24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Bringing Truth from the Head to the Heart

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Claude Vignon, 1629, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Claude Vignon, 1629, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Romans 14:7-8
September 13, 2020

Paul has given the Romans many important insights into the meaning of Christ and his church. We must however keep in mind that he is as much interested in giving the Romans an insight into himself. He wants their help in several enterprises and his reputation is justifiably complicated. He has proved that he is neither a lawless person nor one seeking to eliminate Judaism. Indeed, he has shown both those born Jews and those born Gentiles that he has their best interest at heart. The Christians of Rome at very least know that their view of the new life offered by Jesus has been immeasurably deepened. Yet, there may be some suspicion about how Paul will behave when he gets to Rome. Will he become involved in their daily church life and what will that mean? They have reason to be concerned.

Although the Acts of the Apostles will not be written for several decades the incidents that it relates will have been known. The Romans would probably have known that Paul and Peter had a major disagreement in Antioch and that the Church was very much disturbed indeed divided by it. This was so serious that it required a council of the leaders in Jerusalem to address it. We find a description of this in Acts 15 but more interestingly Paul’s version in Gal 2 especially 2:11-15. The matter remains unclear, but Peter seems to have been trying to create harmony and that his was disturbed by Paul.

The Roman church was hard to hide and had already experienced persecution. They did not want to expose themselves again to this kind of conflict. Paul today is telling them how he would approach their situation.

As we have seen, the church is divided between members between Jewish and Gentile Christians. They may have worshipped in small house churches, but sought to periodically come together. This is always a problem in the early church. We saw it with Jesus particularly last year when we read Luke’s gospel and Paul has had to intervene in his communities as well. This was the problem in Antioch as well in Corinth.

In the section immediately before the one we read today Paul sketches out the problem:

Welcome anyone who is weak in faith,
but not for disputes over opinions.
One person believes that one may eat anything,
while the weak person eats only vegetables.

(Rom 14:1–2)

Paul clearly believes that one can eat anything and that those who feel they cannot are “the weak” Some of the Romans might well have expected that Paul would come to Rome and at a Eucharist and the following meal with several house churches tell the weak to eat whatever is placed in front of them.

Paul says instead:

The one who eats must not despise the one who abstains,
and the one who abstains must not pass judgment on the one who eats;
for God has welcomed him.

(Rom 14:3)

We need to note here that Jews were not vegetarians. This could refer to either Jews who could not find meat which they felt was truly kosher or to gentile Christians who came from vegetarian backgrounds. For our purposes this is not important.

Another difficulty is what feasts and fasts to celebrate:

(For) one person considers one day more important than another,
while another person considers all days alike.
Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind.

(Rom 14:5)

Here again we are not certain of the exact reference. It may be gentile Christians reflecting some form of astrology or Jewish Christians wishing to observe Jewish feasts. Once again, the point is the show that unity is more important than minor matters of practice.

The next line is the most important:

Whoever observes the day, observes it for the Lord.
Also, whoever eats, eats for the Lord,
since he gives thanks to God;
while whoever abstains, abstains for the Lord
and gives thanks to God

(Rom 14:6)

Why are we doing it? If it is to honor God, then it does not matter what we eat or when we worship.

Paul is showing himself reasonable and “safe.” The Roman church can comfortably accept and help him.

Being Paul however he always sees deeper and adds more.

None of us lives for oneself,
and no one dies for oneself

(Rom 14:7)

We have responsibilities to one another and to God. (Rom 12:5) We must always put the Lord first.

For if we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s.

(Rom 14:8)

He can do this because of his death and resurrection:

For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living

(Rom 14:9)

Today’s selection, Rom 14:7-9, may well be an early Christian hymn, but it clearly relates to Paul’s previous writings:

(As) one has died for all; therefore all have died.
And he died for all, so that those who live might live
no longer for themselves,
but for him who died and was raised for them.

(2 Cor 5:14–15)

This is an important message for all of us this year. Paul did not of course live in a democracy and would not have understood voting for civil leaders. A man with his experiences would certainly have understood that civil disagreements could easily enter the church and cause serious divisions.

We can learn much from him today. We may think that our position is strong but should acknowledge that it is not unassailable and does not allow us to dismiss other people, As we contemplate our vote for this presidential season let us do as Paul suggested and vote in a spirit of thanks to God and assume that others are doing the same.

This is the last of our readings from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. We have seen over this summer how his insight into the new creation that we have become in Jesus affects every aspect of our lives. It has been necessary for us to also examine his other letters as well most particularly 1 Corinthians and Galatians. However deep his knowledge of Judaism his teaching rests on his experience of the risen Lord. This perhaps explains its consistency throughout his writings. As we have seen that this experience has grown and deepened. He has learned to be sensitive to others experience and feelings and has shown the Romans that he can offer not only deep insights into what we have come to call the spiritual life but also how to live together as brothers and sisters. He has learned how to bring his high spiritual teaching down to earth. Because of this he can not only be our teacher but our guide in the most difficult journey of all: bringing truth from the head to the heart.