Commentaries on Romans
Jesus presented himself as the Savior. First of all he wanted to save the Jewish people. He spoke to them of the kingdom and they understood: God would reign over them just as he would reign in their lives. Their collective aspirations were not unknown to him, but he oriented them towards a more universal mission: it was truly “good news” for them.
With the beginning of the mission into Roman territory the Gospel had equally to be good news for the Greeks of the Roman Empire who were listening to the word of the apostles. Protected by solid structures that no-one questioned, they did not share the Jewish longing for liberation. In absorbing them the Roman Empire had practically reduced to nothing the pride and ambitions of nations great and small, leaving a void for religious concerns to take root. These people were interested in all that related to the human person and searched high and low in a jumble of doctrines and religions as a means of escaping Fate. So it was essential to speak to them of Christ, as the one who unravels our contradictions and gives us life.
In this letter to the Christians of Rome, capital of the Empire, Paul intends to respond to the concerns of the Greeks but without thereby neglecting the Jews. Jews were numerous in the Roman community as in all of the Roman Empire, and for those who believed in Christ it was difficult to reposition themselves towards God after a great majority of their own people had rejected the Christian faith. Up to then they had shared the hope of their people thinking that all Israel would recognize the coming of the Savior God. Now they were apparently no more than a minority on the margin of a long, biblical history.
The Letter to the Romans is for the most part a long exposition about Christian vocation. To us it will seem difficult, because that is what it is. We shall find there discussions and use of biblical texts which will often disconcert us, for Paul discusses as he had learned to do in the rabbinical schools of Jerusalem. It must be remembered that Paul’s teaching does not stem from a doctrinal system or from a theology: rather it constantly springs from his own experience. The encounter with the Risen Christ, the call made to Paul that put him at the service of the Gospel, the long experience as an apostle, the gifts of the Spirit acting in him and constant communion with Jesus: these were the sources of his vision of faith.
So Paul spoke of God’s salvation as if forgetful of the explosive Palestinian context where Jewish nationalism was at grips with the Romans and where all religious hopes were politicized. God’s salvation is the salvation of the human race, a total project, but taking place in the heart of people; all will depend on our response to God’s call: can we trust him?
Paul, marked by his own history, presents the beginning of faith as dramatic conversion. People are slaves to Sin (it would be necessary to understand what Paul means by that). We have been created to share the life of God, and as long as we do not achieve this we carry within ourselves a conscious or unconscious rebellion against God. Must we turn towards religion? We would gain very little, says Paul, with insistence that will shock many people: as long as we believe in becoming “good” through religious practices we turn our back on the only power that can free us: God’s merciful love. The only response he expects from us is our act of faith, a faith which immediately frees us.
This salvation is the one announced by the Bible, but it will disconcert those believers who do not go beyond religious practices. These belong to a first stage of sacred history that ended with Jesus’ death. Our baptism gives us entrance to a mysterious world which is no other than the Risen Christ: from now on we are “in Christ”, and living by his Spirit. The gift of the Spirit opens a new era where all is inspired by the law of love, for those who have become true sons and daughters of God.
Paul then returns to the problem of the Jewish people: what are we to think of all this history of Israel to which God promised a savior, and who finally fail to recognize him? Paul shows that two questions are not to be confused: the call of a people to whom God entrusts a special role in history and the call of persons who belong to this people. For each one faith in Christ will be the result of a free call of God.
Paul sent this letter in 57 or 58 probably from Corinth. Up till then he addressed himself to the communities he knew and whose difficulties he was aware of. This time it is not the case; at the end of his exposé he will speak in a fairly general way of Christian life and very specially of the way to accept one another among persons of very different origins. In Rome as elsewhere, it was not easy to unite in one community, Jews and converted pagans. Paul already preached what we ourselves find difficult to put into practice: accept those who are different.
The Letter to the Romans in the Church
It is now impossible to speak of the letter to the Romans without saying at least a word on the place it has held and continues to hold in Protestant Churches. It has been considered by many as the key to the interpretation of the whole bible.
It is known that Luther deepened the Reformation by commenting on this epistle. He was not wrong in seeing in this letter the condemnation of a Church established in the world, where faith had been degraded, becoming no more than practice devoid of faith which saves. The Christianity of the Middle Ages was in fact a people, rather like what the people of Israel had become. A person was a Christian by birth and continued to be one; he/she could be a believer, but as one is in any culture whatever. It was thought that salvation was gained by religious rites and by the practice of good deeds that merited heaven.
It was therefore very important to remember that faith is at the heart of every conversion, and that this conversion is the response to a freely given call from God. This letter emphasizes Christ the Savior and this emphasis was sufficient to devaluate the whole religious system which at the time was crushed by tradition and devotions. There was faith, at a time when preaching rarely touched on anything other than morality with its catalogues of moral principles. There was the word of God directed towards the individual person at a time when people were quite happy to trust Church leaders. It was then, a radical criticism of the Church which ended up looking at itself instead of turning towards God, and of a Church whose whole system—political, doctrinal and repressive, blocked the horizon.
We have said, however, that this letter had its roots in Paul’s experience as a Jew, a Pharisee and as an apostle called directly by Christ. It is from that point that Paul spoke of sin and justification, of call, of salvation through faith. For their part, Luther and his contemporaries read this letter against the backdrop of their own problems—or better—of their anguish.
They magnified the perspective of sin and eternal condemnation, victims of a philosophy (nominalism) in which nothing was good or bad in itself but only if God declares it so. Because of that everything Paul said about predestination of the Jewish people was interpreted by them as a personal predestination to heaven or hell.
When Paul spoke of justification—a word which at that time had a large and imprecise meaning—he meant that God re-establishes in us an order which is the true one; they understood instead that, if we believe, God will accept us even if nothing has been changed in us. The great perspectives of humankind and history as a battlefield of sin and grace, were reduced to a personal problem: am I really free or am I enslaved to sin or grace. Taking literally Paul’s images and comparisons, a doctrine of original sin was developed in which we all pay now and forever, for the sin of our first ancestors.
Several generations of protestants and catholics have been marked by these controversies: salvation through faith alone, or through faith and works, or through faith, works and sacraments? The love of the Father who saves and of Christ the Savior were eclipsed in fact by an obsession for salvation: how can I escape from this rigid frame in which God confines me? The concept of a just God, of inexorable decisions, which so easily condemns people into hell would traumatize the Occident and prepare a revolt in the next centuries, that of militant atheism.
It is not pointless for us today to know this. We are all children of our time and the remedy, if we do not wish to be enslaved, is to not give over-importance to one biblical text to the detriment of others. When you have become familiar with Paul and first with the letter to the Romans you see that for him the Father of Jesus is really father, and passionately loved. Thousands of details are to be discovered in Paul that disclose his experience of a continual communion and a life “in” the Triune God, an experience very close to that of St. John.
That will not prevent us from finding in this letter just what Luther, after St. Augustine, saw there: a genial presentation of the mystery of humanity redeemed by Christ. There is a certain forgetfulness perhaps of this letter and of this doctrine which too often has allowed Catholics to hem themselves in by their practices and their sacraments, and neglect mission.
• 1.1 Paul, an apostle called and set apart for God’s Good News. Paul speaks of the Gospel three times in this paragraph. In his time the word Gospel, which signifies Good News, conveyed the meaning of victory. Paul presents himself as one announcing the liberating message given to all humankind.
What is Paul’s Gospel? He develops it briefly in the following lines. The Son of God has come down to earth and after sharing our common condition, has through his Resurrection, taken possession of the Glory due to him.
An apostle called and set apart… (v. 1). The twelve apostles were selected by Jesus and confirmed in their mission by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Here Paul reminds us that he himself was made an apostle by Jesus, who met him on the road to Damascus.
Recognized as the Son of God (v. 4). Another possible translation: constituted, or designated as Son of God. That does not mean that Jesus was not the Son of God before his resurrection, but he was so really one of us that nothing of his divinity showed. On the day of the resurrection, the Spirit of God “invaded” his human nature: from now on he is present and active in our history as the Son of God.
Paul usually reserves the term “God” for God the Father, fountain of the divine being, from whom all divine initiatives originate. The Father communicates his life to the Son. The Son, for his part, reflects this life back to the Father in such a way that they mutually generate the Holy Spirit. The whole vocation of a Christian is rooted in this life of God, and that is why Paul constantly mentions the names of the three divine Persons.
We will encourage each other by sharing our common faith (v. 12). The apostle, as well as the believer, needs to share anxieties, hopes and a common faith. The Church is a fellowship and in order to develop our Christian life, we must multiply meetings in which we can be in communion with one another.
• 16. I am not ashamed… (v. 16). He who is proclaimed Savior by Paul is a crucified Jew, an unknown carpenter. How often they laughed at Paul when he spoke about this dead man who had risen from the tomb to be the Judge of humankind!
It is God’s power… (v. 16). The miracles that accompany the preaching of the Gospel are signs of God’s powerful action in transforming people and history in every place where the Gospel is preached and inspires those who hear it.
Upright… righteous… righteousness (v. 17). The word justice used by Paul also signifies uprightness. On the other hand, when he speaks of the justice of God usually he is not saying that God is just: his justice denotes an intervention to keep order in the world. In a special way the justice of God has humans to become just, that is, upright before his eyes. It is a matter of understanding that the words justice and just had a wide meaning in the Christian vocabulary and now simply designate all that is good: being just speaks of a life as God would have it. The just person is rather like a saint, in the way we understand it today, or putting it more modestly, she is as she should be in God’s eyes.
For that reason we shall at times translate God justifies us by: God makes us just and holy, or: God gifts us with true righteousness.
The Jews, like most humans, thought that people become righteous by their own efforts. Paul retorts that the righteousness God wants is something much greater and beyond what human efforts can achieve. We are upright and friends of God when he allows us to approach him after making us holy by his grace.
The apostles preached the Gospel to two classes of persons:
– the Jews, prepared by God to receive the Savior,
– the Greeks (or people who spoke the Greek language). In fact the Jews considered Greek all those who were subjects of the Roman Empire. These people did not know the Word of God, nor did they have any hope in him.
Paul shows that all people need the Gospel. Because the world lives in sin, and all of us to a greater or lesser degree are responsible for existing evil, we must believe in the Gospel if we want to be saved.
• 18. In these paragraphs Paul speaks of the pagan world of the Greeks, which included the great majority of humankind who had not received the word of God. In reality, God had not been absent from their conscience, and through centuries of civilization and religious research they tried to know God and the truth. Paul shows the failure of such human endeavor; ignorance and immorality are much more prevalent in the countries where God had not spoken as he did to the Jews.
They knew God and did not glorify him as was fitting… (v. 21). We have to compare this text with another famous one, found in Wisdom 13, and with the speech of Paul in Acts 17:27-29. In these verses the Bible shows clearly that it is possible for everyone to know God. Anyone who looks at the world and reflects on life easily finds signs of the presence of God. Yet, when one lives in sin, truth is silenced. People do not openly deny God; they simply ignore him.
Faith is neither an option nor a luxury, as if we could well do without it. Certainly a majority on the planet do without it comfortably. Yet, if we were to withdraw all that comes from faith in our culture and life, the world would die for want of hope, as is already the case with nations and ideologies that have renounced it. This is why, in announcing the Gospel we free people who are truly in need of the Gospel, even though they may feel satisfied with themselves.
God gave them up to their inner cravings. Paul stresses the fact of homosexual relationships. In the Greek world, sexual relations especially between men were accepted and even praised by the greatest philosophers. Paul says: such an attitude is not the sign of a more open or free spirit, but comes from their ignorance of God.
This condemnation which only repeats those of the Old Testament (Lev 20:13) astonishes even Christians in the countries where the real religion is liberalism. Total sexual license with, in particular, the acceptance of such relationships flows from an idolatry proper to the liberal society, which has become a society of consumption. There, for those who are well off and in good health, the ideal is to satisfy every desire and profit from life to the maximum. Once God has been replaced by creatures, animals or fabricated articles, one can have him say everything, because, in fact his Glory is not known and darkness fills the mind.
In fact, homosexual relationships are a form of idolatry of one’s body. It is not, of course, a question of condemning those inclined towards homosexuality, whether it be by nature, or much more often, through cultural deformation.
• 2.1 You have no excuse, whoever you are… Paul addresses the Jews, who wait for God’s judgment on the world and are convinced that they will not be condemned, since they have the true religion. Paul reminds them of something we ourselves know: the greater our religious knowledge, the more arguments we have to justify our faults.
God will give glory… (v. 10). Paul has just condemned the injustice and wrongdoing of the pagan world. Now he recognizes that many who have not received a religious education do indeed live justly. In the next paragraph Paul affirms that:
– God will judge each one according to his own lights; our conscience will fully agree with this judgment of God on us;
– God also has sons and daughters among those who do not believe: he will judge them as he does for us, according to the path on which he has placed them.
On different occasions Paul opposes letter and spirit (vv. 27-29).
Letter denotes the written commandments that Jews observe but which remain exterior to them; the aim of these commandments was to lead them to conversion of heart: this is the spirit God wants. Two sets of words are in contrast in Paul’s letters: flesh, old covenant, commandments, Law, letter… and Spirit, spirit, new covenant, promise…
• 3.1 We have just demonstrated that all, Jews and non-Jews, are under the power of sin (v. 9). This is the central sentence of the paragraph. The Jews must, like others, rely on faith and be converted. That is what they have difficulty in understanding, since they have always been believers. They think they are good and are true believers, because they have been instructed in the faith. They trust in being saved merely for being marked in their body by circumcision.
What is the advantage of being a Jew? (v. 1). This is probably what the Jews will ask on hearing of salvation offered to those who do not know the Law, which means the religion taught by God. The same question is asked by Christians in modern times from the very moment they no longer believe that anyone living without Christ and the Church will go to hell. They think: “How fortunate if we were like them: we would be saved without having to follow a burdensome Christian morality!” Paul sees no advantage for the Jew, and we none for the Christian, except in terms of responsibility: God has entrusted his words to them.
In this way our baptism gives us membership with a minority called “people of God,” to whom God entrusts a mission to the world, along with many others who go to God without explicit knowledge of his secrets and his Christ. Baptism is not an assurance that gives us the right to feel better than others.
What comes from the Law is the consciousness of sin (v. 20). The Jewish law, or the law of Moses, is that body of religious, liturgical, moral and social laws governing the people of Israel (see 7:4). In the letters of Paul, the Law sometimes designates the Bible and at other times the Jewish religion. Many Jews thought that they deserved a reward for practicing the Law, but Paul says: true holiness is neither the result of our works nor a reward for them.
• 21. Paul has developed two points: the world lives in sin; and the practice of the Law is not enough to obtain salvation. He then presents the Good News: God has come to save us through Christ.
All lack the glory of God. God is not satisfied with the actual state of humankind, even if the latter feel quite satisfied with their mediocre condition. He calls us to share his Glory, that is, everything in God that makes him great, happy and everlasting. God has created us to bring us into communion with him, and as he is out of reach, he reaches out his hand to us and makes us just (v. 21). We have already said in 1:17 that when Paul speaks of the justice of God he means God’s way of making us upright at his eyes. God makes us just and holy.
Now, confronting all those who think they are worthy before God because of their own efforts, because they fulfill all the commandments, Paul says: true holiness must be given to us. For there is no other righteousness or holiness than sharing the perfection and love that are in God himself.
Paul finds it very hard to explain the mystery of salvation with the religious words available at the time, many of which refer to a violent God. He has just spoken of the justice of God, but has pointed out that this “justice” is before anything else, a merciful intervention that makes us holy. He spoke of God’s anger, but the result of this anger is the coming of the Savior. He tells us now that God made Christ the victim we needed for the atonement of our sins; but we must not think that God, in anger, demands the suffering of an innocent victim. God is the one who provides the victim, and the coming of Jesus expresses the immensity of the Father’s love. In a few words, Paul gives to these terms a totally different and new meaning. The divine way of restoring justice is not by condemning, but by saving; by love God conquers evil in such a way that those who never knew love will be saved.
Many of the Jews converted to Christ thought it useful to continue practicing the religious prescriptions of the Bible, such as circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, cleansings, etc. (Col 2:16) and wanted other believers of the pagan world to observe them as well. Paul rejects that, because the Law had two dimensions. On one hand, it was the divine teaching for human life, such as how to know God, not to kill, etc… and on the other, it was the Law of the Jewish people, with all their own values, rites and customs, unlike that of any other nation. So, since God is God of all nations, he will not oblige them to give up their own culture and to live as the Jews do.
• 4.1 Paul then asks his Jewish brothers to go back to the sources of revelation. Long before the Law was given to Moses, there was the faith of Abraham. That means that faith is both more fundamental and more universal. The Law, instead, is a form of religion proper to the Jews and of value only for a period of their history. He asks: “How did Abraham become the friend of God and why is he taken as the model of believers? Was it because he believed in God’s promises, or because he had received the rite of circumcision?” It is like asking a Christian today: “What is important, to believe in Christ, or to be baptized?”
The answer is clear; we become the friends of God by believing in his promises. The rite of baptism ratifies with a divine seal the gift of God and our commitment to him.
Therefore, baptism and the other sacraments are the “signs” of faith and have no value without faith. Baptism is the beginning of our living for God in the Christian community. Communion has no meaning unless we live in unity and share the fullness of the life of the Church.
Worthy of notice is the fact that Christian people are now less concerned with rites and devotions that were so important to past generations. At the same time renewal movements give more stress to essentials: our faith and surrender to Christ.
He did not doubt although his body could no longer give life. Abraham had a faith similar to the Christian who believes in the resurrection of Christ. We also are asked to believe in a God who gives life and for whom nothing is impossible.
Faith has no power (v. 14). Here Paul points out something that many times we fail to see. To believe in God who rewards good and obedience to his laws is already faith (Heb 11:6). This faith, however, consisting in respect and awareness of justice remains very far from Abraham’s confidence in God’s promise. Faith is found in every religion, but for Christians faith is everything.
• 5.1 In this paragraph, Paul shares his own experience to help us discover changes in our life from the moment we have gone beyond the Law or, for us: beyond any religion.
To begin with there is a feeling of peace: we are at peace with God (v. 1). Perhaps we felt well before, with no sin and no debt. The peace we now discover reveals our former emptiness: being alien to God, we were alien to a part of ourselves. It is only now that we are conscious of it, and what do we believe? We believe in the personal love of God for us and we see it in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Through him we obtain this favor in which we remain (v. 2). It is not necessary for us to “sense” it to be in this state and it would be a mistake to search for a group where we could be “sensitively” aware of God. That is a form of self-satisfaction, and such is not the way of God’s true friends. It is not a matter of seeing or feeling but of believing what God does. Yet there are thousands of instances when we are conscious of this presence of God in us. Paul, who battled so much for Christ, says that it is in trials that we can discover the power of Christ working in us and making us mature (2 Cor 12:9).
And we even boast to expect the Glory of God (v. 2). The great Christian hope, unknown to those who have not met Christ is the certitude of a destiny surpassing all that could be imagined, hoped for, experienced by the greatest sages and mystics of all religions: total communion with God himself.
Hope does not disappoint us. In contrast to the people of the Old Testament, who remained always in what was temporary or provisional while waiting for ultimate truth and justice, the Christian already experiences what will one day fully enjoy. Something of that flavor or fragrance of the divinity has been poured into our hearts (v. 5) and that is the peace that God grants us when his Spirit comes to us.
Christ died for us when we were still sinners (v. 6). We are accustomed to hear about Christ dying for our sins, and often enough we are not touched, for his sacrifice seems to be far away and quite unreal. When by the grace of God we understand it, love suddenly pours from our hearts. Return love for love: this is the beginning of true conversion.
We have become just through his blood (v. 9). The text says precisely: We have been justified. Was the blood of Christ necessary? We have said with regard to 3:25 that Paul depended on the religious vocabulary of his time: the forgiveness of sins for the Jews was obtained by the blood of sacrificed victims. The prophets had already declared that the streams of blood from the Temple were of no value without obedience to God. Certain people understood that the true sacrifice able to reconcile the world was the sufferings and humiliations of the faithful minority of God’s people (Is 52:13). Whatever the explanation given, the salvation of the world passes through the sufferings and the death of the innocent, and the people of God must accept to be among the victims of violence. So it is that the violent death and the blood shed by Jesus are part of God’s language and also part of human experience. Paul knew this well, he who had taken part in the murder of Stephen (Acts 22:20).
• 12. Let us try to understand the thinking of Paul, inasmuch as he develops it here. In the first two chapters, he showed that without faith in Christ, humans lived in sin, including the Jews who had received the word of God. Then he asserted that salvation is brought about not by obedience to a law, but only by faith. Through this we are reconciled to God and we enter into a relationship of friendship with God who guides us towards the goal of the whole of life, which is to share the “Glory” of God, or his life in eternity.
Paul now widens his horizon. Jesus has come not only to reconcile sinners, many sinners, but to save humanity as a whole. In modern terms, we would say that he came to save human history; in biblical language, he has come to save “Adam.”
For Paul, as for the Jews of his time, Adam meant both the first human created by God and the whole of humankind. The children of Adam are only one with the ancestor whose name they bear. Indeed, from the beginning of humankind to the present generation, only one Adam comes to life, distrusting, rebellious and violent.
Sin entered the world through one man. Here Paul refers to the narrative in Genesis, but not to insist, as others have done after him, on the importance of the sin committed by the first human. In fact, Jesus did not speak of such sin, and the Scripture before him showed much reservation (see Wis 10:2 and Sir 49:16). Paul intends to point out a double solidarity that affects us: in Adam all humans are sinners, in Christ all have been reconciled. God created the world and has visited it to save the human race as a whole, united in Christ. This is why Paul puts the first parent of the old traditions in opposition to that that is the first in the plan of God. If the role of the first forebear remains very mysterious, Paul asserts clearly that humanity is not naturally at peace with God and that it cannot reach its goal as long as it is not saved by Christ.
We do not say that human nature is evil: God created it. It may perhaps be helpful to remember that during the 16th and 17th centuries, the history of the West was greatly influenced by the controversies about original sin. What nonsense was said (God had condemned all humankind to hell because of the sin of Adam)! This led to a reaction under the form of aggressive atheism in order to get rid of such a capricious and evil God. Thus it was asserted that humans are born good and that the society is guilty in making them evil.
The teaching of the apostles maintains that although human nature is good, we are born alienated. To speak to us of this situation, John uses two expressions: “the world” and “the ruler of this world,” that is, the devil (see commentary on John 3:16 and 1 John 2:15). Paul, for his part, will talk of sin. In these passages, sin refers to the totality of forces that have imprisoned humankind and which bring it to evil. We are not totally responsible for the sins that at times we do without really willing them (7:16-24), and this proves our slavery and alienation. And Sin begins with our difficulty in recognizing truth and judging according to truth.
This foretold the other Adam who was to come (v. 14). To the picture of human destiny presented in Genesis (chaps. 2 and 3), Paul presents in contrast another image, that of the crucified Christ. To the scene of sin near the forbidden tree, Paul compares that of redemption fulfilled on the “tree” of the cross. In the first scene there are three characters: Man (Adam), Sin (the serpent), Death. In the second, there are four: Man (Christ), Sin, Death and Justice (or new and holy life).
The gift of God more than compensated for sin (v. 16). The damage caused by sin from the very beginning increases each day; at times we feel crushed and powerless by the evil forces present everywhere. Paul, however, sees the greatness of the gift of God: while humankind increases and sin enters into all areas of society, God calls more people to free themselves.
There is something more. In this paragraph, somewhat complicated, Paul hints that the redemption of Christ does much more than correct the errors of humankind. God is not satisfied with helping us and making us better, for, after beginning to lift up men and women, he invites them to reign in life, which is to share his own Glory.
How much more will there be a reign of life for those who receive grace (v. 17). Christ embraces all of us, gathers us in his sacrifice, and becomes the new head of humankind. Perhaps Paul is thinking at times of the salvation of only those who have listened to the Gospel, believed in Christ and entered the Church. Note however that he stresses the fact that Christ saves a world of sinners. Christ is the new Adam and the head not only of believers, but of humankind as well. Humans continue today to be drawn by the flood of evil originated by Adam. Humankind is also saved as a whole, as long as people try to lift up their brothers and sisters. He who does not share in this task loses salvation, because what God wants is not “my” salvation but the salvation of Adam.
The Law caused sin to increase (v. 20). It was an error to see the Law as the great gift of God (yet the Old Testament said it!). Let us say rather that because of the Law the Jews discovered much sooner than other nations how great was their need to be saved. Its first result was to increase sin, because from then on they knew what their duty was and did not do it.
• 6.1 We are now dead regarding sin (v. 2). If we say that the Law has been abrogated we risk a misunderstanding. We do not mean that from now on we shall follow our instincts: we have been freed of a situation where the Law seemed to govern everything, but in fact sin found in us an accomplice: distrust of God. Dead to sin: this means that sin no longer finds a response in us. Dead: it is indeed the right word since it has been a definitive step, one that is intimately linked to the death of Christ. To die with him so as to rise with him: this is the meaning of baptism.
In the early Church, mostly adults were baptized: they had been evangelized and committed themselves to the community of the holy people of God. Baptism followed a conversion. When Paul speaks of baptism we must understand that it takes in the entire journey through conversion, including catechumenate , initiation in Christian life… Otherwise, baptism would be no more than a rite.
We are all plunged into his death (v. 3). Baptism means entering into Christ to share the benefits of his sacrifice. It also means the acceptance of a complete change of life, that of Christ in his death and resurrection.
• 6. You must consider… It is evident that baptism, even when received with faith, does not make us perfect immediately. Is it enough for us to give our whole attention to commandments? What if the fear of temptation and daily faults paralyze us? Beware of scruples and guilt complexes! Paul proposes a different way: it is most important for us to believe that sin has no power over us. Our eyes will be fixed on Christ knowing that we belong to him and that he himself transforms us. Such an apparent carefree attitude serves us more effectively than nervousness. It is the way Saint Thérèse of Lisieux suggested for those who feel incapable of great things.
Do not allow sin any control over your mortal being. The faithful, although conscious of belonging totally to Christ, commit sins every day. Their sins, however, do not deprive them of what is most important, trust in the Father, which allows them to stand up after each fall (1 John 2:1). They know that they are and always will be sinners whom God forgives, as long as they try to amend and be better. We achieve freedom day by day by voluntarily submitting to the requirements of a better life.
In Paul’s time there were cases of slaves being exchanged by owners. A free person with debts could sell himself to his debtor in payment of his debts. The comparison used by Paul teaches us to be meekly at the disposal of the Spirit, as slaves who are not owners of their own persons. Let us look at what the Spirit advises before making any decision.
The Christian’s life must appear like slavery to whoever looks at it externally. Yet the Christian feels and knows himself to be free. The best example might be that of a mother totally dedicated to her sick child: she is totally free, because she has no other law than her love.
• 7.1 The last chapter presented Christ who frees us from sin and death and becomes our only master. Then Christians of Jewish origin could ask: What about the Law of the Old Covenant? Is it no longer of value? Was it not given by God himself?
You have died to the Law (v. 4). The Law was provisional: the time of the Law ended with the death of Christ. Here we find one of Paul’s great intuitions. The death of Jesus was seemingly no more than a minor event in the troubled history of the Jewish people under Roman occupation. Yet it is more than a turning point, a rupture in the history of the world. Before that time was the era of a minor humanity; after it, the time when God could act and make himself known fully and clearly (Gal 4). The death of Jesus marks the death of ancient history. The Christian way of counting the years from the death of Christ is not one among other possibilities: it responds to a reality.
The baptized Jews are no longer obliged to follow all the commandments of this Law that was the supreme authority. Of course, many of the commandments deal with justice and mercy and are not to be neglected. Even so Christians are not left with a religion of commandments: faith in Jesus Christ, the only Savior, inspires all our actions.
We have died to what was holding us (v. 6). The Law of Moses, the great gift of God to Israel was part of a provisional stage, when humankind was not entirely free. The Christians of today see in the laws an indication of God’s will but reserve the right to act according to the criteria of their faith. No law or even religious decree can prevail over a well-informed conscience. An ordered life creates more beauty than any religious constitution could ever achieve.
See the same theme in 2 Cor 5:14: “if he died for all, then all have died.”
First there was no Law and I lived (v. 9). It would be erroneous to think that Paul is speaking about his own past. He is rather playing a role and speaks on behalf of Man (see commentary 5:12-14). The other actors in the drama are Sin, the Law and Death.
For the Jews the conclusion is clear: the Law with its commandments had no power to renew the human person.
• 14. Paul describes the situation of the person who knows the commandments, but not the love of God. He is not a liberated person, but a divided one. Two opposing forces struggle within him; on one side the Law that tells him what to do, and on the other another law in his flesh, that is, in his nature. He is not really free.
There is something well disposed within human beings: the spirit; and something that resists the demands of duty: the flesh (see Mk 14:38). The flesh does not mean the body; this word designates what in us is weak in face of duty and God’s call to holiness. See commentary on 8:5.
Our liberty is impotent when faced with sin, that is, it can do nothing against the forces of evil dragging down all humankind. Dullness of spirit in our fellow workers, family problems, the general spread of pornography, selfishness and consumerism: the flesh within us becomes an accomplice in all these evils.
In this chapter Paul continues to play the role of the one who still does not know Christ and remains divided and enslaved. The next chapter will deal with the opposition between the spirit and the flesh for those who believe in Christ. For them there is a solution to their conflicts: they live in peace. And so Paul ends crying out: who will free me…? Thanks be to God.
• 8.1 After having shown at length the limitations of a religious law, a reality in every religion that stresses the observance of practices, Paul speaks of life in the spirit: for that is, first of all, Christian life. It would seem that what follows is a long theological discussion: and Paul is arguing the way he learned in the rabbinical schools. In fact, if we look closely, it is not the development of a thesis: all comes from the spiritual experience of Paul.
When a Christian believes he has received the Spirit of God, it is not merely because he has been told that confirmation gave him the Spirit. If in Christian life there is a characteristic experience it is that of the Spirit of God working in us. Of course we should always shun the temptation to want to experience through our senses the things of God instead of believing in his word: nevertheless there is a Christian experience. See commentary on Acts 21:5.
Paul, for his part, knows what life is when permanently directed by the Spirit: he has evaded the situation of the sinner divided between his conscience and his bad habits and found unity in his availability to God. He will boldly speak of total transformation for those who believe in Christ, even if later he had to recognize that this transformation is more in the process than in the accomplishment.
God sent his own Son (v. 3). Would he have sent him only to speak to us, to give us his laws, to give us great examples of divine love? The salvation that God gives us is quite different. Look at what happens when someone wants to help the marginalized: in vain do we assist them materially; they will not become responsible unless they themselves face their own problems. God knew that. It is not he who pities sinners and says: “How sad! So irresponsible! I will dress them up in white and forget their sins, so they may look holy and be seated at my side.” God does not want to disguise reality, but to create humankind anew. So one of the human race must personally defeat Sin (that is, the power of death that keeps humankind paralyzed and divided).
He sent him… in the likeness (v. 3). In the likeness: Jesus carries on his shoulders the sins of others, but he did not commit any sin (Heb 2:14 and 4:15). Since the sacrifice of Christ the power of his Spirit has made believers capable of being victorious over the forces of death.
Through love and forgiveness God created a new world without rancor or desire of revenge or hidden remorse of conscience. We are at peace with him; we are at peace with each other.
• 5. The human life of Christ prepared the way for the communication of the Spirit to those who were to be adopted in order, later on, to be made divine, that is, transformed in God. First comes Christ, then the Spirit. This is why Paul reminded us first of the saving work of Christ (chaps. 5 and 6); now he tells us about the Spirit.
Those walking according to the flesh. What flesh signifies has been discussed in part in the commentary on 7:14. Without doubt, Paul has in mind the inner conflicts that each of us experience, and flesh refers to a human reality that weighs upon us. Nature can never be regarded in its pure state; the human nature of people of this twentieth century, with their instincts and desires, their images, the things that appear impossible to do away with, is mostly dependent on our education and culture. The tension we experience between flesh and spirit is partly the tension between our culture—the present liberal culture with its unbridled search for pleasure and the latest craze—and the spirit of Christ that seeks only the service of the Father. In such a context, the “resurgence” of sexual freedom among certain groups, which call themselves Christian, should not surprise us. They always speak of rights as if a Christian should have other rights before the Father of whom he should be a servant as Jesus had been and renounce himself.
In verse 5, we read, tend towards what is flesh. The Greek verb refers to what one keeps in his heart, his ambitions and plans. The same word appears in verse 7 which we translate as seeks. This refers to what our nature instinctively desires and what we plan whenever we conform to the ambitions of our contemporaries. Flesh tends towards death… flesh seeks against God: this may come as a shocking statement for us who live in a world estranged from faith, but where many good things happen nevertheless. We simply say that the Spirit of God works even in places where people do not know him by name. Yet there is no life as long as people do not call in question the ready-made ideas. To please God, it will always be necessary to be among the marginalized, as Abraham was, that is, to run counter against the flesh.
Those walking according to the Spirit (v. 5). Should we write according to the Spirit or according to the spirit? In biblical culture spirit is both God’s and ours. The spirit is what God gives to humans; it is also their ready acceptance of God’s action. In this paragraph we should sometimes use spirit, our spirit visited by God, at other times it would be necessary to say spirit, God’s way of working in us; again at other times Spirit is God-who-communicates.
What Paul writes here is not a theory of what should take place in us, but what comes directly from his experience. The Spirit that has been given to him habitually possesses but a part of him, that is, his spirit. The rest, what he calls the flesh (it should be termed: the living reality, the basis of his psychology), continues to be what it was. Perhaps it can unwind more freely now that Paul is not always trying to repress it and subject it to the Law as he attempted to do before (7:15-25). Actually, it cannot be subjected; it can only desire rest and nourishment, dreams of sex and well-being.
Paul then is present as from the outside to these desires of the flesh, but he is firmly filled with the spirit. His spirit is now under the influence of the Spirit and knows the joy of letting himself be carried along. Paul then continues to see and feel contradiction within himself (2 Cor 12:7), but it is no longer a bruising test of strength: he is taking part in a victory of the Spirit.
Paul does not forget that others are less advanced than he is and still have to painfully conquer their liberty. He does not tell them that the flesh is evil, but that we must put to death the works of the flesh (v. 13): what we call mortification.
The Spirit that makes you sons and daughters (v. 15). The Greek text could be: “Spirit of adoption” but also “spirit of sons having all the rights of their father” (like in Gal 4:5). In no way does Paul want to emphasize the difference we often make by saying: “Jesus is the only Son, and we, adopted children”. Speaking like that, we place a barrier, slight though it be, between God and us, and the Gospel does not so desire, from the moment we have known the Father.
Those led by the Spirit tend towards what comes from the Spirit. Then we begin to freely desire a new way of living in imitation of Christ. The desires of the Spirit animate our life. We experience them as an interior call, a security and a joy.
In following the desires of the Spirit we really feel free; this life, however, is demanding. Each day we have to go a little further in putting to death the body’s deeds (v. 13), that is, everything that paralyzes us and makes us cling to this world. Put to death: we call it “mortification.”
The Spirit assures our spirit that we are sons and daughters of God (v. 16). Whoever lives in the spirit lives in the light. While we remain firm in the teaching of Christ and share in the life of the Church, the Spirit gives us internal knowledge and joy in the things of God. The Spirit guides us and inspires us each day showing us how to please God.
• 18. The description of “living in the Spirit” continues. The believer who looks around notices that not only his community, but also the whole world is being transformed.
The glory that will be revealed and given to us. Though the Spirit dwells in our innermost being, we expect the transformation of our whole being. Now, though we have the peace of Christ, temptations and sufferings prevent us from enjoying glory and being fully free. With the transformation of our whole being (Paul calls it the body: v. 23) we shall reach the glorious freedom of the children of God.
It is impossible to consider the human being apart from this world in which we live. Are there elsewhere in the Universe other intellectual beings? The Bible does not speak of it: it merely tells us that all creation is guided by the same mystery of death and resurrection which marks our destiny and which the Son of God has taken on himself.
Who has subjected it (v. 20)?: Is it God or humans? The result is hardly different. Paul shows us that sin has destroyed the order of nature. Some texts in the Old Testament show us nature standing for God against human crimes (Jer 14; Jn 3:7 and 4:11; Wis 5:17-20). It is certain that humanity has developed with aggressiveness and violence; hence the domination of women by men and the bellicose masculine spirit. Hence a science driven by the will to conquer nature: was not Adam’s sin the will to take by force knowledge and happiness?
The Bible notices that the progress of society usually involves exploitation and servitude. Scientific discovery has been used to destroy millions of lives and the progress of the liberal world keeps more people marginalized living in misery than there are living at ease.
Modern science has justly shown that the people are the summit towards which the whole current of life tends. We must not forget that we are brothers/sisters to and in solidarity with all that has life. The Bible does not invite us to dream of a nature brought back to the state of an earthly paradise, to be enjoyed by a few rich people. It does not demand that animals be treated as persons with rights. True love respects the order of creation and the “love of animals” is not a substitute for true and responsible love that knows how to accept and commune with free persons.
The whole of nature has been entrusted to Adam: he must bring it back to God, using it in such a way that he himself becomes an offering to God (Rom 12:1 and 15:7). That is the meaning of the sacrifice of animals in the Old Testament. The growing concern about human responsibilities towards creation opens our eyes to an aspect of sin, but also obliges us to ask where our history is taking us.
Creation groans and suffers the pangs of birth (v. 22). We see in the world more contradictions and tensions than peaceful progress: in fact this earth is not our permanent residence. On the contrary it is a place of sorrow, and dark faith prepares us for what we await from God: we wait for our full status of sons and daughters. Nature cannot but participate with us at this birth (v. 22) of which the passion of Jesus is the sign. It will share in the “liberty and glory of the children of God”: it would be difficult to think that resurrected persons will not have a place in a spiritualized and transfigured world.
• 26. We do not know how to pray. We often think that we pray only when we are saying something and asking for things. Paul shows that words are not as important as the deep desire of the Spirit of God within us.
The Spirit intercedes for us. It is good to present our problems and worries to God, using words that the Spirit inspires. And still better when the Spirit invites us to remain in silent prayer and God communicates his peace to us.
• 28. In the last pages Paul has described God’s action in us through his Spirit. In fact, the providence of the Father covers all the events of our lives. Nothing happens in the world, in our family, in our lives merely by chance or because it was so destined.
Those whom he knew beforehand. Paul stresses the Father’s personal attention for each one of us. God knows us in Christ from the beginning of the world: children known before they are born, but also destined for a unique place in creation!
He calls them. Whatever be the way we come to know Christ, it is a personal call of God who gives us the opportunity to believe.
He made them just and upright. God put us in order, in an order pleasing to him. That goes far beyond an ordering on a moral level for those who needed it—and besides such an ordering does not guarantee that we always keep to the right path. More deeply something has been achieved in us, something has been sown in the world: we are the bearers of innumerable orderings from which a new conscience will originate and appear in humanity, during our lifetime or centuries later.
Those whom he knew beforehand (v. 20). On reading this verse some have thought that we are not really free, and that those elected by God are saved automatically. In fact, we do not read that some are elected for salvation, others not. Paul only says that they are elected to know Christ, which is not the same as salvation.
The kingdom of God extends much farther than the Church. The great majority of humankind do not know Christ and the Gospel. Yet God knows how to lead and save them, for the sacrifice of Christ saves all humankind. Paul is addressing believers and reminds them that to believe in Christ is a great personal grace; let them not be discouraged.
See also commentary on 9:14.
Who shall be against us? Paul is thinking of the evil surrounding us that frequently drags us down. He is thinking of the Day of Judgment when the accuser, the Spirit of Evil, could face us with the faults we have committed. He thinks of our troubled conscience that often brings us remorse. None of these will be stronger than the love and forgiveness of Christ. The believer should not be alarmed at his repeated faults or doubt the love of God, but try to live according to the truth.
• 9.1 Paul, being a Jew, shares the worries of the few Jews who have believed in Christ. Why did the chosen people not recognize their Savior? If they were a chosen nation, why were so few selected?
It is the same worry of Catholic families when their children do not go to church or when teenagers declare they have lost their faith. It is the same uneasiness we feel in the course of a mission: those who habitually go to church are perhaps the hardest to lead to conversion and are the ones that most obstruct the evangelization of outsiders.
Faith is not transmitted in heritage from father to son, mother to daughter. There have certainly been times and cultural systems where a whole nation followed the same religion and apparently shared the same faith. The Book of the Acts shows how on several occasions the conversion of the head of the family brought about the baptism of the whole household (Acts 11:14; 16:33). Faith however will always be a grace of God. In our days people have acquired complete autonomy and live in a world where all beliefs meet: faith can no longer be a family possession.
• 14. In this paragraph, Paul already anticipates the objection: “If God calls whomever he wishes, will our act of faith really be free?” (v. 19). This is and will always be a mystery. Paul does not intend to explain this, but asserts that God grants to whomever he wishes the grace of coming to Christ (see John 6:44). The experience of his conversion in which God took his freedom by force, as he does with the great prophets, brings him to use very strong words which seem to negate our freedom, especially in v. 22 which can be translated more strongly as: “if God endured with patience vessels prepared to be broken.”
We have two observations on this:
Paul uses Old Testament texts in which God speaks of saving or destroying the people of Israel (v. 27), of loving Israel, giving it good land, and of giving poor land to the people of Esau or Edom (v. 13), of making Pharaoh more stubborn to bring him to defeat (v. 17). All these are problems of collective failures or salvation, at the level of history, which Paul employs to clarify a historical fact: a great majority of the Jewish people did not recognize Christ. It would be very risky to draw from these conclusions about the responsibility of those who believe and those who do not. We will fall into a still greater confusion if we would apply this text, as others have done, to individual salvation, and discuss about those who will go to heaven and those who will be condemned. It is clear that this question has nothing to do with the argument of Paul: to know God is a grace which God gives to whomever he wills, but he surely gives other graces that other people be saved without knowing Christ.
Then we take note that all speakers, including Paul, say at times words that are somewhat excessive which will be clarified later by showing other aspects of the same reality. We ought to see other words of Scripture to re-establish the balance. If God calls us to a relationship of love and faithfulness with him (Hos 2:21), it is precisely because we are free and responsible (Sir 15:14). If God has destined someone for hell, how could he call him and demand that he live a holy life? It would be the cruelest of jokes.
We must not confuse two different ideas of predestination.
For Paul, predestination refers to the loving plan of God from the very beginning. It was then that God decided how to lavish on each of us the riches of his love through his Son. See commentary on Ephesians 1:5.
It was not the same for the people of the sixteenth century, like Luther, Calvin and many Catholic theologians with them. They thought that God created man without worrying about his possible sin or providing for the coming of Christ. As a result of Adam’s sin, the Justice of God condemned all his descendants to hell. Then the Mercy of God decided to save some of them by sending Jesus. This predestination after the sin would mean that no one could escape this blessing or this curse of God.
Paul, speaking of predestination, only praised God for his overflowing love. They, instead, were obsessed by concern for their own salvation, thinking of a whimsical God who perhaps had destined them to hell. Luther escaped from this obsession by stressing the merciful Jesus more than a frightening God.
In that same despairing century our Lord Jesus made several apparitions asking people to honor his Sacred Heart, so reminding us that he was only love for us. It is not “Jesus” only who is a loving God. The Father who predestines us is love just as his Son is love.
Speaking of predestination, we say:
– God, who is not controlled by time, has no before or after. He sees and determines at the same time the beginning and the end for each of us. No life fails because of the negligence or bad faith of God (Rom 8:28; James 1:13). No one can prevent his saving plans (Rom 8:37).
– Our salvation is a gift of God. No one can believe and please God unless he has been called (Rom 11:5; Phil 2:13). No one is to be proud of his merits or demand a reward (Eph 2:9; Phil 3:9).
– God is the one who works everything in us, as long as we open ourselves to his action. Those who refuse to be receptive are responsible for their own condemnation. The Church therefore speaks of “predestination” to express this saving work; but she has never spoken of predestination with regard to hell. Compare Matthew 25:34, the kingdom prepared for you, with 25:41, the fire reserved for the Devil.
Only a few will be saved (v. 27). Jews, who have believed in Christ, instead of complaining, should give thanks to God for having called them. God saves the world by means of small groups and, even in the Church, not many people take the Gospel seriously: because this is also a grace of God.
Now Paul explains why the Jews lost the purpose of the Law (v. 31). They wanted to become holy relying on their own efforts. In this, some Christians today resemble them. They feel quite sure of their actions and are content with their lives. This presumption prevents them from seeing themselves as sinners.
They try to achieve their own perfection (v. 3). Many Christians likewise would like to come to God with hands full when, in fact, Christ invites us just to receive. In this way we receive the sacraments, not because we are worthy, but by extending our open hands like beggars.
• 10.1 Paul continues to develop the same theme of Israel’s unbelief using the Jewish method of discussion of the time. He distinguishes in the Bible various lines of thought. Apparently a great number of Old Testament texts only speak of fidelity in keeping the commandments but other texts make more of the gratuity of God’s gift. This once more makes clear that there is not “one” religion of the Bible: it is not enough to read any text and take it literally (which is called “fundamentalism”). The Bible gives us a series of testimonies where we recognize a path and a pedagogy from God. Throughout the centuries and in different cultures, Jewish and then Greek, he leads his people to the fullness of truth.
We have, perhaps, become used to a “progressive” view of history, rather as if all had to develop or “radiate” from what exists. Yet Jesus has shown that times succeed one another but are not alike. If there is progress, and in a sense that is evident, it happens through upheavals and changes of perspectives.
Even in the Church there have been turning points in the course of this century. We must surely abandon the idea of a Church that, starting from western Christianity would by means of missions gradually extend to the rest of the world. Paul points out a different perspective: the current of grace could desert zones it had previously enriched to make other lands fruitful. He affirms that it is not caprice on God’s part; for him it is a matter of bringing the whole of humanity to maturity and he alone knows the way. We note at the same time how he defends the privileged role of the Jewish people. The same could be said of our ancient Christian bastions: their role, much less prominent, surely remains decisive, in as much as a remnant still remains faithful.
THE DESTINY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
• 11.1 The two paragraphs 11-24 and 25-32 speak of the destiny of the Jewish people. As Jesus had announced, the Jews were dispersed throughout the world, becoming a nation without territory, united only through its Law, its traditions and the certitude of it being God’s chosen people.
In times that still ignored the respect of those of other religions, a great number of Jews formed minority groups in Christian countries. It is a fact that people convinced of being the faithful of the one and only God quite naturally become insupportable to others (Esther 9). The Jews then have suffered from Christian fanaticism equal to their own. Christians did not see that their faith condemned religious fanaticism. They thought Israel was being punished for the crime of its ancestors in condemning Jesus: they saw in the tragedy of Israel, as in the survival, a sign from God.
In the course of this century Christians have become conscious of the non-violent character of the Gospel and that their vocation is to be a minority in the world: this has been a big step forward. It is time then to re-evaluate the role of the Jewish people, another minority given a place in history by God. They have not ceased being active in the world, often in saying what we ourselves should have said and did not and do not say. It seems that God willed this emulation between Jews and Christians, as Paul understands it. He clearly affirms that at the end of the world Israel would be reconciled with Christ and that Jews and Christians would recognize that their separate histories are one.
• 12.1 Paul here begins the second part of his letter: as in his other letters, he will try to be more practical here than in the first part.
Give yourselves as a living and holy sacrifice pleasing to God. It is not only Sunday that belongs to God—even if the weekly Eucharist is essential to Christian life. It is not only specific duties that we are to accomplish. God wants all that springs from our person.
Don’t let yourselves be shaped by the world where you live. We are invaded by propaganda, fashion, and songs without considering the weight of our cherished past. All that is the world: it encloses us in its logic and its would-be necessities. Yet we should be free for our heart to be only for God! We however become accustomed to what everyone does and still more to the sweet slavery of money. Without being aggressive or pessimistic the Christian will always challenge the world.
Inner renewal must transform you. Before adopting a rule of life, you must first have its spirit. You do not imitate St. Francis by wearing a habit: you must first be shattered by the love of the poor Christ. Christian renewal springs from new criteria, from a new vision of existence, of the modern world and of our liberty. Baptism that makes new Christians of us, initiates a renewal of our spirit enlightened by God. See Eph 4:3.
You will know what God wants. Following the best rules is not enough; we must constantly force ourselves to discover, meditate and understand the will of God in all the events of our life.
Take for example our body. See 1 Cor 12. We all form one body and we cannot give up our responsibility. Where Christians are very much in a minority, they usually depend a lot on the community that takes much of their time: this is the case Paul has in mind. He stresses that each one has his specific function in the Church: we are far from religious practice where the mass has mostly “listeners” who are silent.
• 4. From the way he speaks about Christian community, Paul lets us know that in his time it was not organized as in our churches today. In the early Church not everything depended upon priests educated apart from the common people and sent to the Christian communities from outside. As we said in Acts 14:23, the community elected a council of elders or presbyters, approved by the apostles. The most respected among them were the “prophets.” The body of presbyters, who had authority over the Church, were those who celebrated the Eucharist.
Everybody’s gifts were taken into account by the organization, which considered also as gift the ability to serve in the Church. See Ephesians 4:11 and commentaries on 1 Timothy 4:14.
Throughout history the Church has had to change its organization and constantly adjust itself to new social structures and cultural development.
Give with an open hand. Paul passes from the good discharge of ministries to the ministry of love for others.
• 9. Verses 9-13 presents a program of Christian life. Rather than the commandments concerning external acts, Paul stresses internal attitudes and dispositions.
Do not return evil for evil (v. 17). A demanding commandment of forgiveness so often formulated by Jesus. It is a false wisdom that would advise us to return evil for evil, mean behavior for mean behavior, a tooth for a tooth… It is also false wisdom (v. 16) to strive to be noticed by adopting customs of a higher social class, or to dream of a life without material problems, or to regard more highly moneyed people, the powerful or good speakers.
• 13.1 In the world where Paul lived, many people sought in religion an evasion from their family tasks and social duties (see 2 Thes 3:6-12). Paul stresses the “mystical” aspect of Christian life, but does not want such an evasion, so opposed to all his biblical formation. He will therefore insist on civil obedience in the context of a society far removed from our democracies of today.
This text of Paul has been distorted in the past by authoritarian governments, who after imposing their law by violence, expected to be obeyed as if they were the legitimate servants of God and the public good. It is still distorted today in many places—supposed colonies of imperialist countries; central power sees to the sending of preachers who will invite Christians to be silent in the face of injustice and economic plunder, using this paragraph to support their message. It is quite true that in a sense public servants are “God’s agents.” But do we not also find in the Bible that the devil gives power to those that serve him (Lk 4:5-7; Rev 13:1-9; Jn 12:31 and 14:30)?
Paul and his readers lived in a world where hardly anyone doubted the legitimacy of Roman authority. And as neither the common good nor peace can exist without authority and obedience, Paul declares that obedience to established authority comes from God. When he speaks of those who resist authority he has in mind those who try to impose their own interests or the interest of the group. What he does not accept is an anti-social attitude, a point that will arise in 1 P 2:12 and Tit 3:1 when authority begins to mistrust Christians.
No one may use these words to condemn those who resist for reason of conscience. In any case, it is only to God that a Christian submits his conscience. When the authorities demand something that is against truth and justice, he resists with the means his conscience reveals to him, ready to suffer punishment provided by human laws, and even to give his life. The great majority of the martyrs the Church honors today were condemned in their time as subversive persons and enemies of social order.
They are the stewards of God for your good (v. 4). We have to ask, then, if authority promotes goodness. When the laws favor only a minority, or allow corruption, or are oppressive to the poor, they are not at the service of God: let us remember Isaiah 5:8; 10:1-3; Amos 5:7-12.
The believer recognizes but one Lord: he will not accept that certain magnates become real “lords” capable of eliminating those who oppose their absolute power.
Jesus, for his part, refused to take part in politics (Mk 12:13-17), but he did not speak against those who wished to participate. He was free enough to denounce authority and to break the most sacred laws when they became oppressive.
During the past century the Church has reminded us very often that no authority can deprive a human being of his rights, and that everyone should be careful to elect authorities who serve the common good. In these matters, let us hear the doctrine of the Church: Gaudium et Spes 73-76.
• 11. You know what hour it is. This is the time to awake. Paul was just recalling the duties of a Christian in this world and he already turns to the opposite direction: beware of settling down in this world. The Christian is always awaiting the coming of Christ.
During the first thirty years of the Church, all waited for the imminent return of Jesus. When it became clear to them that history was being extended, they began thinking more of each one’s last end: it was then that they would meet Christ. In the present century we have come to realize that history is going towards an end and that we not only have to be ready for the last hour, but that we must also work for the evangelization of the world. The Gospel is the power that, directly or indirectly, brings all human history to maturity; by living holy and responsible lives we hasten the coming of the kingdom of God (2 P 3:11-12).
• 14.1 Were the people in Paul’s audience really different from us? Reminding them of great truths, were they capable of smoothing the blocks that make community life so difficult?
Welcome those weak in faith. The Christians of Rome were mainly recruited among foreigners. Jews or Greeks came from different cultures and religions and had not wholly rejected their ancient customs. If the Jews wanted special meat, the vegetarians for their part would only complicate the problem. If the Jews had their Sabbath, others had their days of “fasting” and days of ill omen. In the beginning people were courteous towards one another; but then with time and pride, they did not fail to provoke a neighbor “in a spirit of faith.”
Paul reminds us of what Jesus had taught (Mk 7:19): there is no food or drink that is forbidden. Paul rejects, however, the disputes about all these things. Do not criticize their scruples. Whoever has overcome common prejudices must respect the conscience of others. Each must sacrifice his own comfort for the well-being of others when this is required. We find similar difficulties when Christians of different backgrounds, races or political groups have to live together. It is an opportunity for them to show respect for one another.
Whatever we do against our conscience is sinful (v. 23): an important affirmation of the liberty of conscience. Perhaps it is often forgotten; but St. Thomas Aquinas himself reminds us that no law or religious authority should be followed against our conscience. It is, therefore, a grave responsibility to acquire good criteria through readings, conversations, reading the Bible, knowing that the Spirit is at work in all the life of the Church.
• 15.14 Here we see how gentle Paul was. He has the authority of an apostle of Christ and is able to solve the problems of the Church of Rome. Yet, he takes great care not to create divisions or rivalries, and he shows respect for the founders and leaders of the Roman community.
As a priest of Christ (v. 16). This term must not be interpreted as meaning what we understand by the Church’s priests. The first Christians did not use the word priest to designate their ministers, in order not to confuse them with the Jewish or pagan ministers who offered victims to God. Here, however, Paul compares himself to them. He does not present burnt offerings to God, but instead, he presents the pagans and reconciles them to God. This is the new and spiritual worship (12:1) that the apostles offer to God.
Still today there is danger of forgetting the difficult and often misinterpreted work of reconciling persons who have become both liberated and aware of their human worth. Only those who dedicate themselves to this evangelization can rightly celebrate the Eucharist.
• 22. The trip to Spain would mean going farther than Rome, center of the known world. This gives us an idea of how zealous Paul was in creating new communities in all parts of the world, without waiting for the newly founded ones to attain perfection. Today the mission is not beyond Rome or overseas: every Christian community should investigate beyond the frontiers of a “nice” area where a person feels at home. Then, perhaps, millions of others would be discovered who live at close range but nevertheless are “far way.”
I am going to Jerusalem to help that community. The attempt of the Jerusalem community to have common ownership of all their possessions had failed (Acts 2:44). So Paul organizes a collection for them in all the Greek communities, hoping this caring assistance would strengthen the links between Christians of Greek origin and Jewish Christians. It is often difficult to avoid tensions in the Church between groups of different cultures or classes. Quite often, it is even difficult to dialogue. Then the service of love will make hearts agree where minds cannot come to an understanding.
• 16.17 Brothers and sisters, I beg of you to be careful. There is no letter of Paul without this warning against divisions and against those who preach a “different Gospel.” The doctrine of the Church is the doctrine of the apostles, the witnesses of Jesus. There is a hierarchy, that is, a legally constituted authority, and Paul demands obedience in matters of faith.
The last sentence is a prayer of thanksgiving to God. It is similar to another prayer, more developed, with which he begins the letter to the Ephesians.