Pentecost 15: 17 September Romans 14:1-12
Paul wades into controversy. Some believed very firmly that they should not eat meat. The issue was not vegetarianism in the interest of animals, but fear that meat might be contaminated since much of what was for sale would have been slaughtered by cult personnel belonging to pagan temples. One might imagine that converts from paganism to Judaism would have seen this as fundamental to their identity. They would have seen it as impossible to contemplate eating meat. Many would feel very strongly and Paul implies that some would have condemned those who did eat meat. We cannot tolerate being in a church where meat eating is tolerated, we might hear them saying. It would recall the intensity with which some issues are debated today.
Just as serious would have been those who looked down their noses at those who abstained. Even Paul's designation of them as "weak" would probably not have been seen as complimentary. They are like fundamentalists, stuck in literalism, unwilling to see beyond the surface of things, one might hear them saying. Abusive and judgmental statements can be so destructive of community. Paul obviously sides with the "strong", who were probably radical Christian Jews like himself, but he is not willing to take a divisive stance towards "the weak". He wants both groups to accept their differences and live with difference in dignity. This was a big ask in his day as it is in ours.
There were also disputes about days. This may well include Jewish feast days and perhaps even the sabbath. Paul has made it clear elsewhere that he now sits very loosely to special days. He belongs to many of his day, pagan, Jewish and Christian, who had moved away from revering sacred times and sacred spaces. It was an intellectual trend, not unrelated to the shift from concern with cult to concern with ethics which we see in the great religions in the 6th century and thereabouts (e.g.: in Israel's prophets). It came about in part as people travelled and saw different practices and realised that they were outward manifestations of something less tangible. Such experiences relativised the particular observances and shifted the focus to what lay behind them and what they had at that level in common. It was very easy, then, to ridicule those who kept strict observances about these things. They are primitive, one might hear them say. Paul does not go down that track. He has a concern and respect for people. We, today, might recognise beyond such different stances different stages of faith development or personality types, though that, too, may (and probably should) imply serious value judgements about the directions of growth and the nature of maturity.
Paul shifts the focus from honouring or dishonouring scruples, including those enshrined in scripture. Instead he puts Christ at the centre. Christ "rules" - to use a popular modern term. Christ is the point of unity. Paul's Christ is not standing there with a rule book ticking boxes, but with the marks of the cross and the mind of compassion. Love for people, valuing them, transcends differences on things like food and observance of days. It will even lead Paul to suggest compromise which will favour the "weak", not offending them (14:13-23); although that should not be taken as a general rule. Paul was quite prepared to offend those who insisted on circumcision, for instance.
Paul's flexibility is rooted in his vision of Christ. He sees himself and all Christians as being answerable to that - indeed answerable to God. For him some central things are not negotiable, namely who Christ is and his radical offer of God's grace. Beyond that Paul has the freedom to be flexible, even with scripture. It was maddening for those who identified the not negotiable not just with the being of God and Christ but also with the scripture where they could get a handle on God and God's will. For such people flexibility was a big ask, as it is today for people who want to see the Bible as an authority in this more literal sense. One should not expect them to be flexible on issues such as gender and the like.
It is very easy for those with a more focused not negotiable space to be flexible. Such people are often very intolerant of those with a broader base. Ultimately these two types can live together only with some compromise. Christianity in Paul's day was far from exemplary in how to handle such conflict. The opponents of both Paul and Jesus were clearly on the side of those who insisted on a controllable base of non negotiability, namely the scripture. Somewhere there is a point where Christ's centrality and centrality of grace beyond and beneath scripture is strong enough to hold such diversity together. Sometimes it has been so submerged that conflict and division is inevitable - even hate and alienation. The piety of such literalism slips off from the continuum of making grace foundational and concrete law takes over. But just as easily those who reject such a stance can slip off the other end and lose contact with the grace which keeps open in love towards those who make themselves opponents and enemies. Paul helps us find the centre.
I imagine some in Rome would have loved Paul's words; others would have no room for them. Little has changed.
Gospel Pentecost 15: 17 September Matthew 18:21-35
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