We’re continuing our study of “freedom and redemption” texts with a look at another text from Romans, Romans 8:18-30, for Sunday, May 8 – Mother’s Day. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on that text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Romans 8 is the triumphant conclusion of Paul’s long argument about the role of moral and cultural instruction vs. the role of the spirit in the new life in the risen Christ. The argument began back at the beginning of this letter, which was addressed to the early Christian community in Rome, we think in the late 50s CE. Gentiles might satisfy God’s requirements more or less naturally; Jews might transgress their own highly valued moral teaching; ultimately, though, everyone sins. Sin can be understood as bondage, and that bondage is deeply inscribed in our very bodies, with their muscle memory [he doesn’t use those words] and their unruly and transgressive inclinations and drives. Fortunately, “in Christ” the faithful receive a new spirit of life that raises the body of death to new life. At least, ultimately.
So we have come to the heart of Paul’s effort to deal with a significant empirical problem for Christians: this new life sounds great, but it still turns out to take a lot of work. On top of which, there are the additional, new, costs of being counter-cultural. Being counter-cultural annoys people. Annoyed people will sometimes take their annoyance out on us. The bottom line: suffering happens. Paul’s response to that is to say: yes, but compared to the ultimate benefits, present suffering is a small price to pay. That response concludes with Paul’s declaration that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God – one of everyone’s favorite Bible verses, I imagine.
After that, the letter moves on to consider the status of Israel – again, concluding with some sublime poetry. And then, some Christian moral instruction – because evidently, despite being in Christ, we still need to have what it means to live according to the spirit of Christ spelled out for us rather explicitly.
Parts of this text show up in the Revised Common Lectionary at various times; Romans 8:12-25 is the epistle for the 16th Sunday in ordinary time (A); Romans 8:22-27 is an option for Pentecost (B); and Romans 8:26-39 is an option for the 17th Sunday in ordinary time (A). So eventually, we might hear all of this text in church some time or other, although not exactly this way.
CLOSER READING: In v18, starting with “glory,” there seems to be a preponderance of grammatically feminine nouns: glory, eager longing / intense expectation, creation, revelation, futility / vanity, hope, bondage, decay, freedom, firstfruits, adoption, redemption, weakness, hearts. I don’t normally pay a whole lot of attention to the grammatical gender of the nouns, so I don’t know for sure that this is unusual. It seems unusual, though, especially in light of all that groaning in labor that the creation and we and the Spirit are doing in this passage.
The spirit, by the way, is a grammatically neuter noun in Greek, as it is in English. Just seems worth mentioning.
In v19, the eager longing of the NRSV connotes a kind of head-first leaning into something – I’m tempted to say, pushing.
In v20, the futility we find in the NRSV translates the same Greek word the Greeks used to translate the “vanity” that characterizes everything under the sun in Ecclesiastes 1:2 in the Septuagint. That is: this is the futility or vanity that the wisest observers of empirical life see in the recurrent, never-arriving-at-a-satisfactory-end cycles of the natural world. Everything we ever work for always gets wiped out in the end. For instance. It’s that word.
In vv22, 26, 27, and 28, “knowing” is the kind we might sometimes call “seeing,” as in “I know you’re busy, I see you’re busy.” A perceiving kind of knowing.
There is a lot of groaning going on in this text. The word for groaning is the Greek word that gives us our word “stenosis,” that painful condition of the back that gives us pinched nerves, or of other parts of our bodies that gives us other ailments. It’s an image of narrowing, of being in a tight spot, or of trying to squeeze something through an opening that is just almost too small …
In v22, all of creation is literally groaning together and in labor together – two verbs, both of them collaborative. Then, “we” add our groaning activity in v23, and then the spirit comes in with speechless or wordless groans in v26.
In other words, this feels like an astonishingly appropriate text for Mother’s Day.
In v23, despite what the NRSV says, that body we are waiting for the redemption of is singular, not plural. King James gets this right. This seems significant, too, especially because we are reading Paul, who has a corporate view of the Body of Christ, as we surely know. As I read it, he has in mind a redemption more like everyone getting to come home from Babylonian exile than one like individual PFCs getting to helicopter out of Vietnam when their tour is up.
In v24, the hope in which we were saved seems ultimately to be the same hope as in v20. That hope seems to belong to the one who subjected the creation to futility, and who searches hearts (v27) and who knows beforehand (in the kind of knowing that involves immediate apprehension of truth) (v30) the actors involved in this drama, and whose purpose (v28) is at work for good in all of this.
In v26, when the spirit “helps” us, the image is one of coming alongside us and grabbing on – like in a tug-of-war contest, or holding a door shut against an intruder, or lifting a heavy weight.
The “intercession” in v26 is a little more intense than the “intercession” in v27; both can have some connotation of course correction, or of making sure something gets where it’s going. The image in v26 has a flavor of hovering or bending over to make sure that happens.
How we read “those” in v29 seems to be what will decide whether we are more like Calvin or more like Barth. “Those” could be some subset of all the people who have ever or will ever live. [“Those foreknown, as opposed to the other ones.”] But “those” could conceivably refer to all of them, including us. [“People, that is, those creatures foreknown by God.”] There is presumably a correct answer here, but I haven’t been able to find it in the back of my book.
In v30, all the verbs are aorist. The aorist is “an unqualified past tense of a verb, without reference to duration or completion of action.” [I hate Greek, and I regularly have to look this up.] That is: all that activity takes/took place in the past, and perhaps also continues into the present, and perhaps is, or perhaps is not, a completed action. This grammar seems significant. That is: this has all already been done. But it is perhaps not yet all done being done.
Someone or something is being born. Is in the very act of being born. We would probably never simply say the result is a foregone conclusion. Not if we are sensitive to the possibility of tragic loss. If we have lived any amount of “real life,” we are sensitive to that, and can’t deny that sensitivity completely. Nevertheless, we are hoping for a good outcome. And that hope seems warranted, even still. Despite all the groaning, which is to be expected.