See previous material in last blog but one.
Before He embarks, however, on a more positive theme of his joyful news, Paulos wants his readers to recognise clearly that doing wrong and being in the wrong (=“sin”) is a universal condition of humanity. He is particularly concerned that no Jewish person should think himself exempt from this by virtue of race or religion, and he re-enforces his criticism of Gentile behaviour
People who sin outside the Jewish Law will be destroyed outside the Law; while people who sin within the Law will be condemned by the Law; for it is not those who hear the Law who are recognised as just before God, but those who do the Law who will be justified. When people who do not have the Law naturally do lawful actions, they are a Law for themselves, although they do not have the Law. They show that the actions of the Law are written on their hearts, as their conscience confirms; with their embattled thoughts either denouncing or defending them, on the day, when according to my Joyful News of Messiah Jesus, God will judge the secrets of men and women.
But if you call yourself a Jew, rely on the law, take pride in God, know his will and discern what is best as you are instructed by the law; 19 and if you are confident that you are a guide to the blind, a light to people in darkness, 20 a corrector of fools, a teacher of babes, because you have in the law the perfect form of knowledge and truth, 21 yes, you, teacher of others, will you not teach yourself? Preaching the command against stealing, do you steal? 22 Quoting the command that forbids adultery, do you commit it? Detester of idols, do you rob their temples? 23 Boaster about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking it ? 24 As scripture says, “The name of God is reviled among the Gentiles because of you.”
25 Foreskin-snipping is indeed of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your snipping has become foreskin-possession. 26 So, if those who possess foreskins keep the requirements of the law, won’t their possession be regarded as snipping? 27 Then those who are physically in possession of foreskins but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and the snipping but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew by outward appearance nor is true snipping something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew by inward reality and real snipping is a matter of the heart—in a spiritual rather than a written character. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
So is the Jew better off? Is there any profit in snipping?
A great deal in all respects! For a start, the Jews were entrusted with the commandments of God. So what if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? Certainly not. Let God be true even though all human beings are liars! As Scripture says, “That you may be proved right in your words and prevail when you are brought to judgement.”
But if our wrongdoing serves to prove the justice of God, shall we say it’s unfair of God to inflict his anger upon us (This is worldly language)? Certainly not. For how then could God “judge the world”? But if God’s truth gains extra credit through my lie, why am I condemned as a sinner? Indeed, “Why not do evil so that good may come of it?” as some people slanderously claim I’ve said. Well, they are fairly condemned! But does their wrongness exceed ours as Jews? Not at all, for I have already proved that Jews as well as Greeks are under the power of sin. As Scripture says,
“There are no just people, no, not one; no one thinks wisely, no one looks to God; all have wandered from the road and become worthless, no one does good, no, not one. Their throat’s an open grave, their tongues are treacherous, the venom of vipers is under their lips, their mouths are full of curses and spite. Their feet are swift to shed blood, they have taken the road to ruin and misery, but ignored the way of peace. There’s no fear of God in their eyes.”
We know that whatever the Jewish Law says, it speaks to those who are under The Law, so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore by the deeds of The Jewish Law no flesh is declared just in God’s court, since by the Law comes recognition of sin.
Paulos is writing to an Assembly of believers composed of Jews and Gentiles, and desires to encourage an absolute equality amongst them. He recognises the advantage of having the Jewish Law, but balances this by emphasising the moral capability of Gentile people to live decently by creating their own moral norms. Then since he has already denounced the idolatry and sinfulness of Gentiles, he fashions a diatribe against Jewish hypocrisy, including robust ridicule of what is usually and solemnly translated as “circumcision”. I have used a more ordinary expression, as I think Paul is making fun of an operation which would certainly have been carried out on himself. He wants his readers to smile with him, realising that there is no magic virtue in this ritual snipping in itself. He wants Jew and Gentile alike to see that although Jewish faith in the one God is better than Gentile idolatry, religion in itself does not produce just people. Jewish and Gentile people are both capable of some goodness but both are also sinners who cannot attain the justness that God desires.
1. The first application of this discourse is to any polity in which there are obvious religious/ ethnic/ groups. Any government or party seeking justice can learn from Paulos that they should deny the self-definitions of such groups, while being appreciative of their different virtues. No group at any time will have a monopoly of virtue, not only because the other group will also have virtues, but also because the people of both groups will have faults that are endemic to sinful humanity.
2. The second application is for any government, party or individual looking to improve the polity. They should not forget that human beings are sinful. Naïve notions of human perfectibility are said to have led, as in the French revolution, to tyranny, because they failed to provide the constitutional checks and balances required to contain human sinfulness at all levels of power. This analysis has been applied to Soviet totalitarianism: the belief that human wickedness derives from the slavery imposed by capitalism, may have led to the belief that those liberated from capitalism, especially those who belonged to the Communist Party, would not be wicked, and needed no legal restraints on their power. Any insistence therefore, on human sinfulness is suspect in the eyes of left-wing thinkers as justifying conservative constitutions and policies. Paulos in contrast, believes that the human beings to whom is writing, and the Assemblies to which they belong are perfectible by means of the “rescuing justice” of God which will make them just people. But this rescue is never complete in this “present age” so the human person remains, as Luther recognised, “simul justus, simul peccator,” at once just and a sinner. Paul’s politics, his guidance for the life of The Assemblies, combines a realism that is aware of human sinfulness, with a revolutionary hope of perfection.
3. The third application is to the kind of politics which is designed to restrain wickedness without any commitment to transformative justice, which is identified by Paulos with the Jewish Law. It is not negligible because it exposes sinfulness, which is important, but it is inadequate in comparison with the joyful news of Jesus, which offers transformation. For contemporary politics the question therefore is whether there is any practice which corresponds to Paulos’ joyful news of Jesus.