by Michael Walker
(a sermon on Romans 14 preached at Wine Before Breakfast, March 12, 2013)
In Romans 13, we hear Paul exhorting his congregants to “live in the day,” and to “put on the armour of light.” Part of the donning of the illumined armour of God is “living honourably” by putting aside “quarrelling and jealousy” (13:13). As we turn the page to the next chapter, we find Paul persuading the Roman Christians to welcome everyone—especially those are weak in faith—“but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them” (14:2-3).
The meat of Paul’s discourse here (pun intended) concerns the eating habits of Christians in the Roman house churches … and, behind it, not so cleverly disguised, we can see his injunction that the members of Christ’s Body not “judge” or “despise” each other. Don’t despise others because of what they eat, dear friends, whether they eat meat sacrificed to idols, or only vegetables; don’t judge others when they believe that one day, or another, is sacred; in short, don’t quarrel with fellow-believers on points of conviction or conscience.
The Apostle says, “Don’t judge others,” whether “others” eat, or drink, or believe, things differently from “you.” When he says this, he uses the word “despise,” exouqeneitw, which means “to disdain” or “to treat with contempt.” In plain English, to disdain means to deride someone, to disregard that person, to place no value in what he or she does or says.
I’ve experienced the scorn of others: see, some people look at me funny because of the way I walk. When I’m on the street shopping—particularly in the financial district, with all its glitzy advertising—I can feel people’s stares. Sometimes, it hurts like crazy; I feel objectified when people stare at me. Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, amongst others, have noticed that some people can use the “gaze” to strip other people of their humanity, and to make them into deficient objects that reveal “our” normalcy in the light of “their” weakness. The “gaze” itself smacks of contempt.
I can relate to those observations about staring. For instance, about eighteen months ago, I was going down Spadina, back towards my house, from the grocery store or some other errand. On my way, I encountered a big guy in a hoodie and gold chains, smoking with his friends. He decided to pick on me, so he called out, “Hey, buddy, what happened to your leg?” I knew where he was going, so I didn’t reply.
He persisted in his mockery: “Hey, look at me! I’m a cripple! I can’t walk straight! Hey, buddy, what happened to your leg?” As I sped away, trembling with anger, I muttered to myself, “Don’t acknowledge him; he’s not worth your time. Don’t respond; he’s not worth it.” I could easily have walked back to him, and offered to show him forcibly what happened to my leg; I was so angry that I wanted to hurt this guy, even though we didn’t know each other. I considered expletives I might have thrown at him, and later wondered whether I could have fought with him. In any case, a struggle would have been messy, and I figured he wasn’t worth that kind of anguish.
But in that moment, I knew the disdain of someone who had likely been hurt by others. This guy hadn’t recognized that my difference was simply a difference; he projected his own weakness onto me. Furthermore, I’d replicated his disdain by telling myself that he wasn’t worth my time, when God loved and loves us equally. This categorization, this reduction of people into characteristics, is precisely what Paul enjoins his Roman parish, and us, not to do: “Those…who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God” (verse 6). People do different things, and live differently, and that’s okay…BECAUSE our differences honour God, and because—in our differences—we can still give thanks to God.
Paul clarifies this point in his second major textual move: he points out that we who love Jesus “do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end, Christ died and lived again, so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (7-9). Paul observes here that we can’t judge each other because Jesus watches over everything we do—and because, whether we live or die, whether we eat or drink, whether we enjoy Starbucks or choose local, organic and fair-trade coffee, we belong to the Lord Jesus.
That means that I cannot judge my friend if I eat only organic, free-range meat from healthy livestock, and he enjoys a Big Mac. Again, I can’t rag on someone else if I vote Green and she votes Conservative. In terms of points of conviction, I cannot abuse or harass someone else for his theological or political views, even if he calls me a heretic. Insofar as I live in the Lord Jesus, I cannot judge others, because Jesus watches both me and those on whom I would pass judgment. Moreover, because Jesus’ very nature is Love, he hates it when we disdain and hurt each other.
That’s the substance of Paul’s third move in the text: he’s asked this disparate group of Roman Christians not to judge others, and he’s noticed that Jesus watches over people who pass judgment on each other. In light of both of these facts, he demands that we “resolve…never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (verse 13). We ought not to do things that we know will hurt our spiritual siblings. For instance, I know that I have a big mouth, and a tendency to feel like I’m right. I’m also aware that this tendency can hurt people who are close to me, like my roommates, my parents, and my close friends. In light of this, knowing that the overall good of the community trumps my need to broadcast my opinions, I can resolve to shut my mouth and not to say things that I know will hurt or inflame others. And I do, though perhaps not all the time: I confess that I’ve wronged others with what I’ve said, and I want to treat all those who encounter me with dignity. Why? Because Jesus commands that kind of loving harmony from us; because edifying our neighbours reveals God’s gracious love.
That’s where Paul’s going, brothers and sisters. He claims in chapter fifteen, verse one that we who love God “ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” We do so in order to build up our neighbours, rather than tearing them down. Paul enjoins us to be harmonious because, by being mutually loving and vulnerable, we emulate Christ and his love for all Creation. While I know I have a lot to learn in that regard, that’s what I’ve been called to put on the table for us today. We can’t judge others because Jesus watches us; in his infinite wisdom and love, he calls us to build each other up, and not to hurt each other. We are called not to place stumbling-blocks in the way of our neighbours. May our actions become more loving in light of this passage, and in light of the love Christ has for us.
In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer: AMEN!