had arisen in the new Christian community in Rome over dietary laws, we need to look at how Christ’s coming into the world changed everything. We are challenged to remember, too, how difficult change is for all of us. When Paul writes to the Romans it is only about 25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those who, as adults, had converted from Judaism had lived their whole lives under the Mosaic Law with all of its dietary instructions, special days and festivals. They did so because it was the law that had been observed by their ancestors since the time of Moses. But Christ spells the end of the Mosaic law. The long practiced customs and traditions of the Jews are no longer the rule. This must have been traumatic for those Jews who had converted to Christianity because they had come to see the wisdom of God expressed in Christ Jesus, but who had also been brought up their entire lives, before their conversion, believing and practicing the strict dietary rules of the Mosaic code.
Paul, remember, was a Jew himself. And a Pharisee to boot. He had struggled mightily against this new and growing movement of the followers of Jesus, that is, until he was knocked off of his horse on the way to Damascus to find and to arrest more of those followers of Christ. Paul, by the time he writes this letter, has come to acknowledge that, in principle, no food is a source of moral contamination, but he is sensitive to the interior struggles that this huge transition caused for those who had lived their entire lives under the Mosaic code. Therefore, he recommends to the young Christian community in Rome that the consciences of those Christians who were scrupulous about questions concerning food be respected by all the other Christians. On the other hand, he is also counseling those who do have scruples, not to sit in judgment of those who have come to know that the gospel has liberated them from the old law. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) The faith principle that is being expressed here comes clear in our passage for today: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
In other words, what is truly important and necessary for Christians is that we do everything in Christ. If we do all things in Christ, our words and our deeds will ultimately “lead to peace and to mutual edification.” (verse 19) We are not to “destroy the work of God for the sake of food.” (verse 20) We are to honor and respect one another out of our mutual faith in Jesus Christ. We are to lift one another up in our mutual love for Jesus, not to cause each other to stumble, or to doubt because of our judgmental attitudes toward various practices of scrupulosity. Our scruples are to be a matter between ourselves and God only. (verse 22) What leads to Christian action is what matters.
Lord, help us to see the fruitlessness of arguing over matters of taste. But make our lives in Christ ever more fruitful in the truth of his commandment that we love one another as he loved us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen!
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