Some backstory: Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, a rabbi. In the spirit of the Hebrew prophets of old, for whom social transformation had been a matter of spiritual transformation, Rabbi Jesus invited his fellow Jews to practice their faith with terrific vigor and ardency – and this with an eye toward national renewal.1 He lifted up the ancient Law of Moses; committed obedience to the Torah, to the commandments, was to set off Israel as a counterculture within the Empire. Jesus imagined that the moral seriousness of the Jewish people would be so innately compelling and suasive as to draw out the Roman world from its degeneracy, and that, thus, a new age of fraternity and flourishing would dawn. Spoiler alert – Jesus died. And in the time between his death in Jerusalem and Paul’s writing to the Romans, in the twenty or thirty years that had passed, two strange somethings happened. The first strange something: there were sightings of Jesus of Nazareth. No small number of people put forward what was, even then, a remarkable and bizarre, frankly unbelievable claim – that they had been visited by the dead rabbi. Some 500 or so insisted upon having had (call it what you will if you are the skeptical sort) a mystical encounter with Jesus.
The second strange something, which is much less odd, but curious all the same: the teachings of Jesus were taken up in earnest by Gentiles in every corner of the Empire. Non-Jews found themselves drawn to the pathos and the moral clarity of Jesus’ kind of Judaism to a degree that Jews never did. This dynamic – quite a lot of Gentiles thinking they could out-Jewish the Jewish, and the Jews thinking, just like: ‘ummmmm…’ – created a colossal disturbance. To appreciate the magnitude of the confusion and upset, which as modern Christians can be difficult, consider by way of an analogy the relationship of 19th Century American Protestantism to a little upstart sect called the Latter-Day Saints. Our Congregationalist great-great-great-grandparents and the like (beyond flummoxed at what they saw as a disgraced charlatan locating in the scriptures unusual, new meaning they denied to be there), said ‘you are not one of us.’ To which the Mormons replied, maddeningly, ‘we are more you than you!’ While the Protestant establishment, with all the advantages of power, could exert itself against Joseph Smith and his followers, the Jews of the Roman Empire, a small minority themselves, in the best of times merely tolerated and in the worst of times under threat, could not do much about the little upstart sect troubling their communities. And their communities indeed were troubled: Gentiles intrigued by the Judaism of Jesus overran the synagogues, causing uproar and schisms. For centuries, in fact, well into the 400s, Christians continued to worship in synagogues. (We might still be worshipping in synagogues had not resentful pastors grown annoyed with the rabbis’ sway over their parishioners and forbade their flocks from stepping foot inside them, observing the Sabbath, celebrating Jewish feasts, etc.! Read John Chrysostom’s rather scathing sermons for a real treat.)
But that all is backstory. The story, then: the community in Rome to which Paul wrote knew this tumult well. The community was comprised of devout Jews who believed Jesus had called them into a deeper practice of Judaism, and, and of non-Jews who claimed this Judaism for themselves – or rather, who claimed most of this Judaism, the Judaism of Rabbi Jesus, for themselves. As Rabbi Jesus taught: They forsook the gods of their youth, henceforth to go sorrowing and rejoicing to the God of Israel, to the God of Israel only. They served the God of Israel by serving those for whom the God of Israel had a special love: widows, orphans, the poor, the dying, the alien. They took up the Torah in joyful devotion…. all but what seemed to them to be one teensy part of the Torah, which Jesus had not said much about anyway. No matter how desperately the Jews tried to convince these would-be Jews that, to the contrary, in the symbolic universe of Judaism, this ‘small’ issue was no such thing, still the Gentiles (the men among them) would not give; they would not be circumcised, would not undergo that ancient rite of initiation by which belonging was sealed and one’s crossing over from them to us was celebrated. Soon outright conflict raged, with Jews insisting that the Judaism of Jesus was Judaism and that, as such, all the obligations of Judaism appertain, and with non-Jews insisting that the Judaism of Jesus was of Jesus and that this, somehow, changes things.
Paul’s interest in writing to the Romans was pastoral in nature; he wanted to keep the community from rending itself. He was struggling to bridge these seemingly irreconcilable differences and to speak across premises and assumptions that were not shared. Much of what Paul said to the Romans was born of exigency and served his purposes of placating the stubborn. On the one hand, he needed to appease the Jews and affirm the abiding significance of Jewish identity as they had always understood it; and on the other hand, he needed to appease the non-Jews and affirm the novel and unusual attachment to Jewish identity they had come to form. Given the particularities of this conflict, what Paul had to do, then, was praise the law and at the same time push it somewhat to the side. So, in a conciliatory overture to the Jews, Paul celebrated the moral, spiritual trying that the law makes possible: it holds the attention to matters of ethical significance, it quickens the conscience, it facilitates the choice of right over wrong. The law, Paul said, is good. ‘This guy is great!’ the Jews would have thought. But, for the sake of the Gentiles, Paul (in the passage we heard read this morning) took a sharp turn. He exaggerated the sense of frustration and distress that comes when moral, spiritual trying leads, as of course it sometimes will, to moral, spiritual failing. The law, Paul said, is good – but it makes us feel bad. His intent here was to subtly impugn the Torah, to insinuate that the gift of it is in fact a burden, the blessing a curse. The guilt that comes from trying and failing to keep its commandments is so enfeebling, Paul argued, one can only conclude that the struggle of obedience is not conducive to religious flourishing. Loosen up about the law, Paul advised, for your own sake (and, by the way, for the sake of those Gentiles who cannot bring themselves to keep it to your liking).
The polemical tenor of Paul’s rhetoric reflected the hot emotional charge of the context in which he wrote. His argument was over-determined by his need to win it, and in that, the whole thing was undermined. ‘Methinks the Apostle doth protest too much’ came the response of the Jews, who rightly saw that Paul took the burden of compromising to be theirs alone to bear. Conflict never did die down, and slowly, there was a cleaving of the community. The Judaism of Jesus became Christianity. This may have been inevitable, but it was not at all inevitable that Jewish piety maligned, be saddled with negative associations and unfair characterizations in the process. Paul, of course, had no idea that his words – the words of a Jew speaking to other Jews — would supply the imperial Church of later centuries with aspersions to cast and anti-Semitic tropes to trot out: the shaking, guilt-wracked Jew, troubled of soul, but too stubborn or too stupid to see that Christ would save him from the futility of trying and failing, trying and failing. Paul had no idea that his words would be weaponized, but they were. To this day, they are. Christians turn them upon Jews, Protestants turn them upon Catholics, fire-and-brimstone preachers turn them upon their parishioners. But this need not be so. The law and the life of moral struggle, of trying and sometimes failing, but of trying – the law is not a problem Jesus solves or a quagmire Jesus saves us from, but rather a joy in which Jesus shares with us. Grace is not a remedy for the guilt we feel in falling short; grace is the very gift-giving-ness of God, is a shorthand for the movement of God toward us in generosity and benevolence, manifest first in the law, in the gift of guidance on the journey of life, and then, and then (to circle back and back and back to that most important strange something), and then in the gift of an encounter with Jesus, in the gift of a mystical knowing that we are accompanied, are companioned in the work of obedience, are cheered and strengthened for love’s and goodness’ sake by nothing less than the presence to us and in us of Love, of Goodness itself.
1For more on Jesus as a Jewish teacher/prophet (as opposed to Jesus as a proto-Democrat – which, despite liberal Protestants’ insistence on his progressivism, has too much the ring of wishful thinking to be historically plausible), see: E.P. Sanders, ‘Jesus and Judaism’, Paula Fredriksen, ‘From Jesus to Christ’, and N.T. Wright, ‘The New Testament and the People of God’.