Tuesday of Week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Romans 1:16-25

In today’s reading, Paul begins:

…I am not ashamed of the gospel…

Paul says this because his is a message that meets with a lot of opposition and ridicule. But he continues:

…it is God’s saving power for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek…The one who is righteous will live by faith.

This also expresses the theme of the whole Letter. In speaking of shame, perhaps he is thinking of his coming journey to Rome, the capital of a whole empire, with all its pagan sophistication.  There were many other places where his message was ridiculed such as Athens and Ephesus, to give just two examples. Right at the beginning he uses the word “faith”, the understanding of which is at the centre of his whole message. 

The characteristics of Christian faith may, as presented in the New Testament, may be listed as follows:

  • A response of the human being to God as Truth and Goodness;
  • The one source of salvation.
  • Faith requires belief in the Son and the kerygma or proclamation made by the Apostles, which says that God raised Jesus from the dead, made him Kyrios (Lord) and through him offers life to all who believe in him.

    Faith is a necessary condition for salvation. It is not only intellectual assent, but includes trusting and obeying the life-giving Truth. It is a reliance on God and not on self. As such, it is in contrast with the old order of the Law and its vain search for holiness by works.

    Only faith can bring about true holiness. In so far as faith is related to the promise made to Abraham, it makes salvation accessible to all, pagans included. When coupled with baptism, faith calls for public profession, and expresses itself in love (agape). Faith is supported by hope and must be allowed to grow amid struggles and sufferings, demanding fortitude and tenacity right up to the vision and possession of God.

    Because Paul sees the Gospel as the “power of God”, it brings salvation, wholeness and life to all who accept it, Jews and Gentiles alike.  This is something he has personally experienced. 

    The Gospel reveals the “justice” of God, his inner truth and goodness and harmony which we are invited to share.  The key to reaching it is faith: the acceptance of the truth of the message and a total commitment in trust to basing our lives on the message and its Messenger.

    Salvation comes to “the Jew first”.  In the actual development of salvation history the Jews come first.  In John’s gospel Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that:

    …salvation is from the Jews… (John 4:22)

    Jesus, the Messiah, was himself a Jew.  Paul said that:

    …the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. (Rom 3:2)

    The covenants, Law, Temple worship, revelation of the divine glory, and the Messianic prophecies came first to the Jews.   These privileges, however, were not extended to the Jews because of their superior merit or because of God’s partiality towards them. It was necessary that the invasion of this world by the Gospel begin at a particular point with a particular people, who in turn were responsible to carry that gospel to the other nations. And Paul is not ashamed of the Gospel:

    For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith”.

    “Righteousness” here is not the justice of giving someone what belongs to them, but speaks rather of the inner goodness of God, who extends his promise of salvation to all as a free gift.  But the experience of this justice requires a faith and trust in God as Lord of one’s life.

    Paul now moves on to consider the fate of those unbelievers who totally reject God:

    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth.

    In developing the theme of righteousness/justice from God, Paul sets the stage by showing that all have sinned and therefore need the righteousness that only God can provide.  He shows the sin of the Gentiles and the sin of the Jews and then summarises the sin of all – Gentile and Jew alike. He begins by saying that no one – not even one who has never heard of the Scripture or of Christ – has an excuse for not honouring God, because the whole created world reveals him. 

    The ‘wrath’ of God is not a petulant, irrational burst, such as humans often exhibit, but a holy, just revulsion against what is contrary to and opposes his holy nature and will.  This ‘wrath’ is being revealed now in the wicked becoming the victims of their own evil acts.  By their behaviour they “suppress the truth”.  That is, they block the truth about God which is so clearly evident in our created world:

    For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.

    Reason alone, by observing the beauty of creation all around, can easily come to an awareness of the Source of all these things. 

    As the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom we have cited numerous times before, said:

    The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

    This sentiment has been repeated by poets and artists all down the centuries and in every culture. Hence, as Paul says:

    …they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened.

    An awareness of a Creator being responsible for such Truth, Goodness and Beauty naturally leads to forms of praise and thanks and worship. Thanks for many earthly blessings such as sun, rain and crops and prayers when these things are lacking. 

    Again, this is a phenomenon found in some form in every human culture. Instead:

    Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

    The glory of God in nature was replaced by the making of all kinds of images – the likeness of humans, birds, animals, reptiles and other living or non-living things. Even the sophisticated Greeks and Romans, with all their enlightened philosophies, indulged in such idolatries and superstitions.

    The result of such behaviour was that:

    God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.

    The pagan temples all over the Near East and the Mediterranean were notorious for the sexual indulgences and perversions which were widely practiced.  In Paul’s letters we read how even Christians were tempted and often fell. The traditional biblical phrase “God abandoned”, or “left them”, used three times for emphasis, means that religious error, if blameworthy, results in moral and social ills.  Sin produces its own consequences and its own punishment. 

    Though Paul judges and condemns pagan society he does not condemn individuals (whose intentions God alone must judge) since he presupposes that there are pagans who obey the natural law written in their hearts. What so many of the Gentiles did was to exchange God’s truth for a lie, because they worshipped and served a creature instead of the Creator.

    We have been blessed with the revelation of God which has come to us through the scriptures and especially through Jesus Christ, the Word of God, and his Church.  Even so, we too can profit by seeking and finding God’s active presence in the world in which we live and spend our days. 

    We live, as the Jesuit writer Teilhard de Chardin wrote, in a “divine milieu”, an environment where every single thing we come in contact with is touched by God.  And there is the beautiful phrase from Jean Pierre de Caussade, SJ: “The sacrament of the present moment”, where every single moment of every day is a sign of God’s presence and love. We are never alone.

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