Text: Romans 14:1-12
Our reading from Romans 14 is about judging others. It’s about the limits of our ability to say what is right for someone else.
I’m trying to word that carefully. The issues is not whether we should or should not reason together or even debate together about what it means to follow Jesus or what it means to love God and our neighbours. Of course we should do those things. This passage is about the limits of our ability to determine what is right for someone else.
In this passage Paul is working out some of the implications of God’s wide embrace. That was described in general terms earlier in Romans. One of the challenges of that wide divine embrace is that we end up being drawn to God along with people who are very different from us. Sometimes, even though we’re drawn in the same direction, our sense of how to love God and love our neighbors differs.
Some time ago, in pre-covid time, I was having lunch with some Mennonite pastor-types. One of them, whom I knew slightly, had recently returned to the Mennonite world from a non-Mennonite setting. We talked a bit, then she got up from the table, took her plate with some uneaten food, her coffee mug, and cloth napkin to the cart were the dirty dishes were collected. Then she returned to the table.
When she sat down I noticed a few disappointed expressions on the faces of the others sitting there. They finished their meals and they left. As soon as they were out of earshot the woman turned to me, and said, “I forgot how Mennonites display their righteousness.” Then she dropped her head to the table in exasperation.
What she had forgotten was that we were supposed to keep our mugs for the entire day. We were also supposed to put a personally identifiable clip on our cloth napkin and hang it on a special hook. We were not supposed to have any leftover food. That was how we were to be good, loving people.
That little incident has stuck with me, but not because it was particularly dramatic. It’s stuck with me because of the way my conversation partner understood it so clearly.
We all have ways of displaying our righteousness. And let’s be clear about this: we’re talking about things we think are right and good. We’re talking about things we think are basically beyond dispute; things we do and we think others should do too. Just look at the comment section below almost any news story for examples. We modern people like to display our righteousness. We’re a pretty judgy lot.
There’s a scene in John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. An English teacher is second guessing a short story he had assigned his class. He realized too late that he had assigned a story about a father dying of cancer to a class that included a girl whose father had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
The cancer story was too applicable. It put the girl on the spot. It made everyone squirm. I think Romans 14:1-12 does the same thing. It’s so clearly about us that the minute we read it the distance between ourselves the text collapses.
The author of Romans is the Apostle Paul. When we say he was an ‘apostle’ we mean that he functioned like an official representative. It’s worth mentioning that at the end of the letter Paul mentions the name of two others who were apostles and who preceded him in the faith. One of them was a woman named Junia who had been imprisoned for her work.
Paul’s apostolic task was to connect with gentiles. The church in Rome was made up of gentiles and Jews. What we think happened was that several years earlier the emperor Claudius had kicked all the Jewish folks out of Rome, including Jewish Christians. Then, a few years later, Claudius was killed by his wife. His adopted son Nero came to power. Nero allowed Jewish folks to return to the city. So when Paul wrote to the group, the church contained those who had suffered for their Jewish identity and those who had not.
And so community was divided on a number of issues, many of which boiled down to this question: How Jewish do we need to be? Jesus was Jewish, but some of the group had the privilege of sidestepping that and didn’t lose their jobs or homes. The practical issues: Do we need to observe the Sabbath to be followers of Jesus? Should we avoid meat sacrificed to idols or avoid meat entirely?—those all could be traced back to the deeper question of how Jewish one needed to be to be a follower of Jesus.
These matters went to the core of individual and communal identity. Yet these matters affected people unequally.
This is what I understand Paul to be saying: again, the backdrop is the assumption that as a general rule Christian communities should gather together, work out their differences and figure out what it means to love God and their neighbours.
Yet here Paul says there will be some things about which people of good faith might disagree. In those times we will need to step back and acknowledge that God has welcomed those who see things differently than we do. We’ll need to guard against being smug. We’ll need to get out of the judgment seat.
For the first-century followers of Jesus the questions might have revolved around vegetarianism and Sabbath observance. The apostle is telling them that it’s possible to come down on different sides of these matters, to believe we’re right, to believe the issue is important—and still to acknowledge that people on both sides are trying to their best to love God.
It doesn’t mean anything goes. God is still the judge. The key is the fact that we are not.
I once had a supervisor who was an air force veteran. He had spent much of the Cold War babysitting nuclear missiles. He was fond of reminding us that we weren’t ultimately responsible for others; we were responsible to others (we were working with adults). The idea was that we couldn’t control the actions of those we led. We owed them clear advice and honest feedback. However, we weren’t responsible for their decisions. They had to own those.
I remember clinging to that advice when a college student on a wilderness trip I was leading chose to cliff dive without knowing the depth of the water he was jumping into. Responsible to, not for . . . .
I think there is an answer to Paul’s first question: “Why do we pass judgment?” We pass judgment because we think the matter is important. We think we understand the situation. We think we know that cloth napkins should be used more than once. And, truth be told, sometimes we like how being in the judgment seat makes us feel.
One of the key messages of Romans is that God is working to create a new type of community—a new people. And one of the key features of this community is the fact that the “strong” (that’s Paul’s term) will do their best not to cause problems for the “weak.” The strong might even give up their moral freedom to preserve the weak.
The movement of this passage is clear. The first-century followers of Jesus and those in the twenty-first century are encouraged to get up out of the judgment seat and to walk with our brothers and sisters. They are encouraged to be willing to learn from them and willing to serve them.
Oh God, remind us that it’s only you who truly knows the situation of each of your children. Your loving presence occupies the judgment seat. It’s awkward if we try to sit there too. Amen.