Romans 9:1-18: Throughout his letter to the Roman Christian community, Paul returns to themes related to Jewish Christians and people of Jewish faith. The Roman Jesus community grew out of the large Jewish population in Rome. For a time, all Jews, including Jewish Christians were expelled from Rome, leaving this Christian community a Gentile community. The Jews are returning, and this poses some problems for the community Paul hopes to visit, a community Paul hopes will support him in his mission in Rome and beyond to Spain. Many of Paul’s arguments in this work have implications for the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Here Paul continues to address themes related particularly to the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christian, as well as to the relationship between Christians and those who have chosen to remain Jewish. This section, chapters 9-11, has a certain integrity all its own.
Paul expresses anguish that more Jews have not joined him in following the Jewish faith to become followers of the Jew, Jesus. Paul marvels at how special this people is in God’s work in the world. While the number of Jews who have become followers of Jesus is relatively small, and the church is becoming more and more Gentile in Paul’s time, this does not represent a failure on God’s part. Paul cites stories from the Hebrew Scriptures to make the point that what matters most in relationship to God is faith, faith in God’s promise of new life.
To Paul, God is faithful, though some of his language is a challenge. The language Paul uses in verse 18 can make God sound capricious. God chooses who God chooses, and those God does not choose are simply out of luck. Seen in the context of the example Paul is discussing (Pharaoh), the matter is more complex. Pharaoh represents the kind of world God opposes. Pharaoh was seen as divine and exercised capricious power. Justice in Egypt was defined by what Pharaoh loved, and evil by what Pharaoh hated (see J. M. Roberts, A History of the World, 180). Pharaoh has a hard heart because he does not want to exercise his power in a way more in keeping with God’s justice. God seeks a different world and God’s mercy is that God works toward that justice in the world.
Romans 9:19-29: The problem staring Paul in the face is that it is his fellow Jews, who, from a Christian perspective, are hardening their hearts. And it is Gentiles who appear to be responsive to God’s mercy. Paul’s initial argument is unconvincing to many – who are we to argue with God? There is a great deal of precedence in the Bible for arguing with God, just read the Psalms. Paul’s basic point is not a premature appeal to “mystery,” but a deeper sense of mystery, the mystery of grace which has opened new life to persons once considered “objects of wrath.” All in the Roman Christian community, Jews and Gentiles, are accepted in the mystery of God’s love, the wonder of God’s grace.
Romans 9:30-33: Gentiles are now counted among the recipients of God’s grace. Paul sees many of his own people struggling with a misunderstanding of their own tradition, striving to be righteous before God on their own merit rather than opening themselves to God’s grace. This is not the essence of Judaism, but a misunderstanding of it. Paul grieves for these people, but he is not here making some determination of their ultimate destiny, only commenting on their current plight.
Romans 10:1-4: These verses complete the thought at the end of chapter 9. Paul laments the misunderstanding of some Jews, and he expresses his heart’s desire that they should be “saved” and “enlightened.” Grace comes first, and for Paul this is learned through Jesus. Can it be learned in other ways – we will wait and see what Paul has to say later.
Romans 10:5-21: Paul utilizes two quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures to argue for the primacy of righteousness (right relationship) in faith. Verses 9-10 are both beautiful and challenging. Some have used them to promote Christian exclusivism, the view that only those who openly confess Jesus as Lord will be saved. All others are left outside of salvation. Is this really Paul’s point? Look at the context. Paul has been focusing reflections on Jews who have yet to become a part of the Christian community, and he affirms that “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” He has argued that righteousness based in faith is a true interpretation of Judaism. He has discovered this in Jesus and invites others to do the same. I don’t think Paul is making a generic statement about salvation, here. Rather he is inviting people to the faith he has come to know, as an extension of the faith in which he was brought up. To confess Jesus as Lord is to stand against a misunderstanding of Judaism and to stand against the Roman imperial religious ideology. To trust in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead is to say that God has indeed acted in Jesus, and will continue to do so. While I think Paul would be pleased to have everyone focus their faith in God on Jesus, I also think the primary point is coming to a new relationship with God through faith, the thing Paul learned as he learned about Jesus. Another important point to make about these verses is the intimate connection between inner and outer. Faith is to be a matter of the heart, but also a matter of life and words. Both are important.
Again, Paul inserts into this context a remark about the relationship between Jew and Greek – “there is no distinction.”
Then Paul makes an appeal to be in mission and outreach. How can people come to believe if they have not heard the message? Remember, Paul hoped to gain the support of the Roman Christian community for an outreach beyond Rome. Paul also leaves this chapter by asserting that many of his Jewish brothers and sisters have already heard? What more will he have to say about them?
I find these chapters difficult and challenging, primarily because the context is so different from our own. There are some wonderful verses, but some of these have been taken out of context so often, that they have lost some of their power for me (verses 9-10, verse 17). As I try and listen for what speaks to me about my life, one lesson I take from chapters 9 and 10 is that every religious tradition, every faith, can lose its way. Paul did not believe that the Jewish law had become spiritually wrong, but had apparently seen enough misunderstanding of it that he was concerned. Rule-keeping seems to have become, for some, the primary means of relating to God. That same temptation can be found in Christianity. We are not immune from providing a check-list as the essence of Christian faith, not immune from our games of one-ups-manship in comparing how we do with our list compared to others. There are countless other ways we can use the language of our faith to avoid our lives, to keep God at bay. We need to pay attention to these. How do we balance an appropriate concern for maintaining Christian spiritual practices and disciplines with a focus on the point of these disciplines which is transformation in love? If we are doing all the “right things” but not being transformed in love, something is amiss. Transformation of our hearts and lives so that we can participate in God’s work of transforming the world are the bottom line. Paul uses different language, but when we get to chapter 12, we will see that this may be his bottom line, too.