Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

This passage appears in the middle of Romans 9-11.

Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water
Tanner, Henry Ossawa. Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source: Wikimedia.

August 13, 2017

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 10:5-15

This passage appears in the middle of Romans 9-11.

Those chapters stand as a discrete subsection of the whole letter, in which Paul describes how everyone — Jew and Gentile alike — can know the key to walking without stumbling in relationship with the God “from [whom], through [whom], and to [whom] are all things” (11:36). Paul tries several different metaphors or contrasts to point his hearers toward the right path to life before God and neighbor. In this case he contrasts “righteousness/justice that comes from the Law and righteousness/justice that comes from faith” (10:5-6, see also, 4:13-25).

Like the rest of this subsection, 10:9-13 particularly points toward three truths:

  • because of God’s mercy and grace, God offers us life,
  • Christ revealed that because of that grace all who believe/trust in their heart enter into that life (are saved), and
  • there are people — Jew and Gentile alike — who through grace are saved.

That third truth is more explicit in chapter 11, but it’s important in this passage, too.

Interpretations of this passage often become a theological argument about faith versus works or approach it as answering the question of what the Jewish people got wrong and Christians got right. This commentary sees the point differently and approaches it as answering a different question: What does the passage say about God’s willingness to answer when anyone — any lost and undone human being — calls out for God with all their heart?

ALL who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved

Paul’s arguments are shaped by his first century context, where most Christians had grown up Jewish, and they divided humanity into two groups: “Jew” and “Gentile.” Things were rapidly changing, however, so Paul reflects on three groups:

  • Jewish people who follow the Law and not Jesus Christ
  • Jewish people who follow Law and Jesus Christ (such as Paul himself) and
  • Gentiles who don’t know the Law and follow Jesus Christ.

Paul argues here and again in chapter 11 that anyone in any of those three groups who calls upon the Lord will be saved. Paul’s point (new in his time) is that Christ made it possible for the rest of the world — Gentiles, as well as Jewish people — to be saved:

  • “The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Rom 10:11–13)
  • “I ask, then, has God rejected [God’s] people? By no means! … as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Rom 11:1, 28–29)

Most readers of this commentary, I assume, are by definition and according to scripture “Gentiles.” Two thousand years of history have obscured for us Gentiles that when the Christian church began, almost all its members got along fine without us and argued on the basis of scripture that God did not accept us into the community of faith. (Acts and Romans lay out that story most explicitly in the New Testament.)

When Paul says, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” for many Christians of his time those would have been fighting words. It was not simple for the majority to shift away from the idea that “Gentiles are inherently unrighteous, sinful, and excluded from God’s people” to the realization that “God doesn’t necessarily divide the world along the same lines we do. We’ve been misreading scripture for centuries.”

That point appears in today’s passage as part of an overarching controversy that permeates Romans. Paul, “Apostle to the Gentiles” (11:13, Gal 1:15-16, Acts 22:21, etc.), continually asserts their (our) inclusion among the people of God:

  • in his opening greeting — mentioning “the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (1:5)
  • in his benediction — mentioning “the revelation … made known to all the Gentiles, (16:25-6)
  • with 29 other appearances of “Gentile” and its synonym, “Greek,” in between

Questions we face today have faced Christians for millennia, regarding Gentiles, slaves, African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and on and on. We’re always asking, “Who’s in and who’s out?” And we best serve God and our neighbors by also asking, “Is God calling us to a new understanding of how to answer that question?” In this case, Paul led the charge toward inclusion.

Confessing with our lips and believing in our heart

A different, important aspect of this passage centers on how one understands what it means to confess with your lips and believe in your heart (10:9–10). This can be understood in a “cheap grace” way, as if, like Harry Potter, saying certain magic words will save us, if we say them the right way with the proper understanding. This approach mistakenly equates believing that God raised Jesus from the dead with, say, believing in the existence of the planet Neptune — something we’ve never seen but accept as true and that has little if any impact on how we actually live.

However, other parts of scripture, like Isaiah 29:13 and most of the prophetic and gospel traditions, counter such a view: “these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” Believing in one’s heart is not the same as simply thinking something is true. As the philosopher Charles Peirce said, a belief is something on which we are willing to act. If we believe in our heart that Jesus was raised from the dead, we act as if death does not have the last say on life, as if God is a God of life, as if no matter how rough the road God will hear when we cry out.

Belief in our hearts does not make us people who say the right words. It makes us people like Abraham and Sarah (Romans 4:13-25), who hope against hope and do not weaken or waver in the face of life’s greatest challenges. It makes us people who believe and trust God in the core of our being. And when God hears our cries and reaches out to us, we seek to embody that trust in the choices we make every day.