First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 1

William Loader

Lent 1: 17 February  Romans 10:8b-13

This snippet comes from Paul's very difficult discussion in Roman 9-11 about Israel. He stood accused of betraying his own Jewish tradition by effectively declaring that Israel's status as God's people now counted for nothing. How could Paul do such a thing? Are his accusers then and since right that he was trying to set up a new religion? Why, then, bother about the Old Testament at all? Marcion would later argue along these lines.

Paul is writing Romans from Corinth. The turbulence of his relations with Corinth lie behind him - although this is not to say they were not simmering. Paul now plans to go to Rome. He knows well through the grapevine that many, both Jews and Gentiles, in Christian communities at Rome would eye him with great suspicion. Even more, he knows that the believers at Jerusalem are far from supportive. He even asks the Romans to pray that he and his Gentile offering will be acceptable to the Judean Christians (15:30-32). In Romans Paul writes somewhat less intensely and apparently with greater reflection about some of the key issues. One major one was the status of The Law (the first and major part of Scripture), which people accused him of abandoning. But another was the status of Israel as a people.

Paul engages in a  range of arguments in Romans 9-11, finally reaching a climax where he asserts that God has not abandoned the promises to Israel. Israel is still special to God and there will be hope for them in the future, even though now they seem determined to reject Christ and the Christian message. Paul has no idea how this will happen. He calls it a mystery (11:25-36). But he cannot give up the notion that Israel is special. He cannot imagine that God will ultimately abandon Israel. This is interesting because people in other contexts seem to have no problems in assuming God will abandon people - even forever! Paul's logic appears to flow not so much from the notion that people shouldn't break promises, but from the notion that you can't just stop loving people! It is a logic rarely pursued.

In our passage, which begins rather awkwardly with the second half of 10:8, Paul is developing the argument that Israel has missed the boat. He feels deep compassion for his people (10:1), and acknowledges the strength of their devotion (10:2), but asserts that it is ill informed. He contrasts the free gift of a right relationship (righteousness) with God based on what Christ said and did, on the one hand, with the misdirected way of trying to achieve a right relationship with God on the part of his fellow Jews. Partly its fault is that it ignores God's latest offer, which is way beyond what was offered before. To keep hankering after an earlier version when the same person is offering something completely revamped is an insult. That partly explains Paul's response. The new product should mean the old one is taken off the shelf. In that sense Christ is the end of the Law (10:4).

But there is more. Paul's argument is not just based on the offence of his fellow Jews' rejecting the new model. It is also based on the quality of the new model. Thus in 10:5 he tries to do this using scripture itself. This is interesting because Paul uses some parts of scripture to reflect on scripture itself and to set priorities in interpreting scripture. So 10:5 cites Moses saying that people must keep the commandments to achieve life in a right relationship to God. Earlier in Romans 7 Paul had suggested that this does not really work. It puts too much focus on people's achievement and easily generates a syndrome where failure generates more failure and people end up not better off but worse off for all their effort.

By contrast in 10:6-8 he cites other parts of scripture (Deut 9:4; 30:12, 14; which originally are still speaking about the Law!) to argue that the Word which people need is something much more immediate and personal. Deuteronomy had been making the point that the sense of God's will was not a set of rules but something which can be in people. Paul borrows the same idea, but relates the text not just to the sense of God's will, but to the risen Jesus. The risen, living Jesus dwells with and accompanies people. Elsewhere Paul speaks of the Spirit which produces the fruits of love. Paul is still aware he is speaking not just about Jesus but about the content of faith. So this is where our passage begins. The word which Paul preaches and in which people believe gets right into people's hearts and minds. His argument is that this has a dynamic effect which the system of obedience to the Law did not have and so is another reason why it should be taken off the shelf.

So our passage is really the expansion of Paul's comment about the new product, the new offering, indeed new covenant. In 10:9-13 Paul alludes to some of the key elements in early Christian preaching. Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord is really asserting that Jesus is the person and place where we best understand who God, the Lord, is. Christians celebrated the meaning of the resurrection in an image according to which God thereby enthroned Jesus at his right hand. This is something to be believed and asserted (10:9). 10:10 neatly echoes 10:9 but in reverse. It starts with faith and the mind and ends with open acknowledgement. Becoming a Christian entails not only conviction but coming out and saying so!

Another string of Old Testament passages lies behind 10:11-13. After all Paul also wants to underline that he is not abandoning scripture! They also seem to have been favourite passages in Christian preaching of the time. Isaiah 28:16 serves to assert that if you believe you can be confident (the context in Isaiah speaks of God laying a new foundation). 10:12-13 reassert that there is no discrimination between Jews and Gentiles (which, in turn, is part of the problem). Paul runs with a notion of God's compassion which transcends differences and rejects favouritism. It also rejects the idea that God is the kind of person who could simply stop loving one day. It creates problems for Paul. A much neater solution, one commonly adopted by those who succeeded him, was that God had no such scruples: Israel is finished! Paul seeks to work out a theology which is consistently informed by the being and nature of God as caring. Where it poses problems, even for the new Christianity, Paul refuses to surrender it as a starting point.

Gospel: Lent 1: 17 February Luke 4:1-13

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