Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A truly transformative display of what God wills

September 3, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 12:9-21

“Love is (to be) unpretentious!” (hē agape anypokritos, Romans 12:9). This is the opening salvo of Paul’s stage-direction to the Roman believers living the improvisation of divine faithfulness as a troupe of “saints” (Romans 1:7) in the heart of Rome’s Empire.  

Some translations render this verse as “Let love be without hypocrisy” (for example New American Standard Bible, Christian Standard Bible). The adjective is a negation of hypokritos, which is related to the noun often used for actors, ones who wear masks: hypokritēs. There are connotations of pretentiousness in the term, notions of “play-acting” or “charade.” In our age full of distractions and easily kindled social media spats, we are bombarded with versions of our “selves” and of our communities that run the gamut across a spectrum from flattered fantasy to sociopathic villain. In this arena, it becomes easy for us to compartmentalize our intentions from the outcome of our actions and to demonize those folks who don’t “color within our lines.” When we assume the best for ourselves and the worst for others, our “love” can tend towards a pretentious showcase of a smoke screen for our own self-congratulating indulgence. 

If the world is our stage, then our temptation is to sprout into self-authored superheroes and cast our enemies as world-wrecking wretches. “We” make the world a better place; “they” are destroying this place and corrupting all that used to be good. “We” know the right course for the best outcome; “they” are holding us back with their prejudices and naïve nostalgia. 

  • If this president isn’t the worst to ever hold the office, then it was the last one
  • I hate driving through that neighborhood of slobs! 
  • Why can’t my sibling give as much to this family as I do? 
  • If that co-worker undermines my progress for the team one more time …! 

Rarely would any of us admit these mental flitters out loud. Instead, we strive to curate a public image of our best selves, presuming that everyone ought to assess our actions based on our best intentions. After all, we are certainly just adhering to Paul’s next words: “loathe what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9b), right?

Up to this point in Paul’s argument, love (hē agape) is something that only God or Christ has performed (Romans 5:5, 8; 8:35, 39). In this shift toward the redeemed vision of humanity, it is something that the followers of Jesus will perform as the fulfillment of Torah (Romans 13:10) or the accompaniment of communal hospitality (14:15). This “unpretentious love” will be the rule—the standard—by which the community can enact proper worship and straight-thinking according to God’s desire (Romans 12:1–2). Each piece of the following exhortational ensemble will make for the full presentation of “put[ting] on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). 

Here, we see Paul engaging in the work of community formation and performing the work of theological-moral imagination. With one eye to the “inner” life of the believing community and the other eye toward interaction with “outsiders,” Paul addresses several general and concrete situations that pertain to “real life” in “the real world,” albeit one that now distinguishes between life in “this age” (see also 12:2) and the experience of the life of believers in light of what God has accomplished for them in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

This new creational community ought to be marked by such practices as “brotherly love” and “familial devotion” (philostorgoi, 12:10), service, celebration, endurance (12:11–12), caring for the needs of “the saints” and pursuing hospitality (“love of strangers,” philoxenia, 12:13). 

Sometimes, this section is outlined as Paul’s exhortation for the faithful to live oriented toward their own community (12:9–13) and then how to respond to those “outside” (12:14–21). However, things are not so clearly delineated. Furthermore, it would be naively idealistic to presume that persecution, mistreatment, and causes for vengeance occur only outside the boundaries of Christian fellowship. In fact, as recent stories about abuse and misconduct from prominent church leaders indicate, these appeals from the apostle are as relevant for Christians experiencing trauma from fellow believers as for those suffering attack from outsiders. 

Loving like God-in-Christ comes in the form of self-sacrificial giving and solidarity with those who may have welcomed it the least. God modeled the purest form of love given to those who were weak when Christ died for the impious (Romans 5:6). God’s love was expressed like this: while “we were yet sinners; Christ died for us” (5:8). God’s reconciling love came to us even while we were enemies (5:10)! It is from God’s very example that Paul can urge his audience to “bless those who persecute” (12:14), to “not repay evil in return for evil” (12:17), and to not be “avenging yourselves” (12:19). When the community inhabits the divine economy of gift (3:24; 6:23b), there is freedom to join both those who celebrate and mourners (12:15), and to readily embrace those who are designated by societal currents as “lowly” or of poor status (12:16). Secured by the divine embrace of the Spirit going to God on our behalf (8:27), and the crucified and risen Christ who advocates to God for us (8:34), we can respond to the commission: “Do not be conquered by evil, but rather conquer the evil by the good” (12:21; see also 8:37–39). That “good” is rooted in the divine righteousness—the God-performed justice (dikaiosynē) of the gospel (so 12:19–20). 

Divine justice has been the core movement of this drama, which has resulted in salvation for the audience, reconciliation with those who were hostile to God and to one another, as well as the establishment of a peace which has accomplished healing and wholeness.  Much surpassing a mere decision-driven ethics that can only respond to moral dilemmas, the script for this theo-drama holds the promise to be a truly transformative display of what God wills: that which is good, delightful, and accomplished (12:2). Only when we perform out of God’s love will we be able to identify our love as “unpretentious.”