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Paul's letter to the Romans

chapter  2

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.

After describing the extremes of human depravity,  Paul now brings things closer to everyday experience.   He looks at people who feel free to criticise the delinquencies of others,  but are lenient towards themselves.   His criticisms and questions are not directed,  to begin with,  specifically to Jews.   And when he does bring Jews into the conversation it is always to make a point for his Gentile hearers.

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!      [1-16]

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.

Just incidentally,  Paul shows that he can imagine the existence of people who do what the law at heart requires,  even though they are not observant Jews or Christians.   Such people would be found righteous in the judgment of God.   We would like to hold Paul to that,  because in our changed circumstances it is a point we also want to make,  rather than claiming special privilege before God just for our own faith-family.

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.

Nero  (the Roman emperor at the time of Paul's writing)  permitted a return to Rome of Jews who had been expelled under Claudius.   Presumably this included some Jews who had formed or joined a Christian community.   Returning,  they would have found themselves disadvantaged in a variety of ways,  despised and looked on with suspicion by their neighbours.   The Gentile Christian community would have been tempted to go along with public sentiment,  and to disown the Jewish Christian returnees.   Paul's letter unfolds as an appeal to Gentile Christians to recognize that their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters are bound up with them in God's larger plan.   This is the 'evangelizing'  -  now by letter  -  that Paul says at the beginning he would like to have done in person.

  paraphrase and notes by Evan Lewis


Making connections with Paul the apostle
What Paul did NOT write

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