Today’s blog uses the Episcopal daily reading along with a headline from world news:
Protected green pastures for elephants in Kenya
25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.26So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?27Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law.28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.29Rather, 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.
3Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?2Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews* were entrusted with the oracles of God.3What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?4By 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.’*
5But 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.)6By no means! For then how could God judge the world?7But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?8And 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!<!– 9 –>
None Is Righteous
9 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,10as it is written:
‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.’
13 ‘Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive.’
‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’
14 ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’
15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 ruin and misery are in their paths,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.’
18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’
1. The Jewish custom of male circumcision is of value only if it is an outward sign of a decent and law-abiding life.
2. Gentiles who live a decent and law-abiding life are more truly “circumcised” than Jews who don’t.
3. The real advantage of the Jews is that God entrusted his revelation to them.
4. The Jewish people have been unfaithful to the revelation of God and have been justly punished; but God remains faithful.
5. Nobody should think his sins are OK because they show up, by contrast, the goodness of God!
6. Jews and Gentiles, indeed all human beings are sinful and deserve God’s anger.
Why didn’t Paul say it as clearly as that? I suspect it’s because he knows he’s dealing with a sensitive issue for some of his readers, so much so that at this point he doesn’t reveal his real analysis of the Jewish Torah: that its day is finished; it was only ever a childminder for unruly children; now with Jesus, the children of God have grown up and don’t need it anymore. (Galatians 4). Sure, he goes on to give a nuanced account of the weakness of the religious law in Chapter 7 of Romans, where he asserts that the Law is holy but is used by the power of sin to lead people into disobedience. It’s a powerful analysis, but by no means as blunt as his words in Galatians. Of course it must have been clear to Paul that in his role as persecutor of the first Christians, he had obeyed the law while doing evil. He knew at first hand how a religious law could be twisted into an instrument of human power. I think that Paul’s excitable rhetoric in this passage is because he’s trying to do a delicate balancing act, knowing that some of his readers are, like himself, Jewish.
If our true conviction seems bad news to others, there’s no point in dressing it up. We might as well state it plainly. I’ve found myself becoming vague and unnecessarily complex when preaching about Jesus’ view of wealth to people who have some. The truth is, Jesus thought the possession of wealth was likely to send you to hell, but saying so won’t make me popular. Paul has more excuse than me, of course, as he was teaching a new concept of God altogether; that we don’t need religious Law to bring us close to God or to please God. God is pleased with us – even while we are sinners- and has come close to us in his son Jesus. There’s nothing for us to do except trust God who makes us into just people and enables us to look after our neighbour. Who needs religion?
In the end we might say that sometimes Paul writes in a difficult and complex way because he saying something so new and momentous that even he is stunned by it.
Here for comparison is a passage from 2nd Corinthians 5 where Paul expresses his astonishing message with confidence and clarity. (my translation)
“For Messiah’s love compels me-
-since I’ve come to this conclusion: that one died for all, (so in a sense, all died!); and he died for all, so that the living might no longer live for themselves, but for Him, who died and rose again for them-
-his love compels me from now on to see nobody with worldly eyes; even if I’ve seen Messiah Jesus with worldly eyes, I no longer do so. For if anyone is in Messiah, there is new creation: old things have slipped away; new things have arrived, all of which are from God, who reconciled me to Himself through Messiah, and gave me the ministry of reconciliation:
that God was in Messiah, reconciling the world to Himself, not reckoning their faults to their account; and He has entrusted me with the word of reconciliation. So I’m Messiah’s ambassador, God making his entreaty through me. I plead on his behalf : be reconciled to God. The One- who- knew- no- sin, God made him into sin for our sake, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.”