"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority ... the Constitution was made to guard against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters." - Noah Webster

"There is no worse tyranny than forcing a man to pay for what he does not want just because you think it would be good for him."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

Monday, June 20, 2011

Romans Part V

You can find the beginning of this study by clicking on this link.

Chapter 14 begins with a passage that can easily be misunderstood by someone with no understanding of the historical context of the time in first century Rome, or a well-established understanding of the rest of Scripture. Before you think you understand what the author is trying to say, you need to know if you have the right answers to certain questions.  Who is the writer talking to?  Why does that matter?  What does that audience already know?  What are the assumptions that are taken for granted by all the parties concerned?

A reader two thousand years removed from the situation that is being spoken about has a lot to learn before a rational understanding can be made.

The first verse is easy enough to understand, since most of us have probably been in churches where the "old timers" have treated new converts with thinly veiled disdain for having little to no knowledge of the Bible or spiritual matters.  But what's this thing about eating meat or not eating meat?  In order for us to really understand Paul's point, we need a thorough understanding of what was going on in the first century.  Not just in Israel or Rome but the known world in general.

Atheism was a tiny sliver of a minority philosophy among a few philosophers, but better than 99% of the world believed in some kind of deity or multiple deities.  All of the false religions believed in sacrificing to their gods.  Usually not so much for sin, well, actually, almost none of it for sin.  It was mostly a kind of appeasement or bribe for good fortune.  People who held such religious beliefs might look to the opinions of the self-appointed priests or gurus of the various religions or they just thought up ways to worship on their own or copied their parents' methods of worship.  They might sacrifice all kinds of things.  They also would have sacrificed many of the same kind of kosher animals that the Jews used in worship.

Let's take a moment to look back at the Acts of the Apostles.  In chapter 15 we have the episode where the leadership, seemingly headed by James, led by the Holy Spirit, comes up with the minimum requirements for a letter addressed to the new Gentile converts.  One of the four items mentioned is abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols.  A second item is things that have been strangled, a method of killing that didn't allow for proper bleeding out.  A third prohibition was from ingesting any blood directly.  While Torah and the Oral Law had very specific instructions on how to slaughter animals for sacrifice and even for general consumption, the pagans had no such rules.  Some African cultures, to this day, drink fresh blood taken from cattle.  Some people in America and Europe think nothing of eating a concoction called blood pudding.

While the instructions were clear that the new followers of Messiah were to abstain from "knowingly" ingesting blood, or eating an animal that had certainly been sacrificed to a false god, some of the people were so afraid of transgressing the rule that they would just give up meat altogether.  Some of these people still could not bring themselves to the idea that this God of the Jews was totally unlike the capricious and sinister gods of the pagan religions.  Such were gods who would punish you for making mistakes out of ignorance.  Paul was admonishing the brethren to tolerate these newcomers and not give them a hard time as they were still learning.

But did Paul contradict the instructions that had gone out from the Apostles at Jerusalem?  No.  According to Acts chapter 21, Paul wanted to make sure that he was in complete agreement with the leadership when it came to issues of faithfully following Torah. The distinction Paul is making is this:  While some understand the new freedom in Messiah, that the excessive rules and "hedge around the Law" by the Rabbis no longer applied to the believers, those who still wanted to be extra cautious about not violating Torah by not eating any meat that they couldn't be sure was kosher were not to be looked down upon by other believers.  Stated another way, some believers were willing to eat beef or goat or lamb or chicken that they got from non-believers with the simple assurance that it had been slaughtered properly and not used in a religious sacrifice.  Other believers, however, just weren't willing to take that chance with all the pagan sacrificing going on.  Their consciences wouldn't permit them to take that chance.

On this issue, Paul simply tells them to quit using it as an excuse to judge each other on a matter best left to God.  It's really that simple.  But is this a passage that can be used by Gentiles to excuse the eating of unclean animals?  No.  Remember the instructions of the Apostles through James in Acts 15.  The assumption of the leadership was that new Gentile believers would go to synagogue and learn Torah.  Their Jewish fellow believers would show them the proper way to slaughter and kasher their meat and know which animals were acceptable for consumption and which were not.

But because of the matter of conscience with some believers, Paul makes it clear that if your brother doesn't want to risk violating Torah by eating the meat that you are serving, don't take offense.  Better yet, don't serve him meat if he doesn't want to eat it.  We have unbelieving friends who wouldn't dream of inviting us over for dinner and serving pork.  If unbelievers can show that kind of good sense, how much more so should believers?

As for his statement that all things are clean, we need to keep it in the same context as what Messiah said when he dealt with the issue of hand washing.  That it was not what we ate that defiled us nearly so much as what defiled us spiritually based on our thoughts. When faced with the choice of eating pork or shellfish, or starving to death, we are going to eat what's available.  Long before Messiah came, the Rabbis understood that we are to LIVE according to Torah, not die by Torah.  That which imparts life or eases human suffering always supersedes any prohibitions in Torah.  Messiah proved that in healing on the Sabbath.  He never said Torah was wrong.  He simply reminded the religious leaders of their own training and teaching, that doing good and alleviating pain or suffering and bringing praise and honor to God were most important. That's right. There is and always has been a hierarchy that allows for breaking the laws in Torah.

Let's say I  was invited to someone's house for dinner, and they did not know anything about Torah or kosher eating.  My host or hostess went to a lot of trouble to prepare the meal and they were very proud of their effort. They have no intention of doing anything less than being gracious.   The main course is a pork chop.  What do I do?  I eat it.  I will silently pray to God that what I am doing is performing a mitzvah, which He is already well aware of.  I will eat it and be gracious about it and thank them for their hospitality.  I won't correct them or do anything that might cause them embarrassment.  My concern for the feelings of my host or hostess is more important in this case than breaking this part of Torah.  The greater command of Torah is to love my neighbor as much as I love myself.

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