… justice is often an excuse for certain ‘zealous’ people to condemn others. Christians haven’t been appointed to bring justice to the world but ‘rather to ask for mercy for the world, to keep vigil for the salvation of all, and to partake of everyman’s suffering, both the just and the sinners.” He challenged us as he challenged his readers in the seventh century to ‘put the lover of justice to shame by your compassion’.
In 1205 Cardinal Stephen Langton created chapter divisions in the Latin Vulgate. Three hundred years later, at the same time that the verses in each chapter were numbered, these divisions were laid over the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Unfortunately the division of the Bible into chapters and verses often divides the text in incoherent ways or at inappropriate points, and it encourages citing of passages out of context. It gives some people license to stop reading a favorite text at a point that favors their point of view.
For today, I’ve an example where stopping one’s reading at a chapter break can cause the reader to miss the point being made by the author. It is in Apostle Paul’s introduction of himself to the church in Rome. The passage starts right after Paul says that he had often planned to come to Rome but so far has been unsuccessful. He says his purpose is to achieve something in the meeting in Rome that he had achieved in other parts of the world. That’s when he constructs this wonderful sentence saying ‘For I am not ashamed of the Gospel’. We need to be particularly careful to not rely on our contemporary definitions of what gospel means because he defines gospel for himself. He says “It is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith…” We talked about that last week. He goes on and adds “…here is revealed God’s way of righting wrong, a way that starts from faith and ends in faith…”
The next fifteen verses are a scalding attack on immorality of every sort and over which we typically skim, unless of course it spurs our prurient interests and empowers us to wag our tongue at the misbehavior of someone else.
I’ll be reading from the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament. This particular translation breaks three of Paul’s long sentences into thirteen. Hang on…here goes…
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever 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; 21for 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. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.
That’s where chapter one ends. Paul is face to face with a world in which the vices he lists are rampant and because religion and morality seem to hang together he rightly connects these aberrant and destructive behaviors to pagan religion. He contends that if nothing else, nature itself should have saved them from such ignorance and misconceptions of God.
For many of us, this is like reading this morning’s newspaper or listening to any number of television’s religious celebrities, pundits or political wan’a bes. “The world is going, maybe has already gone, to hell in a hand basket…”. From Paul’s list we have our favorites and tend to cherry pick what we find most sacrilegious and blasphemous in the behaviors of others. Paul concludes saying: 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. And then here is his last word on the subject 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them…”
Yeah, Right! Those insolent, deceitful, ruthless people…they deserve to die… Paul’s on a roll, can this get even better?
Paul started this tirade in chapter 1 with this idea: 8For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. That is, God has taken steps to ensure that people, you and me, know better than we do.
Chapter two begins with the word ‘therefore’ linking what was just described and the consequences that follow. This is where I lament the chapter break. So, hang on, here is where chapter two begins: Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.11For God shows no partiality.
Paul points out how easy it is to forget that the same principle on which one person is condemned the one who judges, in spite of having better knowledge, also condemns himself. To give assent to the moral impeachments of verses 18-32 of chapter 1 brings about one’s own condemnation. No, it’s not that he does the same thing, but the conduct is the same. The sin of the one was the same but the particular sins were not. Let’s work on that a bit more. Those who see themselves in the privileged position of being the more moral, who believe that they have arrived spiritually having been granted superior revelation, are like the servant in Matthew 3 who knew his Lord’s will and on whom his judgment will be most rigorous if it is neglected.
The fourth verse of this second chapter has a real sting in it because it asks do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? It is a forbearance which suspends judgment, a patience which waits long before it interposes. Paul holds up the grace of God and says that to judge others amounts to contempt of God’s goodness, magnified if God’s grace is ignored.
Alvin Rapien recently gave us a look into St. Isaac of Syria’s Theology of Hell. For Christians of many traditions hell is a place where the wicked experience pure punishment and where God’s love and mercy no longer constrain God’s justice. Isaac rejected the notion that mercy and justice should be held in such tension because he believed that the mercy of God trumps justice. For him it is mercy, not justice, that describes God’s attitude toward humanity. It is God’s design to restore humanity thus hell is a place of God’s love. He contends that the ‘torment of Gehenna is bitter regret’. God’s intention for punishment stems from love “seeking to make whole his image.” Those who turn away from God suffer as ‘a friend suffers from a friend.’ twisting the heart and torturing the mind. This pain is rooted in the sinner’s response to love.
What does it mean to believe that God is love. Is justice an acceptable category when discussing God’s interaction with the world. Is hell where God pours out his wrath or can we believe that God’s love pervades all things, including hell?
Isaac contends that ‘Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching.” He points to the story of the same day’s wage given to all the laborers. He asks “how can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living?” Justice is ‘equality of an even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves”. Were God truly just then all would be doomed to death. “Remember” he said “Christ’s death was an act of mercy, not justice.”
Isaac says that justice is often an excuse for certain ‘zealous’ people to condemn others. Christians haven’t been appointed to bring justice to the world but ‘rather to ask for mercy for the world, to keep vigil for the salvation of all, and to partake of everyman’s suffering, both the just and the sinners.” He challenged us as he challenged his readers in the seventh century to ‘put the lover of justice to shame by your compassion’.