Monday of Week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Romans 1:1-7

Today we return to the New Testament and begin reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  This is one of the most important of his letters and one of the key books of the New Testament.  It is listed first among the Pauline letters not only because of its importance, but because it is also the longest (the Pauline letters are listed according to their length and not in chronological order). 

We will spend the whole of the next four weeks on this letter, up to the end of Week 31. The letter seems to have been written in Corinth or nearby Cenchrea (in southern Greece) about the year 57 AD.  By this time, the Christians in Rome were mainly Gentile with Jewish Christians in a minority.

Apparently, Paul was planning a missionary journey to Spain (then a Roman colony) with the intention of using Rome as his headquarters.  He had not yet been to Rome, but must have been informed about the Christian situation there and he must have been known to them. The principal theme of the Letter is the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, a question which is also dealt with in the Letter to the Galatians.  While there is a more urgent tone in the Galatian letter, the Letter to the Romans treats the question in a more measured way. 

Paul was a strong advocate of the freedom from the Law which Christianity brought, and constantly opposed the efforts of some Jewish Christians to re-impose the requirements of the Law, including circumcision.  It is under this heading that the great issue of “justification by faith” is discussed and whose interpretation became the great dividing issue during the Reformation.

In the usual way of the time the letter begins with greetings, with Paul identifying himself and the church to which he is writing.  But, as is usual with Paul, his words are always much more than the banalities that normally accompany the beginnings of letters (including our own).  The very opening words are almost a battle cry: 

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…

  • As a “servant” (Greek, doulos) – The word literally means a ‘slave’, someone who belongs completely to his owner, but it also means ‘servant’, someone who willingly chooses to serve a master.
  • As someone “called to be an apostle” – The word ‘apostle’ originally means someone sent on a special mission.  It is used in the Gospel for the Twelve followers Jesus chose to continue his mission.  Paul regarded himself as an apostle because, like the Twelve, he had seen the risen Christ (on the road to Damascus), and had been given a special mission to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.
  • As someone “set apart for the Gospel” – His mission was not something he had decided on himself.  Jesus had specially chosen him for a special mission to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom.  Every one of us is called in this way.  How would I describe my vocation?
  • In a way, every baptised Christian can say the same in some degree. We are all servants of Jesus, putting ourselves totally at his disposal for his work.  We are all called to be apostles, in the sense that each of us has a mission in our own particular way to proclaim the Gospel message. We have all been set apart for the gospel of God, that is, the euanggelion, i.e. the “good news” that God brings to the world through Jesus Christ and through each one of his members.  How would I describe my unique vocation?  In what way can I share the Gospel with others?

    It is interesting that Paul uses the word “gospel” because the four Gospels in the form in which we know them were not yet in existence.  But the idea was already present.  The “Good News” about Jesus was already being proclaimed.  It is a gospel, as Paul implies, which did not just drop out of the sky but which had long been prepared for by the prophets and teachers of the Hebrew Testament (remember the words of Jesus to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus as he explained the Old Testament to them). In his opening greeting Paul often adds in his own Christian point of view and even anticipates some of the themes of his letter.  In Romans, these themes are:

  • God’s freedom to choose his people;
  • the connection between faith and being made ‘holy’;
  • salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection;
  • the harmony of the two Testaments – the Old and the New.
  • He now describes the Gospel he is going to write about:

    …the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…

    Here we have the elements of the Incarnation described and the link between Old and New Testaments.

    In human terms, Jesus was born a descendant of David but because God raised him to life through the Holy Spirit, Christ is established in glory as Lord (Kyrios), and meriting in virtue of his work as Messiah-Redeemer King the name he had from all time – “Son of God”.

    And it is through Jesus Christ that:

    …we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the gentiles for the sake of his name…

    To be with and under Christ is both a “grace”, a totally unmerited gift, and a responsibility to be partners with Jesus in bringing peoples everywhere to faith and personal commitment to Christ and the Gospel he proclaims.  This is where life in its truest form is to be found.

    The Christians of Rome, to whom Paul is writing, are included among these “graced” ones called to live and proclaim the Gospel because:

    …for the sake of his name…you who are called belong to Jesus Christ…

    Our mission, too, is to spread his name to all those who do not know him, inviting them to submit themselves in faith and trust to Jesus as Lord, as the Way, the Truth and Life.

    Then there comes the end of the initial salutation:

    To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

    In calling them God’s “beloved” people and “called to be saints”, he is saying that they are ‘holy’, not that they are ready for canonisation.  The word ‘holy’ (hagios) really means ‘set apart’ and is applied to the Christians in general.  All Christians are ‘saints’ in that they are “set apart” by God and are experientially being made increasingly “holy” by the Holy Spirit working in them.  This ‘setting apart’ is not to be understood as removing themselves from surrounding society; on the contrary they are to be fully inserted in society as Jesus was. 

    Only in this way can they be the salt of the earth or the yeast in the dough or the light of the world. And Paul wishes them “grace” and “peace” – grace and peace that only God and his Son can give.  “Grace” can be understood as the tangible experience of God’s love in my life and “peace” is that inner sense of wholeness and harmony with God, with other people, with oneself and one’s whole environment. Could one have more precious gifts or could one wish more precious gifts on another person?

    Let us remember today our calling as servants, as apostles and as a people set apart for a very special work, witnessing to Christ and his Gospel through the particular circumstances of our lives.

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