Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It is tough to praise God if you are busy passing judgment on other people.

The Unforgiving Servant
JESUS MAFA. The Unforgiving Servant, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

September 14, 2014

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 14:1-12

It is tough to praise God if you are busy passing judgment on other people.

At least that is what the apostle Paul seems to be saying in this passage from Romans, in which he exhorts the community of house-churches in Rome to avoid fighting over non-essential matters.

Paul’s greeting to the Romans at the beginning of the letter suggests that the glue that holds the church together is its identity as those who are beloved by God and called to be God’s people; indeed, God’s grace and peace are bestowed upon all of them (Romans 1:7). The implications of this claim come to bear on Paul’s response to the judgmental attitudes that seem to have developed among some of the believers.

The assigned pericope falls in a section of Romans (chapters 12-15) that sketches the implications for how the church lives its faith in light of the theological foundation established in prior chapters.

Commentators have long debated Paul’s primary purpose in composing such a long and theologically weighted missive to a community that he did not found and had not yet visited. I will leave those debates for another day, except to note that a key issue is the place of Jews and Gentiles before God in light of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

In addition, there is a practical matter. Paul expects to visit Rome soon, and when he arrives he will be seeking their support for the first-century equivalent of a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his missionary travels to Spain (15:23-24). (The phrase “to be sent on” in 15:24 [Gk = propempo] refers to support for the journey, such as money, food, travel arrangements, and so forth.) We may imagine that Paul is eager that nothing would stand in the way of achieving that support.

Our pericope focuses on in-house matters, notably the relationship among people who find themselves on opposing sides of two issues: whether or not it is appropriate to eat certain foods (dietary rules) and whether certain days deserve greater honor and attention than others (festivals).

Although the disagreements do not necessarily reflect a Jewish-Gentile conflict (for example, Jews observed dietary restrictions, but they were not required to be vegetarian), Paul’s teaching lands on the same place it did in earlier (some would say weightier) parts of the letter. That is, in the end, what matters most are not these particular piety practices, but rather the relationship of God with believers.

At its core, the issue here is each group setting itself over and above the other group, claiming the high moral ground for its particular practices and opinions. On one side are the vegetarians; on the other are people who will eat anything, with each side sneering judgmentally at the other about their behavior. Similarly, some people celebrate festival days (they “judge one day to be better than another”) while others do not.

From the first century until now, it seems, people manage to develop self-righteous attitudes toward those with whom they disagree, ignoring the injunction not to “think more highly of yourself than you ought to think” (Romans 12:3).

Paul is concerned about brothers and sisters sitting in judgment over the behaviors of one another; the verb “to pass judgment” (Gk = krino) appears several times in the passage (14:3, 4, 5, 10; cf. 2:1-3). Two phrases are noteworthy: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” (14:4) and “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” (14:10).

The theme is strengthened even further by the verse that appears immediately after our pericope: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Romans 14:13). (Preachers may want to consider including the whole of that verse in the reading.)

To be sure, Paul himself is no stranger to conflict, and he cares a great deal about how the followers of Christ conduct themselves, particularly within the fellowship of believers. But here, as elsewhere, he insists that God is the primary actor; judgment belongs to God, not to us (cf. 9:10). “God has welcomed them (14:3) … the Lord is able to make them stand (14:4) … Whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s (14:8) … So then, each of us will be accountable to God (14:12) … Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another” (14:13).

Note that Paul does not adjudicate the disagreement; that is, he does not implore the “weak in faith” to become meat-eaters. Instead, he levels the playing field by pointing out that people eat or abstain from meat “in honor of the Lord” (14:8).

The church should be a place of welcome, where unity is found not in particular practices of piety, but in the fact that we belong to the Lord (14:7-8). God has welcomed us, Paul says; we, too, should welcome those whose piety differs from our own (14:3).

Situations like the one Paul addresses at Rome are all too familiar in many (perhaps all?) of our congregations, although the primary topics may not involve food. (However, I must admit to hearing many a dispute on the topic of wafers vs. loaves and grape juice vs. wine.)

Will we sing praise music, or traditional hymns? Should we read from the NRSV, or the NIV (or the KJV or the CEB)? Will we come forward to receive Holy Communion (must it be called Eucharist?) or will we receive The Meal in our seats? These disagreements often lead to actions and attitudes that put down those who hold a different view.

As Paul prepares for his mission work in Spain, he must depend on the gracious gifts of the believers in Rome. Haughty attitudes regarding theology and practice could keep the Romans from engaging in this shared ministry with him.

What about today? In the current polarized, contentious culture in which we live, preachers might consider filling in the blanks with verse 3: Those who do or think X must not despise those who think or do Y, and those who think or do Y must not pass judgment on those who do or think X; for God has welcomed them. Perhaps our churches could raise the level of discourse and discussion in light of the standing of us all as people called by grace and by God not to judge but to worship and to serve.