This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on September 17, 2017.
At first read, Romans 14:1-12 seems to deal with matters which no longer concern us: cultural and religion driven divisions over food laws and calendars. Once we dig into the text, though, its potential application to tensions among Christians of any era become apparent. I’ve found it useful to keep the following matters in mind, as I work with the text.
First, the situation may be more complex than we sometimes think. No doubt gentile Christians made up the majority of the Roman congregation, while Jewish Christ followers comprised a minority. It’s tempting to assume a simple division between two groups in which gentiles believe Kosher laws and the Jewish religious calendar obsolete and Jewish adherents insist on the necessity of observance.
My hunch is any number of the Gentile Christians in the Roman church had been God-fearers before becoming Christians. If so, many of them may have been inclined to take food laws and the Jewish calendar seriously. As for the Jewish component of the church, perhaps a number of them took the same tack as Paul with regard to such matters and felt free to observe or not observe the food laws and calendar.
This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on September 10, 2017.
Paul’s vision for how to live like a citizen of heaven in the world of the Roman Empire blends theology and ethics. He is concerned with what Christians are to do in the world and why they are to do it. Romans 13:8-14 deals with personal conduct in such a manner.
From Paul’s perspective, the ideal Christian life leaves us with only one ongoing debt: that we love others. Paul, of course, has agape, self-giving love for the sake of the other, in mind.
Such love builds and protects genuine community, whether between God and humanity or among humans. Paul points to some of the injunctions found in the second table of the Ten Commandments as negative examples of community building agape in action. When we love one another, we do not break relationships by committing adultery, taking lives, coveting others’ possessions and the like. Instead, we consciously and vigorously treat others as we might wish them to treat us.
This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on September 3, 2017.
Paul dealt with Christians who lived in a complicated world and church. The church at Rome may well have been the most complex of them all. What might Paul, who had not yet visited Rome, say to such Christ followers via a long letter?
At first reading, we can be excused for thinking Paul overloads the letter, attempts to deal piecemeal with a wide range of concerns, and in the process loses our attention (and, perhaps, the attention of the Roman Christians!). Repeated readings, though, reveal Paul focuses on only a few matters, which he then illustrates profusely.
Romans 12:9-21 is a classic example. The first phrase sets the theme of the passage: Christians must choose to allow love (agape) to govern all their interactions with others.
Paul sets a high bar with regard to love. Christian love must be genuine, something which defines us and finds ongoing expression in the world as the world is. Keep in mind Roman life was often defined by a patronage system. Powerful individuals or families measured their status by how many people looked to them. In turn, one’s place in Roman society was often determined by the status of one’s patron. Romans, in essence, treated life as a competitive game.
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?