Friday, March 7
Romans 12:10-21: Among the duties and disciplines enumerated here, we observe that most have to do with the mutual relations among Christians (verses 9-10,13,16), though certain of these particulars also look to relationships outside the communion of the Church (verses 14,17-21).
Christian love is genuine—literally “non-hypocritical,” anypokritos (verse 9); it goes beyond the civility and politeness required in a decent society.
Christian love is morally discerning, however, not confusing evil and good. Indeed, it is striking to find, amidst these sundry admonitions to love, a clear injunction to hate: “Abhor what is evil.” Those things in society that are abhorrent should be regarded with abhorrence, not tolerance, and this too is a duty of Christian love.
The love to be cultivated is not only the spiritual love called agape, but includes also those more common qualities of philadelphia (fraternal love), philostorge (affection), time (esteem), and philoxenia (hospitality) (verses 10,13).
Such things are impossible except by the personal cultivation of patience, hope, and prayer (verse 12). This prayer will embrace one’s enemies (verse 14; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28) and require the forgiveness of wrongs (verse 17; Matthew 6:12-15). Paul tells these Romans not to hold grudges against persecutors. In view of the terrible persecution of Christians that will break out in Rome during the next decade, this was uncommonly timely counsel.
Paul’s wording of the quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35 in verse 19 differs from that found in both the Septuagint and the extant (Massoretic) Hebrew text, but it is identical with the quotation in Hebrews 10:30. Was there another version of this passage common among the early Christians? The meaning, in any case, is clear enough. Christians are to leave to God all revenge and settling of scores. They are always to pursue good, never evil. Evil is the Christian’s only true enemy (verse 21).
Saturday, March 8
Romans 13:1-7: Beginning with the believer’s relationship to other believers, and going on with respect to those outside the community of faith, Paul now addresses the Christian’s relationship to the political order,
One is impressed by Paul’s attitude of respect, deference, and obedience toward the civil authority, not simply because that authority carries the power to exact such an attitude, but also because such an attitude is required by conscience (verse 5). To respect and obey the State, in Paul’s view, is demanded by God’s own ordinance, because ultimately the State holds its authority from God. (Contrast this view with that of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.) The State is “God’s minister” (verse 4).
Generally speaking, then—and proper exception being made for laws that violate the moral order—the dictates and decisions of government are binding in conscience. They are not simply penal laws. That is to say, in those instances where the State does not contravene God’s own law, the State speaks for God and is a valid channel for the discovery of God’s will.
Lest we be too quick to imagine that Paul is thinking of the State in very idealistic terms, we may bear in mind that the emperor at that time was Nero, and the State of Paul’s reference was the Roman Empire. This empire had earlier expelled the Jews, including Christians, from Rome only a decade before (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, “Claudius” 25), and about four years after writing this epistle Paul himself would be executed by this same authority. Three years after that, moreover, the full weight of the imperial government would come down hard on the Christians at Rome in a fearful persecution. In other words, Paul’s attitude toward Rome was not one of convenience, but of principle (cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 5.24/1).
Paul’s affirmations here bear witness to an important feature of Christian anthropology. They testify that man’s relationship to God is not limited to the specifically religious and cultic sphere; Man is also related to God in the political, social, cultural, and economic spheres of his existence in this world. Man’s relationship to God, in other words, is inseparable from his relationship to everything else.
We observe that Paul presumes that Christians pay taxes (verse 6; Matthew 22:21; Tatian Oratio 4; Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 1.11; 3:14; Epistle to Diognetus 5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 17; Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.3.18).
First Sunday of Lent, March 9
Romans 13:8-14: Paul returns briefly to the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law (verses 8-10). Does Christian freedom imply that believers are no longer bound by the Decalogue? Hardly, says Paul, but the general Christian command to love one’s neighbor as oneself more than adequately summarizes those components of the Decalogue that concern our fellow man. That is to say, even the Decalogue is now read through a new lens.
Once again Paul speaks of salvation as reality that lies yet in the future, a future that is now closer than when we first became believers. (verse 11). As we have seen repeatedly, in Romans the vocabulary of salvation is commonly associated with the return of Christ and the general resurrection of the body.
Meanwhile, Christians are to “wake up” to the newness of life in Christ (verses 11-12; 1 Thessalonians 6:6; 1 Corinthians 15:34; Ephesians 5:14).
Matthew 4:1-11: In most other languages of Western Christianity the word for Lent is some variant of “forty,” derived from the Latin quadragesimale. Traditionally this was a period of 40 days of fasting in imitation of the Lord himself, who observed exactly that length of time in fasting prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. It was also associated with the 40-day fast of Moses on Mount Sinai and of Elijah as he journeyed to that same mountain. Doubtless it was this combination of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah together on a single mountain that determined the ancient choice of the Transfiguration story as the favorite Gospel reading of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches during the time just prior to the beginning of Lent.
As early as the second century we already find Easter being the preferred time for the baptism of new Christians. The reasons are rather obvious. It is in the Sacrament of Baptism, after all, that Christians are mystically buried and rise with Christ (cf. Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).
Among early Christians it was considered important that believers should spend some period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Baptism (Acts 9:9,11,18; Didache 7.4). Since Easter was the preferred time for Baptism, the season before Easter—Lent—became a fasting season. Fairly early this period of fasting, observed by all the Church, was lengthened to 40 days and linked to the 40-day fast of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.
Monday, March 10
Romans 14:1-13: Although there is no evidence that the Roman congregation experienced internal controversies about dietary and liturgical customs carried over from Judaism, Paul decided to treat here of a particular pastoral problem attendant on those points, namely, differences of conscientious sensitivity among believers.
This latter concern remains a matter of continued relevance. Although Christians long ago lost their lingering attachment to Jewish dietary customs and liturgical observances, they still sometimes find themselves divided, even today, on a variety of other subjects. These include, for instance, drinking alcoholic and using tobacco.
Paul’s fundamental principle seems clear enough: Christians are to show to one another that level of respect, kindness, and deference that will free each of them from harsh judgment or ridicule, carping, or shock. The guiding virtues to be cultivated in this respect are faith (verses 22-23), charity (verse 15), and the imitation of Christ (verses 9,15; 15:3,7-8).
The prohibition against judging other members of the congregation is especially forceful in this chapter. The verb “to judge,” krinein, appears eight times. One recalls the Lord’s example of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11.
The “weak” in most congregations will often be the newer members, or even the conscientious inquirers, who are just beginning to find their way in the Christian life (verses 1-5). Particularly sensitive in conscience, frequently such individuals are shocked are disedified by the behavior of other Christians, whom they may perceive as less zealous or even lax. These “weak” Christians are exhorted not to pass judgment on others, and the others, in turn, are exhorted not to ridicule or shock the “weak.” On the contrary, the latter should receive support and encouragement in the difficult early stages of their journey. One recalls here the Lord’s warning to those who scandalize the “little ones,” those relatively inexperienced Christians who are new in the discernment of good and evil, right and wrong.
The important point is to serve the Lord, to whom we all belong (verses 6-8; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). The example held before us is Christ, who neither lived nor died for Himself, but for us (verse 9).
If our knees are bent in prayer and our voices raised in praise, we will be amply busy and occupied, with neither time nor psychic energy to judge, criticize, or ridicule fellow Christians (verse 12).
Tuesday, March 11
Romans 14:14-23: Paul continues the theme from the previous section, going on to exhort believers to peace-making and edification (verse 19). In these verses, however, his exhortation is directed to the stronger, more confident Christians who may, even by mere inadvertence, create crises of conscience for their fellow believers.
The example chosen by Paul to illustrate this point is the eating of certain foods, particularly meats, which the Mosaic Law classifies as common (koinon) or unclean—foods that are not kosher. Paul is certain that Christians may eat such foods with a safe conscience (verses 1-5; Acts 10:9-15).
The Apostle recognized, nonetheless, that some Christians, from habits long adhered to, could not really eat such food with a safe conscience, because they had not arrived at a level of faith and Christian maturity that would enable them to do so. (Here he is not talking about the faith through which a Christian is justified, of course, but of faith as an effective principle in making moral decisions.)
If these latter Christians, then, were recklessly to follow the example of stronger, more mature believers, there was a genuine danger of their violating their own consciences. They would be eating for some reason other than faith—perhaps human respect or perceived social pressure—and this would constitute sin (verse 23). In short, it is never a safe or laudable thing to act against one’s conscience.
What should the stronger Christian do in such a case? He should forego his own freedom in the matter, says Paul, in order not to lead the weaker brother into sin, even inadvertently (verses 15,20-23). Peace and charity, that is to say, take precedence over the exercise of freedom (verses 17-18). Freedom, as the result of charity, must never be exercised at the expense of charity.
Moreover, a Christian should relinquish his freedom even in those instances when the exercise thereof would bring distress to another Christian (verse 15). In other words, a Christian must go out of his way, if need be, to avoid distressing fellow believers. The proper motive is love, inspired by the death of Jesus (verse 15).
In all these comments Paul enunciates essentially the same thesis he defended in Galatians 2:11-17, and which will appear later in Colossians 2:20-22 and Mark 7:19.
Wednesday, March 12
Romans 15:1-6: From dealing with the possible conflicts of conscience among Christians in chapter 14, Paul goes on to enunciate the guiding principle for the resolution of such conflicts, namely, the example of Jesus, and more specifically the example that Jesus demonstrated in His suffering and death (verse 3.)
In other words, the sufferings and death of Jesus, in addition to being the efficient cause of our redemption and reconciliation to God, also provide the exemplary type of the Christian moral life (verse 7). Some years earlier Paul had made such a case when treating of congregational problems in Macedonia (Philippians 2:5-10).
The Christian’s moral life, then, is not merely personal and private; it is social (verses 1-2,5-7). Paul knows nothing about personal holiness apart from life and responsibilities in the Church. (For this Christian thesis we may see a pagan adumbration in the traditional Spartan theory of education, in which “virtue,” arete, is invariably social and unselfish.)
The exercise of freedom is never a goal or final purpose in the Christian life; it is, rather, the proper ambience and atmosphere of the Christian life. Freedom for freedom’s sake is unknown in the Holy Scriptures. Christian freedom is ever at the service of Christian charity.
Divine charity was the motive of Jesus’ assumption of our sins in his self-offering upon the cross (verse 3; 8:32-35). In support of this thesis Paul invokes the authority of Psalms 69 (68):10, a verse descriptive (as is the whole psalm) of Jesus’ sufferings.
Then, having appealed to the Old Testament in order to throw light on a specific Christian theme, Paul enunciates the principle on which such an appeal is based, namely, the Christocentricity of the Hebrew Scriptures. Since the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ, and thereby finds its full doctrinal meaning in Christ, its proper moral application is in the lives of Christians (verse 4).
Matthew 18:1-9: Here begin the sayings that form the fourth great dominical discourse in Matthew; this one is devoted to what may be called “rules for the congregation.” It begins by the memorable scene in which Jesus holds up the faith of children as a model for adults. Far from refusing children access to Jesus until they arrive at the explicit and doctrinal faith of adults, Jesus admonishes adults to model their own faith on the more elementary faith of the child. Because children are the most in danger of being scandalized, this topic of children leads naturally into the subject of scandal, and in this connection come the Lord’s statements about millstones and self-mutilation. The latter are certainly to be understood by way of hyperbole.
Thursday, March 13
Matthew 18:10-20: The parable of the lost sheep, found both here (verses 10-14) and in Luke 15:3-7, carries a very different emphasis in each setting.
In Luke’s setting the parable comes first in a series of thee parables about objects lost-and-found, serves to illustrate God’s compassion toward sinners, and answers the challenge thrown at Jesus in Luke 15:2: “This man receives sinners.” Accordingly, in Luke the parable of the lost sheep is followed by two other parables illustrating the identical theme of the divine compassion, the account of the woman and her lost coin and the story of the father and his lost son. In Matthew the parable tells us directly about Jesus and the mercy of God.
Since Jesus’ compassionate regard for and merciful behavior toward sinners is the root of what theologians call soteriology (“the study of salvation”), the major point and burden of this story of the lost-and-found sheep in Matthew is Christological and soteriological. That is to say, it is directed toward the questions, “Who is Jesus?” and “What does He do?”
In Matthew, on the other hand, the parable of the lost sheep is placed in an ecclesiological setting. It pertains to Matthew’s fourth great discourse, which is concerned with the Church. Bear in mind that in this chapter we have two of the three times that the word “Church” appears in the Gospels.
The link verse in this story is verse 10, a negative command that ties the parable back to the section on scandal (verses 6-9). The “little one” in this context–henos ton micron–can be a child, but it can also include any “little person,” whom we are tempted to overlook, to neglect, perhaps even to despise.
Here is Matthew’s difference from Luke’s version of the parable. In Luke this is a story of Jesus’ regard and behavior with respect to the sinner, whereas here in Matthew it is concerned with the attitude and behavior of Christians.
Let us further observe that this ecclesiological and moral accent in Matthew’s version is muted or even lost in the manuscript tradition by a copyist’s insertion of verse 11, which is missing in the older, more reliable manuscripts of Matthew. Some later copyist evidently borrowed it from Luke’s story of Jesus and the publican Zacchaeus. The insertion of this verse significantly alters the flavor and nuance of the text, changing it into a Christological story rather than an ecclesiological and moral exhortation. The text, then, should be read without verse 11.
Thus read, then, the parable is not about Jesus seeking the sheep that was lost. It is an illustration of the command not to despise one of these little ones. It is an exhortation to the Church to let no one “fall between the cracks.’ It is an order to seek and find that which was lost.
Friday, March 14
Romans 15:14-21: Paul now proceeds to introduce himself more completely to the congregation at Rome, a city he plans to visit in the near future for the first time. In the present verses he says a bit about himself and his ministry, evidently feeling that such information is necessary, given the strong and authoritative tone that he has adopted in this epistle (verses 15-16).
Paul commences these remarks with a polite and positive sentiment about the congregation at Rome (verse 14), an approach he employs elsewhere in his letters (2 Corinthians 8:7; 9:2-3; Philippians 4:15). In the present case such an approach is particularly appropriate, because he is conscious of writing to a church that he had no hand in founding (1:5,13). Because of this latter circumstance, Paul does not enjoy the advantage of immediate paternity and familiarity that he enjoys in the churches of Syria, Asia, Macedonia, and Greece.
He feels compelled to write to the Romans, however, because he senses a responsibility that he has toward all the Gentile Christians (verse 16 [Note the Trinitarian structure]; 1:5; 12:3; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 2:7-8).
Like Jesus preaching in Galilee (Mark 6:6), Paul has maintained a preaching “circuit” (kyklo, the Greek root of “cycle”—verse 19), first centered in Antioch and later in Ephesus. (Observe that the churches of Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Colossae form a sort of semi-hub around Ephesus.
Up to this point in his ministry, the extreme limits of Paul’s evangelizing have been Jerusalem in the southeast and Illyricum, or Dalmatia (Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo), in the northwest. It has ever been Paul’s goal to preach Christ where He has not been hitherto preached (verse 20; 2 Corinthians 10:15-16; 1 Corinthians 3:6).
Paul describes his ministry with a liturgical and sacerdotal term, hierogounta to Evangelion tou Theou, “serving the Gospel of God as a priest,” or even “priesting the Gospel of God” (cf. Isaiah 66:20). This is one of our first instances of a specifically priestly term used to speak of the ordained Christian ministry.