Romans Bible Guide – Day Seven
February 21, 2016
Sunday, February 21 – Romans 2:17-29
Previously, in Romans: As Paul discusses our common human fate, how we are all accountable to God for our lives, he increasingly focuses on how little external status and privilege matters to God.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God 18 and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, 19 and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, 21 you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 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.
Points of Interest:
- ‘boast of your relation to God’ – Paul is still in his mode of diatribe, arguing with an imaginary opponent, who we’ve come to see as another Jew like Paul, but one who is fixated on his status as the guarantee of his special relationship with God. Though Paul is addressing an individual, in talking about boasting, I think he has groups in mind. Even Roman elites thought it wasn’t proper to boast too much about one’s own abilities or qualifications. That said, they had no qualms with group boasting, with insisting that one’s own culture was far greater than any others’. Jews and Gentiles alike in Paul’s era lived in honor/shame cultures, where to be of a group of higher honor or status was central to one’s identify and esteem.
A compelling contemporary philosopher, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, has argued that our own 21st century American culture has become an honor/shame culture as well. Boasting of fame or significance is how we find our meaning and worth as well. This would explain the intense alienation and rage we see when members of society feel they have lost their place and privilege. Paul seems to find all this misguided.
- ‘if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, and a light to those who are in darkness’ – Who would say all these such a thing? Well, some of Paul’s fellow Jews would. These five phrases Paul rattles off in vs. 19-20 were points of ethnic pride for first century Jews. Paul would have been raised to prize the moral superiority of his own people over against the Gentiles that surrounded them in the Greco-Roman rule. To be fair, anti-Semitism isn’t a modern invention. Jews were in many ways a persecuted minority in the Roman empire, and ethnic pride is both more understandable and less offensive when you’re not in a position of dominance. Still, Paul clearly is not sure that these kind of external ethnic markers are serving well the goals of connecting with God or living in diverse community.
- ‘do you steal/commit adultery/rob temples?’ Well, no Paul. The average Jew was not a temple-robbing, adulterous thief. It’s kind of an odd series of questions Paul is using to make his point. Either these are metaphorical thefts and temples and so forth, and there’s a spiritual way that Paul’s fellow Jews are guilty of these things. Or Paul’s sticking with groups, not individuals here. There were certainly Jewish thieves and temple-robbers and so forth to be found, as there were amongst every ethnicity.
That religious people are claiming to be special because of their religion is actually creating an embarrassment for God. This combination of moral smugness and hypocrisy isn’t a particularly winsome combination in any religious community.
- ‘circumcision indeed is of value’ – Male circumcision is an ancient cultural practice, called by some the world’s oldest planned medical procedure. Jews associated circumcision with their founding father Abraham and the first promises God made to them as a people. It had become one of the principal identity-marker for Jews.
- ‘your circumcision has become uncircumcision’ – Paul seems more neutral on the practice. If circumcision is doing something good for your heart or morality, then fine. But if it’s not, don’t bother. If you’re standing against God – whether through your thieving and adultery or whether through your attitude of ethnic and moral superiority over others – then Paul says you might as well reattach that foreskin to your penis, for all the good circumcision is doing.
- ‘real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal’ – Paul completes a radical redefinition of religion, spirituality, and belonging. What makes you a Jew, Paul says, isn’t any classic identity marker and isn’t knowledge or tradition you’ve inherited. It’s doing what God wants. It’s a heart attitude toward God that produces God’s own praise, whatever other people think about it.
Taking It Home:
For you – Is there anything in your religion or culture that you bank on to tell you who are? Perhaps anything that has made you feel better than people of other religions or cultures? If so, that might be a distraction or even an impediment toward God’s work in you. Can you name it today, and ask God to reduce its importance to you.
For your world – If you’re an American like me, you live in a country which has a degree of exceptionalism – the confidence that we’re better than others and don’t need to play by the same rules – far beyond what Paul’s first century Jews had. However you’re comfortable, ask that our country would take a humbler view of our place in the world. Pray too that the associations some people have between the story of Jesus and American history wouldn’t drive people away from Jesus.