The Uniform Series text we are studying for Sunday, August 5 is Romans 2:1-12; here are a few notes on the text:
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: That we [readers; members of the audience] are doing “the very same things” seems like something most people would dispute. At least initially. Which things?
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This text is near the beginning of Paul’s long letter to the church in Rome. It’s late for Paul and still early for Christian scripture, probably written in the late 50s CE – so, before any of the gospels. The church in Rome, certainly if we go by the way the letter is written, seems to have been a mixed group of Gentiles and Jews. The church in Rome wasn’t one of the churches actually founded by Paul, but rather a church that had already been established without Paul’s direct involvement – traditionally, by the apostle Peter – and which was already important in the way any outpost in the cultural and political capital of one’s world would be. (Think Riverside Church in New York, maybe, or 2nd Presbyterian in Indianapolis regionally.) One of the central themes of the letter is how to understand the relationship of the different cultural groups, with their different religious backgrounds, to one another in the community of the church.
The first 8 chapters of the book of Romans present a systematic theological argument about the universal human condition [SIN!] and the remedy of grace, available through faith, equally universal – at least, on offer without regard for other group memberships. Chapter one, after an appropriate introduction, outlines the condition of people who don’t worship God, but rather figments of their imagination: lots of bad behavior, and God, not being co-dependent, leaving them to their own devices. Chapter two is the immediate continuation of that argument: that things are no better on the “well-informed” side of the street.
CLOSER READING: The addressee translated “whoever you are” – literally, “O, person” or “O, human being” or more traditionally “O, man” – is completely general. So, it’s anyone. The readers. Us. [Specifically: this person is not ethnically identified.]
The argument continues in the most general way possible. Verse 1 mentions judgment or judging 4 times in the space of one sentence.
Truth is at issue. The people in chapter 1 “by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18); the people in chapter 2 affirm the truth (Romans 2:2). Either way is subject to God’s judgment (mentioned three times, vv2, 3, 5), and things do not look promising at this point (v12).
Parallel to the people in chapter 1, the people in chapter 2 imagine (or make an image of) something untrue – escaping God’s judgment (v3), and despise the truth about God (“the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience” v4; compare 1:23, 25, 28). So, somehow, the people in chapter 2 are missing some significant point.
V7-8 divides people into two groups: good-doers and evil-doers. These two groups now explicitly do not correspond to ethnic or theological divisions; evil-doers will be “the Jew first and also the Greek,” good-doers will be “the Jew first and also the Greek” (vv9-10).
God will reward the two different groups appropriately, “repay according to each one’s deeds” (v6).
Human judgment is obviously partial (since we judge others, not ourselves). By contrast, “God shows no partiality” (v11), so all the sinners will perish in the same wrath (v12).
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: We are only part-way through Paul’s argument at this point. There is still some doubt about the matter of this “doing the very same things” (v1) – really? The very same things as the people we judge to be doing bad things? And there is still some hope for finding outselves among “those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality” (v7). Although we are probably at least starting to wonder about that. Still, we might still be able to envision ourselves in that category. We won’t have any shelter left by chapter 3.
Fortunately for everyone who doesn’t want to experience the anguish and distress being stored up for evil-doers (v9), chapter 3 won’t be the end of the argument.