Thursday of week 31 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Rom 14:7-12

Chapter 14 of Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the most inspiring passages in the New Testament.  It is a hymn to tolerance and the acceptance of others.

Because the Christian community consisted of both former Jews and Gentiles there were often disagreements still over certain ritualistic practices which had been carried over from Judaism.

To the Jews, the attitudes of the Gentiles seemed very lax, if not downright wrong.  To the Gentiles, some Jews seemed over-scrupulous and legalistic.  What Paul recommends is that each one be tolerant and understanding of the weaknesses of others and not to cause unnecessary offence.

Today, Paul reminds us that there is only one Lord and that is Jesus Christ.  It balances yesterday’s reading about the primacy of love.  The real object of that love must always be God and Jesus, found in every person.

And so he says, “None of us lives for himself and none of us dies for himself; while we are alive, we are living for the Lord and when we die, we die for the Lord: and so, alive or dead, we belong to the Lord.”  None of us has an independence of our own.  In life and in death we belong totally to the Lord.  This, of course, is a fact which no believing person can deny but, if it is also a genuine conviction, then it also needs to be acknowledged and lived out in our lives.

And that, says Paul, is the purpose for which Christ both died and came to life again – that he would in a special way be Lord of both the dead and the living.

How, then can an individual abrogate to himself the right to sit in judgement over a brother or sister? Or have the right to look down on a brother or sister?   As is clear from the overall context of the chapter he is referring to some of the weaker brothers and sisters who, for instance, will not eat food that has been offered to idols for fear they will be seen as not true converts from paganism.  Paul regards them as still weak in their faith.

Paul himself, who knows that idols mean nothing and are only man-made images, does not care where food comes from but, in the presence of such people, he will not eat that food rather than upset them.  “It is best to abstain from eating any meat, or drinking any wine, or from any other activity which might cause a brother or sister to fall away, or to be scandalised, or to weaken.”  Jesus had strong words of warning for people who were stumbling blocks in the way of the “little ones”, those still in the early stages of faith.  It is something we need to keep in mind.

Of course, Paul is speaking of issues which do not touch the core of our faith.  Among Catholics today such an issue could be taking Communion in the hand or on the tongue.  People may have strong ideas about one or the other but neither side has the right to pass definitive judgement.  It will not be on an issue like this that we will be judged – nor should we judge others either.

We are not isolated masters of what we do or say.  We do not live in a moral vacuum, where we only have to be answerable to ourselves.  Everything we do has an affect on others and we are responsible for the influences we exert for good and for bad.

There can only be one Judge and he is the One before whom all of us will have to stand some day.  Only one Person has all authority before which all must bow.  “By my own life, says the Lord, every knee shall bow before me, every tongue shall give glory to God” (Is 45:23).   And so, says Paul in conclusion, “It is to God, then, that each of us will have to give an account of himself.”

So then, how can we take it on ourselves to sit in judgment on others, as has obviously been happening among some of the Christian communities with which Paul is connected?  It is not for any of us to judge the behaviour of brothers and sisters.  It is not for us to condemn them for their weaknesses which we don’t happen to have.  God will do that in his own time.  Only he knows what inner motives and the resources people have to do good. Our sole concern should be to be ready to give an account of our own stewardship.

That does not mean, of course, that we will not be called on to evaluate the conduct or the behaviour of other people.   For instance, a prospective employee will be evaluated by an employer as to his or her suitability for a particular post.  We do not just allow anyone who applies to become a teacher or a policeman or a priest…

But evaluating a person’s intellectual or other capacity is not the same thing as passing a definitive judgement on the person.  We may utterly condemn the work of a terrorist in blowing up a building full of innocent people but we cannot pass a final judgement on such a person, whose inner motives and convictions are hidden from us and who also can change and become a totally different person.  Today’s terrorist can be tomorrow’s highly respected prime minister. Many of the people we now regard as saints were guilty of seriously immoral behaviour in their earlier lives.

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