Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Imitating the hospitality of Jesus’ inclusive love

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"via Unsplash," by Michael Olsen; licensed under CC0.

September 17, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 14:1-12

Hospitality is never easy when suspicion rules the day.

Why would anyone want to visit a community—never mind join them!—if they are known for “friendly fire”? If members of the church are targeting one another with verbal attacks and slanderous assaults, then we have become the very thing Christ died to overcome (see Romans 8:1, 31–34). As such, it would be impossible for the redeemed community to exhibit a chief characteristic of “welcome” (proslambanō, 14:1), which is the pinnacle example of Christ’s hospitality in this section: “Therefore, welcome one another just as Christ also has welcomed us for the glory of God” (15:7). How do we live with one another—inhabit the same spaces and share time together—when we treasure opposing rhythms and gather around customary inclinations? 

Paul continues in this eminently practical section of his magnum opus to address issues related to the nitty-gritty of everyday life together in communion. Here, he delves into issues of “discrimination” (diakrisis, 14:1), “disparaging/denigrating” (exoutheneō, 14:3,10), and “judging” (krinō, 14:2,4,10), all related to issues of “personal preference” such as eating and drinking (14:2–3, 6, 14–15, 20–21, 23) or special days (14:5–6).

Four aspects of this passage attract attention: First, the issues here are matters of “personal preference,” and not the solemn issues related to moral failure (see also 13:12–13). Second, when considering the depth of meaning associated with “eating” (see also Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14:1–21) and “special days” (Exodus 20:8–11; 23:10–12, 14–17) in the Torah regulations of Israel’s covenant identity, it is a striking reminder of how Paul has relegated central prescriptions of Israel’s sacred traditions to mundane, optional categories. Third, Paul’s rhetorical strategy is oriented towards a communal posture of embrace: segregation is not an option; intermingling is a must. Fourth, it is fascinating to observe how Paul arranges every aspect around his God-centered perspective. Nothing escapes the divine relations. 

Paul advocates for a close connection and communal togetherness. When practiced, disturbing differences are bound to arise and provoke irritation, which leads to separation. However, the negotiation here is not related to matters subject to real moral evaluation. In this way, Paul’s discussion about “matters of indifference” requires a certain kind of moral discernment. It will perpetually be the case that followers of Jesus have to discern which matters constitute a violation of moral norms (in other words, “sins”) and those which are negotiable non-essentials. Counseling believers to be “non-judgmental” requires this deeper wisdom insight to determine what counts as “judgy-ness” and what requires a “holy” discrimination (see also Proverbs 26:4–5; Matthew 7:1–5, 6). Paul’s admonition in Romans 13:12–13 (see also 1:28–32; 6:1–11; 8:5–8) excludes certain behaviors and attitudes from being acceptable as a follower of Christ and member of God’s household (8:14–17). In matters of preference, Paul directs his audience to defer to the Lord of the household (14:4).

Paul has already oriented his audience, gathered in these house churches, to set aside arrogant egoism (12:3), to give precedence to the needs of others in the group (12:10; see also 14:15–21), and even to orient oneself in solidarity with the poor or humiliated members (12:16). Here, Paul directs attention to the perspective of the Lord over this newly formed adoptive household of “Abba, Father” which shares in the inheritance of the royal Son (8:14–17; see also 1:3–4).

Paul returns to the diatribe style of pitching questions toward variously held perspectives: “Who are you (second person singular), the one who judges another man’s household slave?” (14:4; see also 2:1, 17; 9:19). In this mode of consideration, Paul speaks from the perspective of the “strong” (15:1; see also 14:14) precisely in order to advocate accommodation for the “weak (in faith)” (14:1, 2). So, while Paul can relativize dietary restrictions (14:14; see also 1 Corinthians 9:4, 13, 19–23), he positions the table of fellowship as inviting and accommodating for those who restrict their diet out of conscience towards what they believe God desires (14:5–6, 15–17, 20–21). In this way Paul navigates a Christ-centered (Torah-decentered; see Romans 3:21–26, 10:4–10) community of different practices and preferences united by the one Spirit, composed now of Jews and gentiles into one people (15:7–12; see also Romans 3:28–30; 4:9–13, 18–25; 1 Corinthians 12:12–13; Ephesians 4:5–6). 

Paul addresses the dietary concerns of the observant not to dismiss them, but to call those who feel unrestrained to make temporary concessions for the sake of “pursuing the things which make for peace” (14:19). This is another way of imitating the hospitality of Jesus’ inclusive love (5:1–2, 6–10). The table is to be a welcoming place, which means setting the menu without barriers for those with tamer appetites. Just how this discernment translates across time and region will be a matter of Spirit-inspired, kingdom-honoring creativity (14:17). The result will be that which is “delightful (euarestos) to God and esteemed (dokimos) by people” (14:18; cf. 12:2).

This leads us to our final observation: Paul orders every aspect of consideration in relation to God’s estimation of it. Even something as mundane as eating or marking a special day is done with reference not merely to pleasure or preference, but “to the Lord” (14:6–8). Nothing is deemed too banal to be directed in honor of the God who has given life (14:22). Every ordinary action can be aimed for the benefit of the neighbor (15:2), which is a participation in the hospitality of Christ, dedicated to the glory of God (15:3, 6, 7).  God should be at the center of our lives. Again, we see how love is a fulfillment of Torah (13:10). Just as God established the Tabernacle of Presence at the very center of the gathered tribes of Israel (Numbers 2:1–34), so Paul envisions a community where every relationship, every investment, every interaction, every habit, and every effort is directed toward honoring God and displaying God’s generous welcome to others (Romans 15:6–7, 13).