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Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Romans 2:1-3, 12-29
In his seminal work on World War II, Stephen Ambrose’s book Citizen Soldiers provides an in-depth and excellent depiction of the European theater through the lens of American soldiers. I taught sections of this book back when I was an educator, and while I disagree with some of his conclusions, there are several insights he had that continue to compel me. One was how soldiers coming from different backgrounds would fight for different reasons; Hitler’s army was often composed of a wide variety of people, Poles, Hungarians, western Russians and other slavs, and a medley of others. Many times, these were people forced to fight for the German cause, conquered people without a vested interest in a German victory. When confronted with Allied troops and when a German task-master officer was not urging them on, they would often lay down their arms and ask to be taken prisoner. Hitler believed American soldiers would be the weak ones, “spoiled sons of democracy,” lazy and unmotivated, easy to defeat. However, in sharp contrast to Hitler’s army and his expectations, American soldiers, animated by a love of their home and a desire to protect their way of life, however flawed it might have been, was a powerful enough motivation for them to do incredible deeds of bravery, pulling off some of the most dangerous and effective campaigns through Europe to bring the Nazi cause to its knees. The internal motivation of these American troops, their hearts, animated by a love of country, proved far more effective than the externally forced motivation of the German hordes.
Though any illustration of this type is imperfect, it helps illuminate the kind of distinction being drawn by St. Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the Romans. Here, he is concerned to make clear that it is not any ethnic identity or outer observance that makes one right with God, but rather that To be innocent before God requires a transformed heart.
Chapter 1 of Romans made clear that all people have a sort of intuitive knowledge of God, and therefore no one is clear of guilt before God because they ignored that knowledge and sinned instead. Here in chapter 2, Paul then goes on to clarify that even the Jews do not enjoy special status unless they also trust in God and thus receive a transformed heart. He begins the chapter by assuming an imagined Jewish interlocutor, with whom he is arguing. That Jew would say, “we have the promise of God of circumcision, and of his favor as a people. That is enough.” There were rabbis who taught that anyone who was circumcised would necessarily never go to the underworld. If a circumcised Jew, generally speaking, you were in.
This kind of ethnic and ritual prejudice was the first true heresy of the Church. Paul deals with it elsewhere, as do all the apostles in the 15th chapter of Acts, where some in the Church said Gentiles must become Jews first if they wished to be saved. Here, Paul in no uncertain terms dismantles that point of view.
No, Paul says; “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” He will go on to say, “All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” What he is doing in these statements is establishing that to be a Jew, to have received the Law, is not enough. “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified,“ he says, and that includes Jews and Gentiles. Jews because they had the law given to them explicitly, and Gentiles because by a kind of instinct borne out of their being also made in God’s image, they also have the true law written on their hearts and so know what they ought to and ought not to do. To be justified before God, which means to be innocent in his sight, requires total obedience to his Law.
At this point you may be saying, then what hope is there? If obedience is what is needed, and yet we all know from our experience that we do not keep the law, then what can be done? But that is exactly the point. As we will see as we continue through Romans, here Paul is using a rhetorical hyperbole, an exaggeration for emphasis, to illustrate the issue. Whether Jew or Greek, kosher or bacon-eating, circumcised or uncircumcised, we are all in the same boat. We are all separated from God by the sickness of sin, and despite our being made in God’s image, we are all unable to reconcile ourselves to God.
What we all need is to be justified, to be seen by God as innocent, and that, despite the demand that we be doers of the Law, is accomplished not by those acts, but by this: “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.” It is an odd metaphor to us, the idea of circumcision of the heart. But what was circumcision ultimately about, a sign of? To be set apart, separated from the world and unto God. And just like the law which is written on each human heart, and which we all resist, so we need a heart set towards God. That transformation can only be achieved by the gracious act of God, our being in Christ, by faith, and thus endowed with his righteousness. To be innocent before God requires a transformed heart, and that is a thing that can only be received by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, grafting us into Jesus and changing us from the inside out.
All those who believe God, who have faith in Christ, are the truly circumcised, those in heart. And physical circumcision and all the other requirements of being a Jew are of no benefit unless that is the case. Like the soldiers fighting in WWII, to be a doer of the law does not require simply obeying instructions from some fear of reprisal; it is a life lived out of a deep-seated devotion, a faith in that which we come from: God, our creator.
Thus our own human distinctions, our senses of superiority, our expectations of others are shattered by the Gospel. Just like we all are equal in our sin, so are we also equal in Christ. Not one of us gets to claim superiority based on any external factor. You are not a better Christian because you’re American, or white, or black, or male, or female, or because you dress a certain way, or do or do not have tattoos, or listen to a certain kind of music, or make a certain amount of money. The oldest heresy is the one that says what we present on the outside is what matters. What truly matters, however, is that we are circumcised in heart, transformed by God, received by our faith, and thus finding ourselves justified, innocent before God to whom we’ve all sinned. To be innocent before God requires a transformed heart, and God is the one who gives it. Amen.
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