Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Believing In Him (part 43)

Though it is always tempting to allow a stream of thought to reach its conclusion simply because we have reached the end of a chapter, we have to continue on in to chapter fifteen of Romans in order to hear Paul continuing to work out the implications of meal table practices that were quite vital to the communities of Jesus believers (as indicated by Acts 15, Galatians 2, 1 Corinthians 11, and Romans 14, to point to a few New Testament Scriptures).  We do so in full cognition of the fact that the meal table provided a working picture of the justified community, comprised of Jewish and Gentile believers in equal standing before God because of their faith in the Gospel. 

So after Paul insists that whatever is not performed in accordance with the faith (like that of Abraham) that shows itself forth in an unswerving loyalty to the way of being human that bears out the image of the God revealed by Jesus (in imitation of Jesus as He interacts with His world) is sin (failure to bear the divine image, or to fall short of the glory of God, as God’s intent for humanity/Abraham/Israel/Jesus/Church is to reflect His glory into the world), Paul writes “But we who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not just please ourselves” (15:1).  This is the epitome of self-sacrificial love.  Indeed, Paul’s call, in accordance with the Gospel is “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good to build him up” (15:2), which, though it may not be intentional in the least (and thought it may stretch the boundaries of possibility and analogy) to be a faint echo of the Jesus tradition’s parable of the “good Samaritan,” in which the question posed by Jesus, at the conclusion of the story, which comes in answer to the “who is my neighbor” posed to Him prior to His telling of the story, was “who acted as a neighbor” to the one in need.  Indeed, we can line up the parable with this verse and ask: “Who did good?  Who built up his neighbor?” 

We do not want to get pulled too far aside into speculation about the possibilities of allusions to stories from what would have then been the oral Jesus tradition, but it is interesting that verse three has Paul making reference to Jesus as he writes “For even Christ did not please Himself, but just as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’” (15:3)  Clearly, there is something in his thoughts, as he writes what would come to be designated as verses one and two of chapter fifteen, that has put Paul in mind of Jesus, and talk of neighborliness seems as likely as anything else.  With this mention of Christ, Paul quotes from the sixty-ninth Psalm.  With this quotation, he makes Jesus, or more specifically, the Messiah, the referent of the Psalm, and he does so in the course of instructions concerning the way that those that believe in Jesus---those that are the Temple of God, the house of God, by the Holy Spirit---are to function, as neighbors. 

More directly, this quotation comes in the course of talk about food and table fellowship, which is of vital concern to Paul (remember, controversies concerning the dietary practice of Gentile believers prompted a determinative conference in Jerusalem).  This does not surprise us at all, as we consider the words of the Psalm in their context, with Romans fourteen and the first few verse of chapter fifteen firmly in  mind: “Let none who rely on You be disgraced because of me, O sovereign Lord and King!  Let none who seek You be ashamed because of me, O God of Israel!  For I suffer humiliation for your sake and am thoroughly disgraced.  My own brothers treat me like a stranger; they act as if I was a foreigner.  Certainly zeal for your house consumes me; I endure the insults of those who insult you.  I weep and refrain from eating food, which causes others to insult me” (Psalm 69:6-10a). 

Self abnegation, suffering for the sake of others, talk of brothers, foreigners, the house of God, and food causes this Psalm to fit nicely alongside this portion of Romans, well-informing the believing community as to what is expected of its members as they endeavor to take up the cross of Christ in and for the world.  Having quoted from the Psalms, Paul punctuates his quotation with “For everything that was written in former times was written for our instruction, so that through endurance and through encouragement of the Scriptures we may have hope” (15:4).  Clearly, Paul finds confirmation of his vision of the ideals of the kingdom of God painted on page after page of Scripture.

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