Romans 2:1-16: The darkness around us is deep, but isn’t it wonderful that we don’t participate in such awful things? Some reading chapter one might feel smug, self-satisfied and self-righteous. Like Jesus, Paul is deeply concerned for self-righteousness, for an attitude that condemns others without self-reflection, an attitude that assumes one is unfailingly on God’s side. For Paul, honest self-reflection leads to the realization that we are all recipients of God’s grace and that we have all done things that contribute to the darkness around us. Perhaps we have not misused our sexuality. Perhaps we have not been heartless and ruthless to any extreme, but honest self-reflection leads us to acknowledge that there are times when we have been less than loving. This is not intended to foster guilt. “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” Repentance simply means being open and willing to change. Paul believes God invites us to be persons who patiently do good. In this, “God shows no partiality.”
This last statement of Paul’s is remarkable. It seems endemic to the human condition that we want to add God to our side, make God partial toward us. We do this individually and collectively. Most people I know who hold fast to a hard doctrine of sin, death and hell don’t believe they are headed toward hell. Nations often assume that God is on their side and against their enemies. These statements are not meant to deny that there are genuine differences between people and nations, and that some actions are good and others are not. But to assume that one’s person or group is the sole source of good in the world is dangerous. Certainly part of Paul’s argument here is directed toward the Jewish Christians in the Roman Jesus Community who may consider themselves superior to the Gentile Christians because of their background. Paul argues that persons can have the right thing written on their hearts, without the benefit of the covenantal tradition of Judaism.
Whatever one may think about some of the specifics of Paul’s argument and language, his intent, to demonstrate the insidiousness of darkness – it even masks as “righteousness” when it becomes self-righteousness, and to argue that Jew and Gentile are on equal footing, is praiseworthy, and he remains insightful about human life. It is interesting to note Paul’s use of the phrase, “according to my gospel.” Paul’s gospel has something to do with Jesus Christ being God’s “standard” for how the inner life of people will be judged.
Romans 2:17-29: Paul now specifically turns his attention to the Jewish Christians in the Roman community. One wonders about his view of the Jewish Christians in the polemic he writes here - - - they talk about teaching others, but do they teach themselves? Are they free from adultery, theft, idolatry? Perhaps Paul is not just speaking of individuals, but of the behavior of Israel through the centuries. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures pointed out how Israel often lived in ways that violated God’s justice. In doing so, God’s reputation among the Gentiles was tarnished. One wonders if Paul had heard that the Jews in the Roman Christian community were being prideful and haughty. Circumcision, an outward sign of being a part of the people of God, should be interpreted symbolically and internally. What counts is not what marks one physically, but what marks one’s heart. Paul can be pretty challenging toward his own people in these verses. Again, one wonders what Paul has heard about the Roman Christian Community. Perhaps he is also reflecting some of his own experience with other Jesus communities – an on-going problem between Jews and Gentiles wherein the Jewish Christians consider themselves superior to the Gentile ones. Paul will have none of that. At the same time, Paul will also not let Gentile Christians suppose that non-Christian Jews have been abandoned by God, as we shall see later in this letter.
Romans 3:1-8: So, is there anything special about being Jewish? Paul has tried to deflate self-righteousness, but some might come back and ask why they were Jewish in the first place. Here Paul responds. The Jews have been special for God revealed Godself in a special way to them. Paul’s theology is paradoxical – all are equal before God, yet God did indeed do something special with a particular people. God’s promises, which are for all people, first came to light in the religious tradition of the Jews and in their experience of God. Even if the Jews did not always live up to their covenant to be a light to all people, God’s promise that light would be given to the world is not any less valid. Then, in an argument that can be a little confusing, Paul posits on objector. His interlocutor offers a counter argument – if God remains faithful, and if, in fact, God’s faithfulness is made even more apparent by the unfaithfulness of human beings, why should God judge that unfaithfulness? If our sinning, our marring God’s image in our lives and in the world, makes even more evident the graciousness of God who will not give up on us no matter what, should, perhaps we sin even more? Paul dismisses such arguments as nonsense. God’s justice, truthfulness, and love by themselves judge the inadequacies of human action. For Paul that is axiomatic. No doubt there are issues here that were more relevant to Paul’s time than to our own.
Romans 3:9-20: Though there is something special about being Jewish, Paul returns to his point that all share in human sin – all, both Jews and Greeks “are under the power of sin.” Paul quotes a variety of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures to make his point about the universality of sin. These are hard words for us to hear for we too easily equate “sin” with either gross evil or with the violation of petty moralistic rules. Sometimes we think of sin as killing or robbery. Sometimes we think of it in terms of drinking, dancing, smoking, sexual thoughts. None of us likes to have the word “sin” attributed to our actions or person. What if “sin” were understood to be anything that we do that mars the image of God in us or that detracts from God’s purposes for the world. When we have been unkind, we have thwarted God’s purposes. When we have not valued ourselves as beloved people of God, we have marred the image of God within us. Sin can take on a power of its own. Think of a time when you may have done something wrong or unkind and then found yourself constructing ways to deny what you had done. The story can build so that it has a life, a power of its own. Over time we can convince ourselves that our unkindness was justified, our inappropriate action was not so bad, and if anyone tells us differently, we probably react badly again. The power of sin can be a social power as well. When a group that has some social power sees only its goodness and never its shortcomings, it may begin to think that whatever way it uses its power is good. We see that time and again in human history. When I think about “sin” in those ways, it is easier for me to acknowledge that I have sinned. Maybe the word has become so worn and warped in our day and time we need to find some replacement for it – but the reality to which it points is important. Prominent theologians from Reinhold Niebuhr and Barbara Brown Taylor have written insightfully about “sin” and we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For Paul, all are under the power of sin, all succumb to the temptation to sin. For Paul, the law given to the Jews was an indication of the purposes of God, and no one could reasonably claim that they had on every occasion fulfilled those purposes.
Romans 3:21-31: If all fail to measure up to God’s purposes for their life and the world, where do we go from here? Paul asserts again that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The early Christian theologian, Irenaeus once wrote, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” I don’t have a problem with the notion that I have not always been “fully alive,” nor with claiming that the same is probably true for most other human beings. I would argue that there are social forces which work against the full aliveness of human beings. The power of sin, I think, is real. But we need not simply acquiesce to this situation. There is grace, forgiveness and power to change found in Jesus Christ. For Paul, that power was the power of God revealed when Jesus died and was raised. That power comes to us as a gift from God, who is always at work to make things right (righteousness). The image of redemption Paul uses may have its roots in the Roman social norm of ransoms paid for the release of slaves. We have been trapped by the power of sin, but God frees us from that on-going trap by the power that was at work in Jesus as the Christ. For Paul, God put Jesus forward as a sacrifice of atonement. Here he is using imagery from Jewish sacrificial ritual. Note, then, that Paul uses both Roman and Jewish images to try and define what God was up to in Jesus. Paul is writing metaphoric theology here, searching for images that help explain how God acts in Jesus to heal, forgive and free. We should be as creative in search for relevant images of how God in Jesus continues to work in human lives to heal, forgive and free. Humans access this power through faith. Faith has the primary connotation of trust. We trust that God works in our lives to heal, forgive and free. We trust that the power of God’s love is a life-giving power. We trust that the way of God shown in the way of Jesus is the way to be a fully alive human being.
If having our lives set back on a better way is primarily a gift of God’s grace, offered to us while we were yet caught in the power of sin, there is no reason for anyone to boast about their relationship to God. Paul does not deny that there may be an equality of sin but an inequality of guilt (to use Reinhold Niebuhr’s phrase), that is, that some people’s actions are more harmful than others. Yet, at some level, all have managed to lose their way and God’s grace found them. Boastfulness which may divide a community of faith is thus inappropriate. God is a God of both Jews and Gentiles. Through all this detailed an complex line of reasoning, one of Paul’s essential points is that God is a God of us all and we all receive grace from God as we receive such grace in faith. Divisive pridefulness has no place in the Christian community.