Paul's letter to the Romans
God does not tolerate hypocrisy
Through the next chapters Paul employs conventions of persuasive speech and writing from the Greek/Roman environment. They involve sketching hypothetical characters and situations to allow argument that doesn't directly 'get at' the hearers - or only 'if the cap fits'. Analysis may come in the shape of an address to some imagined individual offered as an example, or even a dialogue with such a figure. Paul would prefer his audience already to share his viewpoints, and he is not accusing them. He wants to establish common ground.But what about you, sir, passing judgment upon others for things that you do yourself! Surely God's condemnation falls without partiality upon each guilty person? ... Nothing has befallen you yet? You think that God's patience with you means you are excused? Don't you realise that God's kindness is offering you the chance to repent? Your obstinacy only increases God's anger - which will be apparent on that day when his just judgment is revealed. God will deal with every last person according to his works. There will be eternal life for those who seek honour by consistent well-doing, retribution for those who desert truth and follow after wickedness. There will be trouble and distress for every evildoer - Jews first, Greeks as well. For those who do good there will be glory and honour and peace - for Jews first, Greeks as well.
God has no favourites. Sinners standing outside the law will
perish outside the law; sinners who were under the law will be judged
by it. It's not having heard the law only, but actually
keeping it, that makes people holy in the sight of God.
And when Gentiles, not having the law, are led by their reason
to do what the law asks they are, as it were, their own
law. The essence of the law is inscribed in their
hearts. People's conscience will testify against or for
them, on the day when God judges the secrets of human hearts through
Cbrist Jesus. That's what my gospel says!
Under the Lutheran spell, many commentators have tried to read this chapter from beginning to end as directed against Jewish hypocrisy. We need to keep reminding ourselves that Paul is writing to Gentile Christians. The weight of the argument falls differently. Certainly there is no escape for Jews by virtue of the fact that they are Jews and have received certain privileges from God. And equally, the hearers are meant to appreciate, there is no escape for Gentiles - if they had been thinking that their coming into faith somehow provided one. God's judgment is strictly a judgment according to works.And you sir! You are a Jew and rely on the law, and you are proud of your God. Knowing the law you know God's will and you know right from wrong. So you understand yourself to be a guide for the blind, a light for the benighted. You are in a position to instruct the ignorant, because in the law you have a compendium of knowledge and truth. But there must be no hypocrisy. Have you yourself learned the lessons you have prepared for others? You say 'Don't steal'. Are you yourself a thief? You say 'Don't commit adultery'. Are you an adulterer? You despise idols. Do you rob their shrines? You boast in the law. Do you dishonour God by breaking it? Then the scripture would certainly apply: 'Because of you the name of God is dishonoured among the Gentiles (Is 52:5 LXX)'.
It means something to be circumcised if you live by the law.
But if you break the law you might as well not have been circumcised in the
first place. On the other hand, if an uncircumcised man
does what the law asks, that is as good as circumcision as far as he
is concerned. He becomes a reproach to you, even though
you are circumcised and have it all written down. To be a Jew
is not just a matter of externals. Real circumcision is of the
heart - a thing of the spirit, not the
letter. That kind of Jew may not earn human commendation,
but he will certainly have God's approval. [17-29]
There are good reasons why Paul, writing to Gentile Christians in Rome, should give so much space to discussing the Jewish response. By the time of Paul's writing it was the general perception that Judaism had rejected the Christian extension of its faith. Gentile Christians were tempted to conclude that God had given up on the Jews. (That became the dominant Christian understanding in the period after Paul.) Paul, who remained committed to his Jewish faith and heritage, could not possibly accept this. It would make a nonsense of what is to be found in the scriptures and nullify the promises of God. He had no patience with the fiddle that (predominantly Gentile) Christians were the 'new Jerusalem', so that the promises were simply transferred to them. Paul believed that Gentile and Jewish Christian streams needed one another and must learn to care about one another.
paraphrase and notes by Evan Lewis