We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” Romans 15.1-3.
Hmmm! The first four words of this morning’s passage raise a couple of questions that I must really get to grips with before I can go any further. What does Paul mean by “strong” in this context? And am I strong in the way he is using the word?
To answer the first question, I really need to read the whole of the preceding chapter — Romans 14 — for there Paul begins the teaching that culminates in this morning’s verses. And when I do read Romans 14 I find that, in this context, “the weak” are not people who lack power or strength but those who have really not yet grasped what freedom in Christ is all about. They are hung up on what we might call “the externals”. Paul says: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike …” (Romans 14.1-5).
In the light of Romans 14, the “strong” are Christians who, like Paul himself, know that the standing they have in Christ has made all so-called God-pleasing observances and rituals completely irrelevant. Then — in Paul’s day — the “strong” were Christians to whom it was simply of no consequence that the meat they were eating may have been sacrificed to an idol before it had ended up in the butchers (1 Corinthians 8) whereas the “weak” were Christians who would eat only vegetables to avoid the possibility of “defiling” themselves by eating any such “contaminated” food.
Today, the “weak” are, I suppose, those who get upset if they see that the Vicar is wearing trainers under his cassock as he preaches; those who regard a Christian’s failure to take Communion on Easter Day as bordering on apostasy; those who cannot pass in front of a table or altar in a church without bowing and crossing themselves … People for whom the externals tend to define their faith. And, in comparison with such people, I suppose I am indeed one of the “strong”.
But if I am one of the “strong”, then, says Paul, I have an obligation “to bear with the failings of the weak”. Far from merely ignoring them, or trying not to treat them as spiritual inferiors and quietly sneering at their silly scruples, I must actually do something positive towards them. But what is it? The Greek is literally “to bear the weaknesses of the not strong” and this is more than just tolerating them, refraining from criticising them, and refusing to be irritated by them. The verb bastazein — “to carry” — is the verb used for the physical carrying by Jesus of his cross in John 19.17; and thinking of that reminds me of Simon of Cyrene who quite literally “bore the weakness of the not strong” when he took Jesus’ cross on his own shoulders (Mark 15.21). Eugene Peterson catches that idea too when he translates Romans 15.1 as “Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us.”
“And,” Paul goes on, “not please ourselves.” Does that mean I can never do what I want to do? No, of course not; but Paul is saying that consideration for the sensibilities and scruples of “weaker” Christians does take precedence over my wants and desires. The last thing I can do is to say, “There’s nothing wrong in God’s eyes with what I’m doing so if she is offended or upset by it then … tough!” No, I have to “please” my neighbour … BUT (and it is a big “but”) “for his good, to build him up.”
Without that “but”, Paul’s injunction in this morning’s reading would, of course, result in the “weak” being able to hold the church to ransom and to allow their groundless scruples and sensibilities to strangle growth and squeeze the life out of everything; and that must not be allowed to happen. So whatever form the “pleasing” of my weak neighbour takes, it cannot be mere indulgence of their injurious fads and fancies but must always be designed to lead them out of weakness into strength, to show them the path to true freedom in Christ. All I do for them in bearing their weaknesses must have in view their oikodome or “up-building” in the faith to the point where they themselves will become numbered among the “strong”.
Lord, I name before you now those in my local church whom I think of as “weak”. I confess my impatience with them … my irritation … my scorn. Help me to carry their weakness, to please them without indulging them, and to build them up in the faith to the point where they too are strong. For your kingdom’s sake, Amen.