Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Edge of blasphemy!

September 10, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 13:8-14

Paul’s letter to the Roman believers is saturated in the Scriptures of Israel—Torah, Prophets, and the Writings. Their voices reverberating through these allusions have become the witnesses in the court of testimony pointing to the God of Israel’s justice-work in the Jewish Messiah.

Mid-way through Paul’s ethical exhortations to the house churches in Rome, he offers an anchor that may at first glance be puzzling: “Love is the fulfillment of the Law” (13:10). The bewilderment arises because Romans has often been read as “the death sentence” to the Law as a guide or principle for directing Christian action or conduct in the world. At the very least, the Torah of Moses has too often been relegated to the position of an Accuser in the divine court of judgment. “Grace is good; Law is bad.” Isn’t this what Romans is all about? Why would Paul revert to an opinion of a lower court? Furthermore, many have observed a perplexing absence of the explicit activity of the Holy Spirit in these communal exhortations of Pauline paraenesis (12:1-15:13).

The role of Torah is actually much more complicated in Paul’s argument. There are certainly claims which identify the Torah’s role as the prime evidence for a swift conviction: “For the Law brings about wrath; where there is no law, neither is their violation” (4:15). Indeed, “by the actions performed in accordance with (or actions performed by) the Torah, no person will be deemed just in God’s sight” (3:20a) because “Torah exposes knowledge of sin(fulness)” (3:20b). Just as the logic of Israel’s covenantal mandate in Torah undergirds the condemnation of corrupted humanity exchanging God’s glory for created imitations (1:18–32), the verdict finds succinct expression in the indictment: “all people have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (3:23).

Paul’s ethical instruction in 13:8–14 sounds like generic Judeo-Christian decree. That is, there is nothing here that wouldn’t fit comfortably in the letter from James or other Jesus-following teachers who advocate for faithful Torah-observance. The latter balance of the Decalogue is even quoted by Paul as witnesses of testimony to his case, in the order of the 7th, 6th, 8th, and 10th commandments (Romans 13:9; see also Exodus 20:13–17; Deuteronomy 5:17–21). 

This may be surprising precisely because of how Paul has postured the Torah in the development of his gospel message. Already indicated above are some of the claims where Torah enacts condemnation for the condition of sinful humanity. But, there is an even more conspicuous case of implicating the Torah as an opponent of his “gospel of faith.”

When Paul begins to arraign humanity, he builds a case for universal complicity in the scheme of Sin leading to death (5:12–14, 17a, 18a, 21a). It is here where Paul makes a shocking reveal: “Torah entered the scene so that the transgression might increase” (5:20a)! 

Paul already made the audacious claim that “the justice of God has been revealed apart from the Torah” (3:21a). Contemporary Torah-observant Jews and covenant aficionados in Paul’s day would likely have heard this claim similar to someone entering a fundamentalist, Bible-believing congregation and declaring, “God’s word is now known apart from the Bible!” Edge of blasphemy! In the opening statements about divine wrath condemning idolatrous and perverse humanity (1:18–32), Jewish teachers would have been in firm assent: humanity is plagued by a sin problem! With the statements about sin, transgression, condemnation, and death in Romans 5:12–21, most fellow Torah-observant Jews would have heartily agreed. However, in this story where humanity has committed sin and were condemned to death, most Jews would have told the story in such a way that God’s gift of Torah was seen as the resolution to the sin-problem. Adam sinned, and this would lead to his death. His descendent co-conspirators followed suit and were condemned to the same fate. But! Torah entered the scene as the remedy to this sinful mess.

Paul, on the other hand, locates the arrival of Torah on the side with the problem of Sin and condemnation. It’s even worse than this! Paul can talk about Sin as a powerful force “reign[ing] in death” (5:21, ebasileusen), which resulted in Death “reigning” over humanity (5:14, 17, ebasileusen), and even portray Sin as an oppressive slave master (6:12–14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22), or like a virus that invades the body and takes over (7:14–24). He locates Torah in the same camp. While Sin and death “reign over” (ebasileusen) humanity, the Law “lords over” (kyrieuei) those under its jurisdiction (7:1). While being in the rebellious aeon of “the flesh,” “sinful passions were aroused through Torah” (7:5).

This argument necessitates that Paul address his own apparent implication: “Is the Torah (itself) sin?” (7:7). While he strongly rejects this ruling, and even declares the Torah to be “holy and just and good” (7:12), he still implicates Torah as insufficient for the task of divine justice. Torah gets co-opted by Sin to serve in the sole capacity of condemning humanity under Sin’s sway, tormented with the awareness of the Torah’s demands, but unable to comply (7:15–23). 

Nevertheless, God accomplished through his Son what Torah could not do because of the weakness of humanity’s Sin-oppressed “flesh” (8:3), and so redeemed the Torah itself! Torah is no longer co-opted and governed by Sin and Death (8:2b; see also 7:23) but has become the instrument of the Spirit of life (8:2a)! 

In the previous era, to embrace the covenant justice of the God of Israel meant that one must “climb Sinai” and wear the trappings of Torah observance. Paul by no means completely rejects his heritage of “the ordinances of God” (3:2) or the accompaniments of Torah’s many blessings (9:4–5). Instead, Torah’s key role, along with the Prophets, is to point forward toward the coming of Messiah as the performance of God’s justice (3:21–22). In fact, Christ is the end-goal (telos) of the Torah (10:4) and the proclamation of the resurrected Christ is Torah’s proper message (10:6–10; see also Deuteronomy 30:12–14). 

Now, living at the precipice of the fulfillment of the turn of the ages (13:11–12), the believer is free to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14), namely to practice the love that Christ himself has demonstrated (8:35,39; see also 15:7–13). “Love enacts no evil for the neighbor; therefore, love is fulfillment of Torah” (13:10).