Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Their actions are bound to one another

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July 23, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 8:12-25

Has anyone ever told you that you need an attitude adjustment? Maybe you heard it as a kid from your parents or guardian? Or maybe a teacher in school? Maybe you have implied it to a coworker or colleague? In this week’s epistle lesson, that is exactly what Paul tells the Romans they need. They need an attitude adjustment. They need a new way of thinking about life.

So, what is this adjustment Paul pushes? What do the Romans need to change? In short, Paul urges the Romans to redefine their social obligations. They need to reconsider who or what determines their standards and the way they interact with society. Is it the flesh? Or is it the Spirit? 

Paul writes, “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (verses 12-13). First, we need to understand what Paul means by “according to the flesh.” For this we must go back to the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans: 

“Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” (1:20-23). 

Life according to the flesh is foolish. God, the creator of the world, has always been in control. Yet, some Romans, as Paul writes, are misplacing their worship. They are worshiping Rome in place of God. Paul’s reference here to honoring a mortal human probably refers to Roman imperial rulers, such as Augustus. The animals he lists also likely point to Rome and other Greco-Roman political-religious traditions. An eagle, for example, was a common symbol for Rome and its legions. 

Living a life in the Spirit meant not participating in the cultic activities of Rome’s imperial cult. It meant living a life not defined by the societal standards of the Roman world, such as participating in the praise and honor of Rome and its political exploits. After all, Rome is not the creator of the world nor is it divinely appointed. 

A life according to the flesh, Paul explains, is a life that leads to death. This is nothing new to those living under Rule. Life was harsh for most people. Health and wellness were luxuries few could afford, and food insecurity was a constant threat. Rome claimed to usher in a period of peace and prosperity, but instead it brought suffering (verse 18), decay (21), pain (22), and groaning (23). 

Paul’s stance is clear. The way of the flesh leads to death, but the Spirit leads to life. The Spirit is the only way. The choice seems obvious, so why might it need explaining? Why does Paul need to tell the Romans not to participate in imperial life? 

As multiple New Testament texts demonstrate, the early church was not in agreement about what constituted idolatry in the ancient world. For example, the author of Revelation takes a strong stand against eating meat that had been previously offered as a sacrifice to a pagan god (Revelation 2:18-29), while Paul suggests a more accommodating approach (1 Corinthians 10:14-33). Jesus-followers living in cities had countless opportunities to engage in potentially idolatrous practices. These included attending an imperial festival, participating in a pagan sacrifice, making an offering at a trade guild meeting, or even the simple act of buying and selling goods at the local market. Paul’s attack of idol worship in Romans 1 reflects this tension among Jesus-followers. What constituted idolatry was up for debate. 

The language of debt and indebtedness in many translations of verse 12 is misleading. While the Greek verb translated “debtors” (opheilō) can certainly refer to owing a debt, it is not limited in meaning to an obligation of repayment. Paul is not suggesting that the Romans owe God a repayment. Paul uses the term here more generally as a description of obligation. Because they know God, they ought to live according to the Spirit rather than according to the flesh. They are bound by an obligation of knowledge. It is a matter of ethics. Their knowledge of what leads to life and what leads to death binds them to a certain way of living life, to living in the Spirit. 

Attention to the Greek also highlights the corporate and communal aspects of this passage that are often missing from translations. The verbs throughout the passage are plural. Their actions are bound to one another. The collective crying out to God (verse 15) and groaning (verses 22-23) further highlight the communal tone of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Even creation participates in the collective groaning. Paul is not addressing individual members of the church in Rome; he is addressing the church as one corporate body (verse 10). 

But do not lose hope, Paul writes, “for who hopes for what is seen?” Paul offers a final word of encouragement to the church in Rome. Just because you cannot see something, does not mean it is not there.  

I offer one final note. Paul creates a dangerous either/or binary in this passage about life and death, about the spirit and flesh. But, as many of us know, life is never that simple. It is good for the preacher to remember the complexities of any binary and resist the temptation to pose a simple either/or. In the end, it is the task of the modern corporate body, the church, to decipher for itself what brings life to the world and what brings death. But as the Romans to whom Paul writes remind us, it is often not as easy as a simple yes or no.