Romans 12:1-8

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on August 27, 2017.

In his book, The Heart of Whiteness, author and professor Robert Jensen recalls an encounter he had with Les Payne.  The two men were on a panel to discuss the chapter that each had contributed to the book, When Race Becomes Real (2004).  Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, an accomplished author, and columnist, and was at that time the editor of Newsday.  As Jensen recalls, Payne was by all accounts the more experienced and seasoned of the two, especially on a complex subject such as race.  And yet as the two men sat down together on stage, Jensen remembers doing what came “naturally” to him: he felt superior to Payne.  It seems strange that a person would begin to feel superior to another whom he knows has a more accomplished record.  But, in Jensen’s own words, the feeling of superiority stemmed from one fact: Jensen is white, and Payne is black.  This superiority complex is a feeling that Jensen would later have to acknowledge and confront.

Feelings of superiority need not be limited to race relations.  One’s race may lead a person to feel superior to others outside that race.  But people may also feel superior to others on the basis of a whole host of reasons.  People feel superior on the basis of the level of their education or the institution from which they obtained their education.  People feel superior to others because of their earning power.  People feel superior to others because they reside in a “better” neighborhood.  People can feel superior because of the successful careers of their children; the list goes on and on.  Feelings of superiority seem as “natural” to the human experience as the air we breathe.  Paul’s words, then, in our passage seem unnatural: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).  Paul is asking believers not to think too highly of themselves, but rather to think of themselves in a way that would lead to “sober” understanding.  How can believers have sober judgments of themselves?  How can believers escape this seemingly “natural” feeling of superiority to others?

According to Paul, that feelings of superiority may seem “natural” to believers means that believers have “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2).  There is something to be said about how we are taught at an early age to be “proud” of ourselves, to be proud that we live in a great country, and to be proud that we are living a dream—attaining the dream means we have worked hard and have earned everything.  And there are those who seek to profit from making us feel superior—if we can spend this amount of money and adopt a certain lifestyle, we know that we are part of a superior class.  But perhaps what Paul wants to teach believers is that feelings of superiority may not seem so “natural” after all, if indeed we have presented our bodies to God as living sacrifices for transformation, the kind of transformation that results from a renewed mind (Romans 12:1-2).  The phrase “living sacrifice” sounds like an oxymoron, since creatures presented for sacrifices in Jewish and pagan temples were first slaughtered; sacrifices, whether animals or produce, are lifeless.  But believers are to be “living sacrifices,” which implies totally surrendering our being to the Creator to do with us as he pleases.  When we offer our being to God as a living sacrifice, God transforms our being by renewing our minds.  And when our minds are renewed, we begin to think of ourselves in a certain way, one that reflects sober judgment.  This is because when our minds are renewed we begin to see our individual bodies as part of a larger “body,” the body of Christ (Romans 12:5).  In this body, all members have a unique function (Romans 12:4).  Each member functions for the greater good of the overall body, because each individual has been endowed with different charismata (“gifts”).  The gifts differ according to the charis (“grace”) that God bestows on the body (Romans 12:6).  Some are prophets, others are ministers (i.e., those with gifts of service); still, others can teach and lead, while some have gifts of generosity, kindness, and compassion (Romans 12:8).  All these work together for the good of the whole body.

Paul’s choice of the terms charismata and charis is intentional.  It reminds believers that the renewing of the mind that rescues us from superiority complex reveals to us that our gifts stem from the grace of God, not for our own individual benefit, but for the benefit of the whole community.  We are supposed to put our gifts in the service of the wider community, not to hoard the benefits for ourselves and our families.  When we perceive our gifts and talents through the prism of God’s grace, it will lead to sober self-evaluation.  Grace reveals to us not only our gifts but also the gifts of others.  We realize that everyone, despite their location, skin color, or income has a gift to offer to God’s divine oikos (household).  Grace reveals to us, contrary to the standards of “this world” that we are not the result of our own making.  We are not self-made men and women; we are broken people in need of God’s grace and mercy.  Only grace can heal us from our need to feel superior.  And if we can begin to see that everything we have is the result of God’s grace, gifted to us for the sake of serving the community, then this renewal of the mind can set us on the path of sober self-assessment.


Robert Moses
Assistant Professor of Religion
High Point University, High Point, NC




Tags: superiority, sober, self-assessment, living sacrifice

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