Resuming with the fifth verse of the fourteenth chapter of Romans, we read “One person regards one day holier than other days, and another regards them all alike. Each must be fully convinced in his own mind” (14:5). Paul does indeed value the role of conscience, for it is individual believers, be they Jew or Gentile (all are justified---participate in the covenant people---on the same basis), acting in love and compassion, that compose the communities that are to be the signposts of the kingdom of God. Thus, “The one who observes the day does it for the Lord. The one who eats, eats for the Lord because he gives thanks to God, and the one abstains from eating abstains for the Lord, and he gives thanks to God” (14:6).
Here, giving thanks to God is the abiding concern, rather than “opinions” or “abstaining.” We should not be surprised to learn that Paul, the apostolic advocate for the kingdom of God and Gentile participation in that kingdom project on an equal basis with Jews, wants the focus when it comes to the activity of the citizens of that kingdom to fall upon God. Paul reasons “For none of us lives for himself and none dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For this reason Christ died and returned to life, so that He may be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (14:8-9). With this, we are reminded that the list of thoughts/ideals that should linger in the background as we hear the words of this chapter should include the fact that calling Jesus “Lord,” especially in connection with talk of living or dying, is a subversive claim against the one who bore that title---Caesar. Claiming allegiance to another Lord and another kingdom, and doing so in Rome of all places (not to mention that the one being looked to as Lord was executed as a state criminal), could most certainly get one killed.
Returning our focus to food and to all of the issues attendant to that (Gentile justification, the unity of the church, the family of God composed of all peoples, the importance of the church’s meal table, the value and place of traditional covenant markers, costly acts of sacrificial love performed by those that claim allegiance to Jesus as Lord, and the role of faith), we read “But you who eat vegetables only---why do you judge your brother or sister? And you who eat everything---why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (14:10). Judging and despising clearly stand counter to the ethic of love and compassion, while the fact that “we will all stand” for God’s judgment again emphasizes the unity and equality of all believers, regardless of national origin or ethnicity identifiers, as the family of God.
Emphasizing that point, Paul employs the services of Isaiah, communicating “For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to Me, and every tongue will give praise to God.’ Therefore, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (14:11-12). The quotation from the forty-fifth chapter of Isaiah calls to mind the God that vindicates and delivers, with that vindication extending to “the earth’s remote regions” (Isaiah 45:22b). There, the prophet writes that “All the descendants of Israel will be vindicated by the Lord and will boast in Him” (45:25). Of course, we know that Paul is of the opinion (a most valuable opinion) that all those that believe in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel and Lord of all compose the Israel of God, and that said belief (with the accompanying transformation of heart and mind by which the belief is accompanied) is all that is required for one to participate in the family of God that is now composed of all nations. Such considerations cannot be divorced from our consumption of these words.
Consequently, “we must not pass judgment on one another, but rather determine never to place an obstacle or a trap before a brother or sister. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself; still, it is unclean to the one who considers it unclean” (14:13-14). Not only is this the place where love and a self-denying and compassionate understanding become operable, but this is also the place where Paul, clearly relying on his awareness of the Jesus tradition as embodied by Mark seven, points out that uncleanness is not an intrinsic quality of a certain item of food. Indeed, like Jesus, Paul makes the point that if there is uncleanness, it is extrinsic and linked to the person there dealing with the food. Coming to terms with this is of great import for the church’s wall-removing, undivided meal table. To this point, Paul adds “For if your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat” (14:15a), that is, if the food on the table is creating stress and friction for a part of the body of believers, and you know it (regardless of the reason or the source, be it Jewish or Gentile sensibilities), “you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy by your food someone for whom Christ died” (14:15b). Yes, Jesus died for all, Jew and Gentile, and food should not be an issue that causes one to withdraw from the family of the kingdom of God.