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.
— Romans 14:13-23 NRSV
Paul’s letter was to a group of people whom he had never met. He knew they were Christians, but as far as knowing individuals in that community or individual quirks and sins of both omission and commission, he was winging it. One thing he undoubtedly knew was what life was like, though, and so he offered them advice he knew they could use.
Rome, as well as other cities of the Empire, featured temples, lots of temples; it had to, as there were a lot of gods and goddesses to be honored. For each temple there were offerings to be made. Food, money, incense — nice gifts, but what really seemed to please the gods was blood, animal blood, and lots of it. There were more animal carcasses than priests could dispose of (the meat was one of the benefits of job), so temples became, in essence, neighborhood butcher shops where the previously-sacrificed animal could be whacked up and sold. It brought in extra money for the temple and the people could get fresh meat. It seemed to be a mutually acceptable solution, but to some Christians, perhaps most of them, it was a problem. How could they buy meat that had previously been offered to and sacrificed to Zeus or Artemis or Mars or any of the many gods of Rome and her colonies? It would mean buying meat offered to idols and it seemed to be a direct violation of having no truck with idols, idol worship or anything even remotely related to it. How could a good Christian buy such meat, or even go to a dinner party at the neighbor’s house and be sure that the main course wasn’t a previously-offered haunch that they shouldn’t eat because of the history of the carcass? What about offending the host of the party? What about how other Christians would see it and judge it? Oh, what to do?
My mind makes the leap from thinking about Paul’s letter to the Romans to what the passage means and how it is applied to and in the world today. One example that comes to mind is not inviting Jewish or Muslim friends to dinner and serving pork chops or bacon dressing on the spinach salad. It also brings to mind the potential harm of going out with a friend in recovery from alcoholism and going to a bar or having wine with a meal. It’s more than putting temptation in their way, it’s making them invisible or of no consequence. It’s an ultimate show of how little I pay attention to the teachings that I should love my neighbor (not my kinsman, close associate or fellow organizational member but sometimes a person I don’t know at all) as myself. It’s more than about steaks, pork chops or burgers — it’s about love.
There are things (and people) that make me stumble. I’ve learned to avoid some people because their actions and words bring me down, make me feel worthless or incompetent. There are others who are wonderful to be around because even if they point out my mistakes and misdoings, there is love behind it and often a bit of humor as well, not just finger-pointing. Right now many of my favorite foods are forbidden or off-limits to me, except in very very small doses. Those small doses are sometimes worst of all; I feel deprived more when I have just a bite than I would if I avoided them altogether. Can I sit across a table from someone eating those very foods and not succumb to their allure? Yes, but assuring them that it was okay that they had them was, for me, a sort of victory, not to mention the answering of a prayer that I could indeed refrain from sticking my fork into their plate of fries or cheesecake. It isn’t just my own strength, nor is it trivializing my faith in God; it is acknowledging that I have been given a gift by that same God, and that I can, with God’s help, utilize that gift and make it an offering of love, in a very small and insignificant way although even with at a slight cost to myself. Like “free” kittens aren’t always free, loving another as much as self isn’t always as easily done as said. Keeping another from stumbling means I have to be a bit more sure-footed myself.
It’s more than about pork chops and cheesecakes. It’s about love, the kind that offers, not insists, and cushions the path rather than making it harder for someone who might not be as strong, as sure-footed or as trusting in God’s grace and acceptance. Perhaps Paul’s message to the Romans (and to us) could be succinctly put in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “When in doubt, don’t.” Step out in faith and act with faith. Most of all, love the neighbor, whoever it might be, enough to be sensitive and caring of his/her needs, regardless of a small sacrifice of personal enjoyment or entitlement.
Sounds like a lesson I needed to think about today — and probably tomorrow and next week to boot.