First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 8

William Loader

Pentecost 8: 7 August  Romans 10:5-15

Paul is midstream in explaining why his gospel does not amount to a betrayal of his own people, let alone scripture. In 10:1 he has reasserted his deep concern for his people. They remain on his heart. He has not simply abandoned his heritage; nor has he turned away from scripture. In 10:2 he acknowledges their zeal, but declares it misguided. The chief problem as he sees it in 10:3-4 is that they refuse to acknowledge God's new initiative through Christ for getting people into a right relationship (righteousness). The Law is no longer the way. The new initiative spells the end of following the biblical Law as a way of being liberated. Back in Roman 7 he has explained why: it does not work.

We pick his discussion up at the point where Paul uses scripture passages in order to bolster what he is saying. First Paul uses a seemingly harmless text from Lev 18:5, which insists that that people will live by doing the commandments (10:5). Paul has probably used this passage before in argument a number of times. We find him using it also in Galatians 3:12. Here and there "live" has come to mean not just live one's life, but find life in relationship with God, even eternal life. Paul disputes that such life can be found by keeping the commandments.

Instead, he insists that the new initiative creates something that really does produce right relationship and subsequent right behaviour. He assembles some more texts to support his view. He contrasts the old way with the new way by speaking of something more immediate. Combining two texts from Deuteronomy (9:4 and 30:12) he appeals to a new way of looking at things which does not see life as obeying an external law (10:6-8). Instead it comes through a relationship with Christ. This is slightly odd, because the second passage is making the point that God's commandment is not too hard. It is not out there, faraway - above us or below us - but close by, even within our being. Instead of applying this to the commandment, however, Paul applies it to Christ. Now he uses the language of the text to say: Christ is not a distant idea far away, but within us and this is what generates the change which produces goodness in us.

It is a double shift: the contrast (between a view of the commandments of God as external and the view that sees them as being able to be written on people's hearts) becomes in his hand a contrast between the Law and the new word given us in Christ. Perhaps if we pressed Paul, he would respond by saying that when the biblical passages speak of the commandments in this way, they are not really speaking about a set of laws, but something more direct and personal - which we now see in Christ.

Paul will not have been the first to make such a move. People spoke like this about wisdom. Where can you find it? Often they identified wisdom as the essence of God's will and God's law and so the heart of the commandments. Wisdom could come and dwell with people and in them. Others dreamed about a new covenant when the law would be fully internalised. For Paul this dream of wisdom and internalisation is the key to change in people. He identifies Christ as embodying such divine wisdom. Unlike his Jewish contemporaries, however, Paul does not equate God's wisdom with the commandments. They do not match. Some are irrelevant or have served their day and should be discarded. Others are still valid, but are not to be used as the basis for living. The basis for right living and right relationship (righteousness) is being at one with the word which dwells within - which, for him, is Christ.

In 10:9-10 he shifts naturally to how this happens. How does this intimate internalised word establish itself in us? Paul's answer is clear. It is a person: Christ, the risen Christ. To accept Christ as Lord, to represent God in us and to us, is the way to liberation. Paul is concerned about liberation (salvation) for life. In 10:11 he employs another favourite text, Isaiah 28:16, which he had earlier cited just a few verses earlier in 9:33. Paul applies its word about a stumbling stone to Christ to explain why most of his fellow Jews have been tripped up. Here he uses the second half of the citation to state that if we allow Christ into the central role in our lives we shall be confident about life.

In 10:12 he swings open the vision to include all peoples. Not only is he saying: this is the way to find right life. He is also saying: this is available for anyone without discrimination. Joel 3:5 is another favourite text. He weaves it in here, to emphasise that the life is available to "whoever calls on the name of the Lord". The few verses from 10:5-12 contain a number of scripture passages which had developed a life of their own in the hands of Paul and others as early Christians tried to explain themselves. Sometimes they are put to use in ways that match their original meaning. Sometimes they go far beyond it. Through it all we nevertheless see Paul advocating some central values. It is sometimes easier to identify him at that level than it is with his particular uses of biblical passages.

The final two verses of our passage are a rhetorical flourish of Paul's by which he brings attention back to his particular role. If the new initiative is to take effect, people need to call on the name of the Lord. To do that they need to believe. To believe they need to hear about it. To hear about it someone needs to tell them through preaching. For that to happen they must be sent. That is where Paul fits in. He has a commission to preach and - reading between the lines - we can hear him saying: and my mission and my preaching is legitimate! He includes himself among those to whom the famous words of Isaiah 52:7 applies. "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one proclaiming good news, declaring to Zion: 'Your God reigns!'." We find this verse used at Qumran and early Christianity to speak of bearers of good tidings in God's final plan for history and for liberation. Paul has no hesitation in seeing his own ministry as a crucial part of God's plan.

This is not the easiest passage in Paul. He makes the same point more clearly elsewhere, but we can get his drift. Ultimately it is about a new way of relating to God based on a more internalised relationship. He had been arguing that in the previous chapters. Beside this he insists that it is available to all and that his ministry is part of God's initiative to make it accessible to all. His difficult explanations occur in the context of considerable tension, yet away from that tension his thought also has the seeds of finding much common ground with Judaism - and one might wonder also with other religious traditions - wherever people sense God as compassionate and liberating and not primarily as an external authority.

Gospel  Pentecost 8: 7 August Matthew 14:22-33

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