Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 14:13-15:6
Paul’s argument, and perhaps the most important thing that we can hear as people trying to be faithful is that it is part of responsibility to build each other up. At the core of our faith is an obligation to go beyond the “do no harm” ethos of some and to actually add value to the lives of others. This is maybe one of the most difficult aspects of faith to live out.
Paul’s example is specifically focused at the community of new believers forming in Rome. Some follow are Jews who follow the dietary restrictions of their ancestors. Others are new convert who have grown up without such restrictions. Paul’s admonition to those without the restrictions is to honor the choices of those who have them because they are deeply rooted and cultural.
There is a lesson here for a pluralistic society. How we manage the deeply held beliefs of those around us matters and whenever possible, we should show deference especially in situations where we don’t have strong feelings. More importantly, we should be looking out for those of our community who might be more vulnerable.
A Jew living in Rome would have been in the margins of society. A Jew who converted to Christianity in first century Rome would have been on the margins of the margins. Paul’s statement to the gentile Christians in Rome is essentially, “what do you lose by not offending your Jewish brothers and sisters with the way you eat? Nothing. So err on the side of caring for those who already have the heavier burden to carry”.
Paul refers to the “failings of the weak”. Not a fan of that language. I would simply refer to people’s vulnerabilities, recognizing that at various times, we all take turns being the “weak” and the “strong”. The point is to go beyond “putting up” with to “building up”. It’s about seeing others thrive and desiring that thriving for them. It’s about removing the barriers between people and God. It’s about allowing people, to the extent that we have power, to find the most authentic version of themselves. It’s about not exploiting the vulnerabilities of others to make ourselves look better, but taking the time to love and support people through whatever challenges they may be experiencing.
What this also reinforces for me is the central place of the table in the life of faith. At meals are where our shared lives come together and where we are made equal by our mutual need for sustenance. It is also a place of joy and celebration. It is the one place where there should be no signs of injustice or hierarchy.
Ultimately, what we’re building is empty and hollow if it doesn’t build up our neighbor and specifically if it doesn’t build up the most vulnerable of our neighbors.