The Uniform Series text for Sunday, August 19 is Romans 12:9-21, the climax of Paul’s instructions to the Roman church, that is, the Christians living and working in Rome. Here are my notes on that text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: What’s happened so far? Paul has developed a whole argument about how everyone, even those who think they are virtuous, has sinned; everyone owes their standing in life to God’s righteousness, not their own, received by the grace of Jesus Christ, through faith. (-For which, thank God!!-) Then Paul has presented some speculation on God’s plan for Israel, how God’s irrevocable election of Israel comports with the newly-revealed inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God, concluding basically with Paul throwing up his hands and saying “God is WAY, WAY wiser than I am and has this worked out.” (Romans 11:33-36) Now he is moving on to what follows from all of this: how to live together as Christians.
The immediate context for the list of instructions that is our text are the guiding images that open chapter 12, and that provide the framework for how to think about how to live as Christians: as if our whole bodies are [living] sacrifices (in a world where going to a temple to make a sacrifice to a god would have been at least as commonplace as going to the mall is to us), as if we are glass being remolded from the inside out, and as if each of us is a member of a body, alive as part of a whole and endowed with particular strengths for the sake of the well-being of that whole.
In that context, then, the more specific instructions that follow add more detail to this vision for a different way of life.
CLOSER READING: These instructions seem pretty straightforward, if demanding. In Greek, some of the instructions strike a more evocative note.
Good is a repeated word, opening and closing this section (v9, v21). Verse 9 seems to be quoting Amos 5:5.
The love that needs to be “genuine” (literally, “without hypocrisy,” or “without play-acting”) in v9 is not the same kind of love as in v10; v9 love is agape, unconditional love; v10 love is philadelphian “brotherly” love, and the affection it should have incorporates the storge “familial” love that readers of C.S. Lewis’ book on the four kinds of love will be familiar with, so the only thing missing here is erotic love, and we can probably relate to why Paul doesn’t recommend everyone loving everyone else in that way.
The “hold fast” to what is good in v9 is literally something like “stick fast,” the way jam sticks fast to a doorknob or moss sticks fast to a rock.
What in English is extend hospitality to strangers is in Greek literally something like “run after stranger-love.” Like chasing something. Like “try really hard to get people to call you a foreigner-lover.”
Bless in v14 is the word that gives us our word “eulogy” – but Paul does not seem to mean his readers should kill those who persecute them so they can say nice things about them at funerals, but rather literally speak well of and to them rather than call down curses on them.
The associate with the lowly in v16 is literally a verb that means to “be led or carried away” – perhaps the way we would talk about “being quite taken with” something, which would presumably lead us to associate with it.
The evil in v17 is different from the evil in v9. In v9, the evil Paul tells the Romans to hate is a word that also means something like “spoiled” or “worthless,” maybe a little like we would say “rotten,” as in “he’s as rotten character.” The evil not to repay in kind in v17 is a thoroughly moral kind of evil, is badness. Don’t act that way.
There is a lot of emphasis on setting aside the motive of retaliation for what seem to be legitimate grievances (persecution): vv14, 17, 19-20. This is where Paul invokes scripture: Deuteronomy 32:35 in v19, and Proverbs 25:21-22 in v20. Maybe because indulging in vengeance, retaliation, tit for tat is all a way of practicing badness, giving badness the upper hand. The Romans are supposed to overcome badness with goodness.
The overcoming in v21 is nike, “victory,” what we are aiming for when we pay a lot of money for athletic shoes, winning.
There is lot of contest language in this text. It is a competition, between goodness and badness. Paul tells the Romans to be on the side of goodness. The way to do that is not to try to defeat badness with badness, but to practice and practice and practice some more the fundamentals of goodness.