In today’s second reading in the Daily Office Lectionary Paul continues to build up the consequences of relying on good conduct before the Judgement of God. In the first paragraph today (Romans 2.25-29) Paul uses circumcision as the sign of a Jew and obedience to the Torah, and applies it metaphorically to Gentiles who are following the inner law written on their hearts and a Torah abiding Jew. Simply being a Jew with the marks of circumcision does not necessarily mean that one is righteous before God. As Paul argues, true circumcision “is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.” In Paul’s writings “the heart” means more than an emotional seat of the body’s pump for blood, but stands for the whole intellectual and moral mind of a person.
Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
In the second paragraph Paul anticipates a couple of questions from his rhetorical interrogator. He states that the faithfulness of God to Israel is not contingent upon the faithfulness of the people.
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true, as it is written,
‘So that you may be justified in your words,
and prevail in your judging.’
But this does not give license for the recipients of the Torah and the followers of Jesus to do anything. In the next paragraph Paul reports an accusation made against him – that he encourages people to do evil so that the grace of God might abound in forgiveness.
But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!
Paul is creating a number of dilemmas here for his listeners, setting them up for the argument that righteousness before God depends not upon works but faith, and that good works come from having the right faith. The right faith is coincident with having the Spirit, and with dying and living with Christ.
What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:
It’s not clear to me who the “we” is here. Is it Gentiles? Is it Jews? The point is moot because both are subject to “the power of sin”. For Paul being under the power of sin is not some abstract ontological state, but a malevolent force that is active and dynamic in the world. It is the powers and principalities that rule through emperors who oppress and religious leaders who are corrupt. It is the predisposition of humanity which has fallen in Adam to choose idols and wickedness. Only a God-given faith can help.
Paul then quotes from memory several passages from the Greek translation of the scriptures, to demonstrate that the depravity of both Jew and Greek has already been proclaimed. The first is Ecclesiastes 7.20 (all references are to the passages as might be found in the NRSV – especially with the psalms, versification and numbering can sometimes be different in various versions):
‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
The next is a paraphrase of Psalm 14.1-3:
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.’
Then phrases from Psalms 5.9, 139.4, and 10.7:
‘Their throats are opened graves;
they use their tongues to deceive.’
‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’
‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’
A short passage from Isaiah 59.7-8:
‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery are in their paths,
and the way of peace they have not known.’
Finished with a phrase from Psalm 36.1
‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’
A key question as we go forward is how we see the grace of God being manifested to Jew and Gentile. Yes, it depends on faith, and the faith of the believer is somehow related to the faithfulness of Christ and the faithfulness of God in general. Judgement is a part of that faithfulness, in that those who have done evil will be punished and those who have suffered in faith will be raised up. Paul has a pretty negative idea of Gentiles in general and so presumes that most of them are a massa damnata, as Augustine would have put it. He’s not overly impressed with the compromised Jews who are in leadership under the Romans, seeing them as saying one thing and doing another. But he has a very positive idea of the Torah and Judaism in general, and described himself as blameless under the Law. He also has a compulsion to preach the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles, so that they might accept Christ and so escape the judgement that is coming to all Gentiles, and he sees this as a good thing. These are his basic insights, and as simple as they seem it proves complicated for him to work out what this looks like in practice. He is opposed by more conservative Jewish Christians and bedeviled by Gentile Christians who (as seen in First Corinthians) see their new freedom in Christ as a license for incest, boasting in their newfound spiritual gifts, and arrogance towards those with scruples. Paul really wants to live in the fullness of the kingdom, but the traces of sin that new Christians bring in to church with them continues to erupt and unexpected and unpleasant ways.