Commentary on Romans 3:19-28
Krister Stendahl, a teacher and mentor, worked to “undo” the introspective Lutheran-Augustinian reading of Paul and to read the letters of Paul in their historical context of the first century — Stendahl put Paul back “Among Jews and Gentiles.”
When preaching on Romans 3:19-28 on Reformation Sunday, it might be tempting to let the liturgical-historical occasion overwhelm the text and to preach the Lutheran Paul of the West. However, one of the gifts of the Reformation is the principle of self-critique and requirement of ongoing repentance and renewal, therefore we hear this text afresh, drawing on scholarship on Paul in the first century and in the light of the ethical urgency of our own time.
There are well-traveled hermeneutical paths to avoid the radical proclamation of this text. One is to assign the call to repentance and reform to someone else — the Papacy, or the Jews, or legalists, or fundamentalists, or whoever is our nearby enemy or rival. We can capitulate to the powerful rhetoric of “othering” and create another object of address for Paul’s words besides ourselves. For those we “other,” these readings are dangerous and even deadly. For us, we miss the gift of freedom on the other side of repentance.
Another hazard is to read Paul’s contrast between “faith” and the “works of the law” so starkly that “faith” is emptied of its practical content. “Spiritualization” can lead to irrelevance, innocuousness, impotence, ineffectiveness. We so stress “newness” that we overlook the blessing what makes the new possible. A kindred peril is to hear the text addressed to “me” not to “us,” demanding individual assent rather than calling for corporate response.
In this election season amid the clamor of competing campaigns, let us hear the text proclaiming God’s inclusive justice and summoning the peoples of the earth to a concrete way of faithfulness.
Contemporary political rhetoric exploits the language of apocalyptic to construct reality — “the war on terror,” to summon fears of impending disaster, and to invent enemies on which to project our hatred and fear. Election logic divides and separates victors from victims. How startling that Paul speaks out of the thought world of apocalyptic of his time, but what is disclosed in the present pregnant moment — “but now” — is not division, but a vision of open access to grace and of expansion of divine mercy. Definitive and non-negotiable boundaries, epitomized by the peoples, Jew and Gentile, have been crossed in Christ Jesus. “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” God’s mission of world-wide rescue leaves no one out. What iron-clad definitions today are comparable with that of Jew and Gentile in the world view of the first century?
In a culture of self-justification, Paul’s ancient argument demonstrates that “all fall short.” Universal sinfulness might sound strange and hopeless, but it evokes a response of ongoing humility — for ourselves and our own in-group as well as for others. It induces an awestruck “silence” in a cacophony of “mouths.” What if we approached our neighbor nations and creeds with a posture of shared sinfulness, rather than self-righteousness and hostility?
Early Christians spoke of God’s rescue of humankind with images and metaphors, drawn from scripture and from their social experience. Paul employs and elaborates upon this language in the argument in Romans and calls upon the deep and powerful associations of this language for his audience. “Justification,” “redemption,” and “sacrifice of atonement” describe God’s deliverance of humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection. With distinguished history in theological thought, these terms are familiar and resonant for some in the congregations to whom we preach. Many others would be grateful for preaching that showed how these metaphors interpreted Jesus’ crucifixion by the Roman authorities, how they understood it in terms of God’s justice, and God’s work to save Israel and through Israel all of humanity. Then in the spirit of repentance, renewal, and reformation preaching would bring these metaphors into the present. Romans presents a diagnosis of the disharmony and discontent that peoples experience and proclaims that through Christ God has provided the “cure” — making them “right” before God (justification), and buying them out of slavery (redemption). How does redemption from slavery resonate in a world where sex trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry and where hundreds of refugees drown in leaky ships fleeing from violence?
In a recent book, Jane Patterson, explores how Paul uses sacrifice as a metaphor to interpret Jesus’ death. In Romans 3:25 Paul describes the crucifixion, a terrifying event, not in the language of violence and death, but in the cultic language of the Yom Kippur sacrifice: “But God proposes a different view: a display of God’s gracious justice, as the blood of life splashes upon the hilasterion within the holy of holies.” (Jane Lancaster Patterson, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians [Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature, 2015] 166). By joining their faithfulness to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, all the people of the world may join with this manifestation of God’s justice (164). In Romans 3:19-28 Paul offers a cosmic vision and an invitation to faithful practice that is as beautiful, challenging, and effective today, for those who preach and those who hear, as it was at the time of the Reformation and throughout the long history of its reading.