Paul had sent a letter to the church in Rome with those words. In spite of his communication to them it seems that troubles arose in whether ‘to eat or not to eat’. For example, some people will do things one way and there are other people who won’t do things that way. Some people have already quit a particular activity while others have not yet quit. In situations like these, what will happen is that one party will despise and condemn the other party. Divisions and quarrels keep developing and the community will slip into a crisis. This kind of thing, even for us, sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
First, let’s try to turn our attention to the specific situation that had arisen in the church in Rome. “For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables” (Rom 14:2), says the scripture. There were people there who ate meat as well as those who didn’t. Verse five states that: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5). To eat or not to eat meat?; to observe or not to observe a particular day? We can see how that this will lead to scorn and strife.
We don’t know for sure who the ‘persons who eat only vegetables’ are and who the ‘persons who value certain days’ might be. Even in the epistle Paul addressed to the believers in Corinth, we can find statements about those who avoided the eating of meat, (First Corinthians eight). In general, the meat used for food that appeared in the markets, in most cases, was once offered to foreign pagan gods. Therefore, they thought that if one unknowingly ate such meat, one would have some kind of connection with the pagan deity. For that reason then, they were afraid to eat meat. Even in the church at Rome there were probably some people with such views. Perhaps there were views from the philosophy of stoicism or an asceticism that derived from some of the many different ideas back then or some other religious reason.
Whatever the case, people like that were called ‘the weak in faith’. It even seems that Paul for the time being was in agreement with using such a title for them. It may sound kind of strange that the ascetic people who ate only vegetables and respected specific days are called ‘the weak in faith’, but the reason Paul considered it okay to use that title is that their asceticism came from a source that had essentially nothing to do with the faith. In Orthodox Christianity, there are things that cannot be compromised; there are also gray areas. God is gracious and allows diversity in doubtful things (v.1), matters not involving Christian dogma. Those weak in faith are Christians of immature conscience and wisdom who may attach primary importance to secondary matters, such as foods and religious festivals (vv.2-6).
Their past experiences greatly affected them in ‘how they thought’ and ‘how they felt’ about certain matters. It may have been the education they had received since childhood. Or it may have been the influence from the home environment where they had been raised. It may have been a superstitious fear that was implanted by those around them. It may have been some intense experience from the past and some wound in their hearts received from it. The way each person feels about things is varied and based on how a person was pulled in one direction or the other regarding something. To some, one thing is trivial but to another it seems to be the most important thing in life. What one person finds permissible is impossible for another person to put up with.
Those things which influence us strongly from our past will be brought into our life of faith as well. It will happen at times that these kinds of things will have more influence on a person than even the Bible and Holy Tradition, than the word of God. As a result, there are times when something that really is of no importance to the practice of one’s daily life of faith will end up being treated as though it was of major importance. For some the eating or not eating of meat is no big deal. But for another, it is majorly important. Out of that arises the act of being judgmental of one another. Those who eat scorn those who don’t. Those who don’t eat condemn those who do. So, Paul says, “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him”(Romans 14:3). Christ is the Lord of the community, its religious practices and observances. It is when we make ourselves, our prejudices, and our cultural heritage the focal point that we lose sight of our oneness in Christ. A mature conscience in Christ knows no food is unclean of itself. But an immature conscience must be free to follow stricter rules if it sees fit.
Of course, Paul does not mean with the words, ‘You must not condemn’, that, ‘We should do whatever we have a hankering for’. There are certainly matters that pertain to the core of our faith such as the Christian dogmas. These are living truths that do matter in a decisive way to one’s relationship to God and are therefore essential to human salvation. We must not be careless in these areas. With regard to such matters Jesus Christ Himself said: “… let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37; cf. Matt. 5-7).
For example, about the teachers who beguile people with heretical doctrines, Paul said: “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of mutilation” (Phil. 3:2). In another epistle, he even goes so far as to say, “As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed”(Gal. 1:9). About those who refuse to repent of sexual immorality Paul said: “For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed” (1Cor. 5:3); because lewd acts are the committing of sin against the body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
We are to be strict in making judgments when it comes to essentially important matters in our relationship with God. However, please think this over. The judging of one another that goes on between us at times does not revolve around such matters of salvation. While we are careless about the really important things, yet, there are an overwhelming number of us being judgmental of each other based on the feelings and the understandings we drag up from the past. In most cases, they are arguments on the dimension of whether to eat meat or not.
Therefore, we must listen carefully here to what has been written: “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him”(Romans 14:3). When we want to judge someone, when we want to scorn someone, we will need to repeat these words in our hearts, ‘Because God has received these persons’. When it says God has received someone it means the person belongs to God. That is, God is his or her master. Thus, Paul said the following: “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4). When somebody judges someone else’s servants, the master of those servants might say, ‘What you are doing is none of your business by far!’ When we judge others on the dimension of eating or not eating, in most cases, we’ve left our own business and gone into theirs. Usually, what we are doing is interfering in someone else’s affairs while the whole time we are careless about the truly important matters that pertain to eternal life.
Furthermore, if we think about it carefully, when we are condemning someone, most of the time, we do not honestly even have any business with them. In most cases, we are not even truly concerned whether they stand or fall. Who is the one who truly is involved with them? It is the Lord Himself. And as a matter of fact, whenever they will fall it is the Lord God who makes them stand. Therefore, Paul said: ‘However, the servants will stand; because the Lord is able to make them stand’. What causes people to truly stand are not the false words of condemnation from someone who doesn’t even honestly care, it is the Lord Himself.
And it is not only important that the other person belongs to the Lord, but that, we too are the Lord’s. Our actions are affected by how we see other people, but more than that, they are affected even greater by how we see ourselves.
Every one of us ‘belongs to the Lord’. Since we ‘belong to the Lord,’ it ought to be more important to speak about ‘for whom’ we do things rather than speak about ‘what’ we are doing. Since we’re the Lord’s, whatever we do will begin to have meaning because of the fact that it is done ‘for the Lord’. The Lord is not merely interested in a person’s actions that appear on the outside and their effects; He also looks on the motives within the person. Therefore, Paul said: “He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks” (Rom. 14:6). This means that whether one eats or not, if it is on account of the Lord, isn’t that good?
We are too caught up in what is right before our eyes and what appears within our vision. I do it, but he doesn’t. I quit it but he keeps at it undisturbed. We’re always and ever comparing our actions to other people, and we live caught up just in those comparisons. However the really important thing is not our comparisons with others. It is whether or not one continuous backbone runs through our lives. It is whether or not the backbone of ‘we belong to the Lord’ or ‘we belong together in the Lord’ goes through our hearts and lives.
To say ‘we belong to the Lord’ doesn’t mean we do or don’t do something, or we abstain or don’t abstain from something. It is not on the dimension of ‘we eat or don’t eat’. That’s not it; rather we can put it, along with Paul, like this: “For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:7-9).
In truth, it was so we could make that claim that Christ was crucified, suffered, shed His blood, and died, and then rose again from the dead by defeating death. Paul said it like this: “For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9). We must repeat the following before the crucified on the cross and the risen Lord: ‘If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die we die for the Lord’. We ought to repeat this statement over and over again. If we do, then we must surely be too ashamed to argue over things at the dimension of to eat or not.
And one of these days, when it does become something we should be ashamed of and it is foolish to us, then the time will come when we will know in a real sense; because “… each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom 14:12). At that time we will be questioned but not for situations of eating or not eating. We will be asked whether we belong to the Lord or not. And we will be asked about how we lived as one of the Lord’s people.
Now we may still be able to speak of someone else and avert our eyes from our own condition. But, the time is coming when we will not be able to speak regarding someone else in that evasive manner. Yes, indeed, that time will surely be here. The scripture says, ‘each one of us will speak to God about our own situations’ (Rom 14:12). At that time we will discover that it is not somebody else, but ourselves in need, in a true sense, of forgiveness and mercy.
Fasting is our effort to keep ourselves far away from the source of evil. In this way we establish true fasting when we avoid – condemnation and not well-meaning criticism. The true meaning of fasting does not simply refer to abstinence from certain foods. There are times when we fast for a few days and consider ourselves prepared to receive Holy Communion. However, fasting on its own, without confession, has no value. We might not eat meat, but our behaviour may be the cause of disputes in other people. There are times when we fast from some provisions and inside us we allow hatred and vengeance to nest. This is why in the Old Testament it is persistently emphasized that we cannot fast and simultaneously eat away at our fellow human being’s flesh with our hatred against them. These forms of fasting constitute the hypocritical fasting which today’s Gospel extract refers to: it is a fasting which is of no benefit. It is a fasting which is isolated from two great virtues which with fasting, are also emphasised in today’s Gospel Extract.
The one virtue that is linked to true fasting is forgiveness; to forgive those who have wronged us (cf. Matt. 6:14-15). The other virtue is charity; to help our fellow human beings whenever we can and not to become possessed by material wealth, but with spiritual treasures, as is charity (cf. Matt. 6:19-21). Besides, every illegal and unjust wealth is a fire which scorches and a beast which devours. Christ commands His followers to not treasure up for themselves treasures upon earth. Earth is most insecure hiding place for treasures, for it is the place where moth and rust can make their rich garments disappear in corrosion, and even thieves can break in. Rather His followers ought to treasure up for themselves treasures in heaven, where their riches will be immune to such dangers. It is human nature to worry about whether or not one’s treasures are safe – if those treasures are one’s heavenly rewards, then one’s heart will dwell in heaven, high above all earthly anxiety, for where their treasure is, there will their heart be also.
Consequently, the true essence of fasting presupposes the forgiveness of others as well as charity and generally our support towards all our fellow human beings, Greek and non-Greeks, Whites and Blacks, young and old. This is why fasting from foods and hatred in the heart are things that are incompatible and create hypocrisy. Hypocrisy can lead to exploitation and to easy gain but it also certainly leads to expulsion from Paradise. Humans, of themselves, cannot understand when they are sinning or not sinning. Only the Lord and the Holy Spirit reveal this to us. In Paradise, when Jesus Christ spoke with Adam, Adam refused to be accused: ‘It is Thou who gavest me this woman; it is she who gave me to eat of this fruit’. Let us make every effort not to accuse God or others by our self-righteousness.
Forgiveness is the key which opens the door which leads us to the Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ’s word is clear: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15). Being a disciple of Christ presupposes that one is committed to living in peace with all people, and the forgiveness of sin Christ offers to His followers presupposes that they are living as His true disciples. In this way, the path is opened for the harmonious co-operation of people within society, “… for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). A good relation with others means a restraint of our ego. This is also the only way that we can become worthy of Paradise, “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Rom 14:19). The greatest pain is that of loving to the utmost. One cannot love without suffering. Christ loved so much that He gave Himself up to a terrible death. The saints too. Paradise always costs this price. Prayer for the world is the fruit of extremely deep and acute suffering. ‘Love your enemies’. Yes, it is difficult. Nothing is more painful than to have the love of Christ in this world. It is a struggle of cosmic dimensions.