Who Am I to Judge? -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A (Romans 14)
|Judgment Day - Aaron Douglas|
Romans 14:1-12 New Revised Standard Version
14 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 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. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also, those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 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. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Pope Francis raised a few eyebrows when in an impromptu conversation with the press on board his plane in 2013, he responded to a question about his view of homosexuality in the church, he simply said: “Who am I to judge?” Now, the church’s policies haven’t changed all that much, but the answer opened a conversation about who has the responsibility for judgment. Even though he’s the Pope, he declined to excise judgment in this case. For those of us who come from an open and affirming posture, this was pretty groundbreaking. The thing is, it’s to judge other people. We size each other up according to weight, height, education, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. When we do so, we often depend on stereotypes. That’s understandable. Stereotypes provide us with categories to judge whether a person is worth getting to know or can be trusted. Unfortunately, too often we both prejudge and misjudge.
The topic of judgment comes up as Paul brings his letter the Romans to a close. It’s important to remember that this a congregation that Paul not only didn’t found, but it’s one he’s never visited. This letter is intended as an introduction to the community since Paul is hoping to visit this previously established Christian community. He’s heard reports that there are dissension and division within this community of believers. While we can’t date it with certainty, a date around 57 CE would fit. So, we’re still in the early decades of the Christian community. The church is starting to attract Gentile believers, but it still has a significant Jewish component. And apparently, they’re not always on the same page, especially when it comes to issues like eating or honoring particular days.
One senses from reading the letter that the community is being divided over matters involving their eating habits and the celebration of certain days. If, as some believe, the Jewish and Gentile members of the community are struggling to find a place of unity, then this makes sense. Now, as to the identity of the weak and the strong, that’s uncertain. It’s quite possible that the weak are the rule followers and the strong are the less scrupulous, but we simply don’t know. There are all kinds of issues at play. Jewish Christians might be concerned about kosher rules and thus choose a more vegetarian diet, while some Gentile Christians might feel less constrained and be more likely to eat meat with abandon. Of course, as the conversation in 1 Corinthians suggests, there is the issue of where the meat comes from. Should one worry if the meat comes from a temple? Some would say yes, and others, no. In any case, as a meat-eater, I ask my vegetarian and vegan friends not to judge me too harshly, and I shall try to do the same in return!
Whatever the case, Paul seems to be saying to the community: “who are you to judge?” Leave the judgments in such matters to God. If some eat meat, fine. If some stick with a vegetarian diet, then that’s fine. If some observe certain holy days and others don’t, well that’s okay as well. Of course, this can make for a more complicated community dining experience. In Acts 15, the issue of Table fellowship comes up, in light of the introduction of Gentile believers into the community. The Jerusalem Council gave a word of guidance to these new communities, asking that “they abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” (Acts 15:29). Perhaps that word of guidance has fallen to the wayside as the church expands. The concern here is finding a way of living together in peace, recognizing that people will have different understandings of certain things like food and ritual. One may fast regularly (my Muslim friend regularly fasts as an expression of his commitment to God), and others (myself numbered among them) rarely fast.
The issue here isn’t tolerance, as if we should agree to disagree. Paul’s concern is centered on the question of unity in Jesus Christ. For Paul, the church is the one body of Christ, so it should exhibit unity of purpose and concern for one another. That doesn’t mean we agree on every issue. But Paul does have in mind a particular temperament. It asks us to delve deeper beneath the rhetoric to the humanity of the person with whom one disagrees. It’s easy to see one’s self as pursuing a righteous cause and believing that the one we disagree with as somehow pursuing something demonic or evil. That doesn’t mean we don’t advocate strongly for our position, but it does mean recognizing the deeper humanity present in the other. Again, a stereotype is easy to make use of, but it can lead us astray. Again, that doesn’t mean we don’t stand for matters of justice. It has to do with the way we view the humanity of others and forget that they too are created in the image of God. Another way of putting this is to approach such actions with humility. As William Greenway puts it:
First and last we argue for the right and struggle for the good, not for the sake of ourselves or our own opinions or identity—or even for the sake of the church, justice, or the good—but because we are moved by love and concern for every particular other, which is to say, because in life and in death we belong to God [Feasting on the Word, p. 66].
Ultimately, according to Paul, in this letter at least, we are to hold ourselves accountable to God, and God alone. After all, each of us will stand before the judgment seat of God. Indeed, when it comes to life and death, we are reminded by Paul that “we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” That is because, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” That is because Christ is Lord of the living and the dead (Rom. 14:7-9). When we think of ourselves as judges of others, our judgments tend to be rooted in self-centeredness, but Paul wants us to understand that we belong to God, in Christ, to “whom every knee will bow” so that “every tongue shall give praise to God” (Rom. 14:11, quoting Isa. 45:23). Thus, we shall be accountable to God, and God alone. Or as Karl Barth puts it:
Uncertain are all our questions concerning the salvation of others, whatever form our questions take; feeble are all attempts to assess the value of another’s relation to God, whether the assessment be conservative or radical. All is subject to the judgment of God. Judge Not is therefore the only possibility. And yet, even this possibility is no possibility, no recipe; it provides no standard of conduct. We have no alternative but to range ourselves under the judgment that awaits us, hoping—without any ground for our hope—for the impossible possibility of the mercy of God. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 515].
May we place our hope in the mercy of God and cease our attempts at usurping God’s role as judge.
|Image attribution: Douglas, Aaron. Judgment Day, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56259 [retrieved September 7, 2020]. Original source: Anne C. Richardson.|