Friday, September 27, 2013

The Mercy of Unwashed Hands

How do you envision the wrath of God?

In Romans 1:18, Paul says that the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against the idolatry and injustice of humanity. For several verses, Paul rails against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of human beings who skew and obstruct knowledge of God even though Paul says that they themselves should have been able to come to this knowledge by observing what has been made. In all likelihood, Paul's words here are probably representative of Jewish caricatures of Gentiles in the first century. At the root of all of this caricature is the failure of Gentiles to worship the one true God of Israel. Everything else Paul describes here is mere symptom. Idolatry is the disease.

Given that Paul sees us Gentiles as so terribly godless and idolatrous, when Paul starts to talk about wrath being revealed from heaven one might expect the lightning bolts to start flying any minute. Quite to the contrary, we hear Paul say three times in the next several verses "God gave them over...". In v. 24, God gave them over to the lusts of their hearts...". In v. 26, "God gave them over to dishonorable passions...". In v. 28, "God gave them over to a debased mind...". The wrath of God being revealed from heaven is simply a matter of the Creator letting the created pursue their own idolatrous tendencies without interference. It seems the worst wrath that Paul can imagine from God is not lightning bolts and plague but apathy. The worst possible scenario for us is a God who washes his hands of us.

This is perhaps not that surprising when we consider that the wrath of God is depicted in much the same way in the fundamental story of idolatry in the Old Testament. In Exodus 33, after Aaron and the people of Israel construct a golden calf to worship, God says to Moses:
"Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Despite the people's sin, Yahweh still intends to keep his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by giving the promised land to their descendants. But God will send an angel to do this work rather than God's own presence dwelling with the people of Israel. On the surface, this might seem like a pretty good deal - Israel still get God's blessing if not God's presence - but Moses will have none of it. He says:
"If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
Moses knows that the worst conceivable fate for the people of Israel is that the presence of the God who delivered them from slavery would be withdrawn from among them. In similar fashion, Paul characterizes the wrath of God being revealed against Gentile idolatry as God handing them over to their own devices. This action on God's part is in stark contrast to the actions of God that Paul has just described in the previous verses using some of the very same vocabulary. Whereas in v 18-32 Paul says that God's wrath is revealed against unrighteousness that is manifested in shameful acts, in v. 16-17 Paul has just said that he is not ashamed of the gospel in part because the righteousness of God is revealed in it.

It is especially important here to keep in mind what Paul means by some of those words. The gospel is the story of Jesus Christ who "was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead." That is, this good news is centered around the Son of God who stepped into human flesh and died our human death. This is the story of a God who got involved, who intervened. This is a God who, far from washing his hands of us, got his hands dirty in the most profound of all possible ways, plunging those hands into the mess of our own flesh, taking on the very kinds of hands that had themselves committed unrighteousness and idolatry so many times over and having nails put through them. Furthermore, the righteousness of God that is being revealed in this gospel is not only what God has already done in Jesus Christ but also the transforming work that God continues to do to bring about righteousness in our own lives, even the lives of unrighteous and idolatrous Gentiles like us.

I imagine that this is contrary to the way we usually think about things. It is easy to think that God's mercy surrounds us so long as things are going well. We tend to ask questions about God's wrath when tragedy strikes. But Paul makes me wonder if the worst possible thing that God could do for us would be to simply let everything go according to our plans and our desires all the time. Perhaps the wrath of God in American culture isn't manifested in disasters and economic downturns but just the opposite; in God's allowing us to run unfettered into our never ending pursuit of happiness, security, and prosperity; when God hands us over from being his beloved possession to being possessed by the very things we so desperately seek to obtain.

Its not that happiness or even our own passions and desires are inherently evil. Its that they are malleable and if left unattended they effortlessly take on the shape and pattern of the broken world that surrounds them. Fortunately, a critical piece of the gospel that Paul proclaims is that leaving our desires and passions unattended is the very last thing that God wants to do. God so badly wants to shape us into the marvelous creatures we were created to be that God plunged the two hands of Son and Spirit into our humanity for that very purpose. The mercy of God isn't when God washes his hands of us and lets us be. The mercy and righteousness of God are revealed in the divine hands that are covered in dirt and clay from the work of shaping the dust of the earth into creatures that begin to resemble the very divinity that has shaped and formed them.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Source of Faithfulness

For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God leading to salvation for all who believe, to the Jew first and to the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed in it from faith to faith, just as it is written "The righteous out of faithfulness will live."  Romans 1:16-17*

These are widely recognized as the theme verses of Paul's letter to the church at Rome. They are the thesis of what turns out to be one very long, sustained argument. As a result, there is a lot to unpack here. (After all, Paul will spend the rest of the letter doing just that.) But it is those final words, the quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 which I find most interesting and most enlightening for understanding these verses and the whole of Romans.

Habakkuk is a little prophetic book that begins with a familiar question:
"O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?"
 The first four verses of Habakkuk paint a bleak picture of Israel as a violent and unjust place. Habakkuk says that the law is "paralyzed" and "justice goes forth perverted." This is an especially poignant depiction of corruption given that the law to which Habakkuk refers is the good and perfect law given by God. The corruption and injustice in Israel are so severe that even God's perfect law is powerless to correct it. The overwhelming sin of Israel perverts the instrument of God's own justice so badly that it only serves to produce more injustice. It is this dismal circumstance which causes the prophet to cry out to God asking "How long?".

To say that God's response to Habakkuk in 1:5-11 would have been "surprising" or "unexpected" would be an understatement overwhelming in its imprecision. "Jaw-dropping, difficult to wrap your brain around, alternative reality" would come closer to an apt description. God proclaims that his answer to the problem of violence in Israel will be Babylon: the pagan, know-nothing about Yahweh, worshipping other gods, soul-crushingingly-powerful nation of Babylon. This is the evil empire of the Bible; a nation so infamously etched in the memory of God's people that the writer of Revelation would still use them as a code name centuries later for the pagan, know-nothing about Yahweh, soul crushingly-powerful empire of his own day (Rome). In spite of this, God intends to use Babylon to clean up Israel.

This is a hard pill for Habakkuk to swallow to say the least. Habakkuk questions it, wondering how a holy God can use such an unholy instrument to correct the people God called to be holy. It is in the midst of this exceedingly strange circumstance, this frighteningly new and uncertain action by God that we hear the words "The righteous will live by his faithfulness." The call of God through Habakkuk is for the righteous to live out of faithfulness (whether their own or God's is, perhaps purposely, ambiguous)** even in these violent and terribly uncertain times.

In the context of Romans 1:17, the quote from Habakkuk is often seen as a call to a righteousness by faith rather than by works. Correspondingly, the whole of Romans is thought to be Paul's detailed exposition of the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus rather than good deeds. There may be a shade of truth to such a reading of Romans but I think that truth has more to do with Martin Luther's guilt-laden conscience and his reading of Paul than it has to do with Paul's own writing.*** Instead, if we allow the narrative of Habakkuk to set the tone for Romans as Paul himself seems to do, we will find that there are remarkable similarities between the two.

Similar to what we have seen in Habakkuk, much of Paul's writings are about the strange, completely unexpected, frighteningly new thing that God has done in Jesus Christ. No one, no one, expected a crucified messiah. "Crucified" and "messiah" are themselves mutually exclusive terms. If you were one, you couldn't be the other. As if that weren't odd enough, Paul's experience was that Gentiles, not Jews, were the ones responding most readily to God's, that is, Yahweh's, the Jewish God's crucified messiah. These were strange, new actions on God's part, indeed. So strange that Paul referred to them as a new era, a totally new epoch in the history of the world, the beginning of a new creation. 

With this in mind, we can see why Paul would feel the need to say that he was "not ashamed of the gospel" (a religion with a crucified leader would have been a very shameful thing) but we can also see why he would call it the "power of God" (powerful enough to cause non-Jews to proclaim Israel's failed messiah as "Lord"). We can see just how it is that "the righteousness of God is revealed in it" as it makes sinful people (Romans 1-3) into righteous, just, and faithful people (Romans 6 and 8); something God's own perfect law had been powerless to accomplish (Romans 7). Likewise, we can see that just as the prophet Habakkuk has some questions about God's righteousness, Paul wonders aloud how it is that God will remain faithful to the promises God made to the people of Israel (Romans 9-11) even as this new righteousness/faithfulness is revealed in Christ (Romans 3-5). But in the midst of all this newness and uncertainty, the call upon those who proclaim Jesus as Lord is to live out of the faithfulness of Christ into a faithful imitation of Christ (1:17; chapters 12-15).

After 2000 years of Christian history and tradition, we too easily forget what an odd thing it is that we, who are nearly all Gentile, worship a crucified Jew. By doing so, we also forget what a strange, new thing God did in Jesus. If we read it carefully, Romans will help to remind us just how unbelievably good this good news really is for us. It will remind us that God keeps his promises even when it looks like they are most certainly being abandoned, whether it be as Abraham raises the knife over Isaac or as Jesus lays in the tomb or as Paul's kin reject their own savior. It is especially in these most uncertain of times that God calls the righteous to find in God's own faithfulness the source of their endurance to live faithfully.

*This is my own translation. Readers familiar with most English translations may be surprised by my use of the word "faithfulness" rather than "faith." The Greek word Paul uses here can be translated either way and really means both. Separating faith as a kind of mere cognitive belief from faithful action would have likely been a foreign idea to Paul. The single word faith/fulness encompassed both and bound them together. Furthermore, the Hebrew word Habakkuk uses has a much stronger leaning toward the idea of faithfulness than mere belief. 

**It is ambiguous for a couple reasons. First, the "his" in Hebrew probably refers to "the righteous one" but it is possible that it refers to God. Second, the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the the Septuagint, reads "my faithfulness" and portrays the verse as being spoken by God thus making it God's faithfulness. To make things even more interesting, Paul leaves out the pronoun entirely in his quotation of the verse so rather than "his faithfulness" or "my faithfulness" we have simply "The righteous will live out of faithfulness." This serves Paul's purposes well because he wishes to talk about both God's faithfulness in Christ and and faithful human response. 

*** There are a plethora of books that make this argument. A few are: 
Krister Stendahl's Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.
E.P. Sanders Paul: A Very Short Introduction.