Sunday, July 10, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 12:9-21

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.

Romas 12:9-21 ~~ The verses that follow and conclude Romans 12 are a series of largely miscellaneous exhortations by Paul to the congregation at Rome regarding Christian behavior and belief.

Romans 12:9a ~~ "Let love be without hypocrisy." We are called to live with a spirit of Christian charity (caritas, the highest form of love) that is genuine and without deceit. Hypocrisy in its original Greek sense referred to play-acting, specifically the masks or personas worn by actors on stage.

Romans 12:9b ~~ "Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good." This is a largely unextraordinary verse, except for the realization that it is prescribing specific emotional reactions to moral questions. We sometimes find it easy to distinguish between "the true," "the good," and "the beautiful." This ought not be. Paul exhorts us to abhor evil, and cling (a word connoting unyielding fidelity, perhaps even a sort of desperation) to the good. In other words, he exhorts us to make a habit of responding to questions of good and evil with the same kind of aesthetic judgment that we normally associate with beauty: that is, pleasure or disgust.

Romans 12:10 ~~ "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor." This exhortation reminds me of nothing quite so much as the passage beginning with Ephesians 5:21 -- "be subject to one another in the fear of Christ." The rest of that passage is concerned with the implications of that general (catholic in the sense of universal) command: how we truly are to rank ourselves beneath others, and become eager and diligent servants working for each others' good.

Romans 12:11-13 ~~ In the next three verses, Paul's grammar switches from imperative (giving direct commands in the previous verses) to a participle (denoting an ongoing present action). I honestly couldn't say why there's a change, though (unless it is merely the caprice of the translators) I'm sure there's some meaning to it.

Romans 12:11 ~~ "Not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord." Having established the conduct (to serve one another) as an expression of Christ's command (to love one another; love your neighbor as yourself), Paul moves on to speak of the Great Commandment: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind" (Luke 10:27). In this case, there's particular emphasis on being a servant of God, with all the attendant virtues of diligence and fervor in that service.

Romans 12:12-13 ~~ "Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality." There's an interesting dichotomy in these two verses that is also present in the chapter as a whole. Paul begins with internals -- directing how one ought to respond to times of hope or tribulation -- but moves on to externals -- how one ought to express Christian charity to fellow believers or to strangers.

Romans 12:14-21 ~~ "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." Paul resumes writing in the imperative tense, and the rest of the letter emphasizes conduct-oriented externals (with the possible exception of verse 16).

Romans 12:15 ~~ "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." We are directed to empathize totally with others, to identify ourselves so entirely in others that we can become their brother or sister regardless of the moods of the moment.

Romans 12:16 ~~ "Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation." Considering the first and last parts are concerned with the conduct of one's mind, the middle part of this verse seems distinctly out of place. Why is "associate with the lowly" sandwiched between intellectually oriented exhortations? The answer may be found in the alternate text, found in some manuscripts: "Do not be haughty in mind, but accommodate yourself to lowly things." This strikes me as a truer and much more intriguing statement, especially as it sheds light on the next part of the verse: "Do not be wise in your own estimation." We are to consider the "lowly things" (does Paul mean material things, or menial things, or perhaps even things we might consider boring?) in part as an antidote to our own haughtiness of mind and our tendency for self-satisfied reflection.

Romans 12:17 ~~ "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Take thought for what is right in the sight of men." What a phenomenal verse. Our emotional reactions to evil are to abhor it (v. 9), but we are not to allow that emotion to direct our behavior in response. We are to "take thought for what is right," and conduct ourselves in accordance with that reasoned moral path. Also, note that we look for "what is right in the sight of men": the moral standards of other humans is to be our guide, though we are probably to rely more on collective conscience than on culture.

Romans 12:18 ~~ "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." Another great verse. It doesn't set unrealistic expectations, in the sense of demanding peace with all men regardless of what "all men" may have to say in response. But the exhortation is to do your darnedest to ensure that peace. We are expected to contribute to moral outcomes and judged by those outcomes, but that judgment is solely to the degree that we were responsible for them.

Romans 12:19 ~~ "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God." Interesting addition of "beloved" in the middle of that statement. It almost comes across in a patronizing or condescending way, as though this were a regular reminder by an apostolic parent to the wayward child-church. Check out the next verse, though, which quotes Proverbs 25:21-22.

Romans 12:20 ~~ "But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." (Proverbs 25:22 concludes, "and the Lord will reward you"). I'm pretty sure this verse should disturb us in a number of ways. The editorial notes in my study Bible takes a more charitable approach: "doing good to one's enemies... may bring about his [sic] repentance." But the actual text of the verse operates in a rather less charitable vein. For one, it points to the simple truth that revenge (paying back evil for evil) is not nearly as satisfying on an emotional level as the moral one-upsmanship of repaying evil with good. To know in your heart "in this moment I am a better and bigger man than he" is almost infinitely more satisfying than a thrill of instant gratification that is tainted by a loss of your moral self-respect. Moreover, the verse indicates that a charitable response is in itself a judgment against the evildoer: for if judgment is in accordance with the good done unto us, then we are in reality heaping "burning coals on his head." The very charity of our response, if it doesn't inspire repentance, serves as a divine receipt that our enemy is truly and royally screwed. Lastly, the very verse that Paul quotes from Proverbs indicates that a moral response will not only guarantee our ultimate triumph over our enemies, but will also be a cause for our reward. Our ability to overcome our grievances -- to forgive and serve those who hate and hurt us -- will be a source of our eternal reward.

Romans 12:21 ~~ "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." This is a delightful verse, readily accessible for devout kids to memorize at AWANA camps. Speaking for myself, whenever I see this verse I think of the Newsboys song "Elle G" -- a haunting dirge ("elegy") about a girl who commits suicide in despair for her inability to overcome evil with good. Returning to the verse, however I wonder if there might not be a more direct meaning than we suspect. In light of the previous verse exhorting us to "heap burning coals on his head," the statement "overcome evil with good" starts to seem rather disconcertingly literal.

Take a deep breath. After the last three verses in Romans 12, that's a distinct necessity. In light of our moral intuitions, I think it's only natural (and certainly forgivable) that we find those last few verses either dismaying or outright disturbing. There is a grotesque directness to the appeal, as though the promise of judgment or wrath were a sort of heavenly bribe. God seems to be bribing us to act morally: He flavors the exhortation "never pay back evil for evil" (v. 17) with the promise that "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay" (v. 19). He diverts the flow of our wrath, keeping us from wreaking our own revenge by guaranteeing His own. But God is an unscrupulous fellow, and a master chessman. He doesn't shy away from using any and all means of persuasion to bring us around and into His Presence. This is evident in Isaiah, where the Lord says: "Come now, and let us reason together.... If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken" (Isaiah 1:18-20). Can we fathom the Divine Humility that would accept us on such terms, that would permit us to enter His Kingdom even if we are solely motivated by self-preservation. We are such base creatures that in many cases we can only be enticed into eternal paradise with such offers, offers to keep our lives in order and our pride intact.
Blessed is the Name of the Lord.

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