Friday of Week 29 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Romans 7:18-25

Paul today describes an experience which all of us have had. He senses the tendencies to wrongdoing in himself which are at variance with a desire to do what is good and right.

As Jesus said to his disciples during his Passion:

…the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Matt 26:41)

Paul is speaking of someone still under the empire of sin and not yet justified by Christ’s grace. In contrast, in chapter 8 of Romans, he speaks in the name of the justified Christian with the gift of the Spirit who, nevertheless, is still aware of an inward struggle while on earth. So the person who does not yet experience the justifying grace of God recognises a rift between a rational desire for the goodness proposed by the law and one’s actual performance contrary to the law.

There is a radical opposition between the two. While still under the law, one is unable to be free from the slavery of sin and the power of death. But one can only be rescued from defeat by the power of God’s grace working in oneself through Jesus Christ. A grace that comes through the act of faith made in Jesus as Lord:

I know that the good does not dwell within me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do the good lies close at hand, but not the ability. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

How often have we not had a similar experience? However, Paul is not saying that there is no goodness at all in each one of us. But the goodness we do have so often seems incapable of dealing with the urge to do what is wrong. And, yet, when Paul does something that he does not really want to do, he senses that it is not his real self, but the sinful urge that lives within.

Here again, Paul is not denying his personal responsibility for what he does, rather, he is affirming it. He does something which is in conflict with his deepest self. And so, this is his constant experience – even when he desires to do nothing but good, the evil choice is always close at hand.

For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

There is a war going on between his inmost, rational self and his sensual, pleasure-seeking body. The rational self is the one which dearly loves God’s law. That law is imprinted on our minds – we all have an innate hunger for truth and goodness. The sensual, pleasure-seeking self wants to by-pass the law of truth and goodness, and tries to convince the self that in pleasure and sensuality there is goodness. Though in reality, we never choose anything except under some guise of goodness or attractiveness, however distorted.

In this terrible impasse, Paul cries out for help:

Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

He knows that by himself there is nothing he can do. But he knows where the answer is:

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

That is where his delivery is to be found. On Paul’s view of the relationship of the human body with Christ the Jerusalem Bible makes the following comment:

“Paul is concerned with the body and its component members, that is to say with the human being as he actually is, a sentient creature, with a sexual life, because it is in the body that man lives morally and religiously. The body, though tyrannised by the ‘flesh’, by death, and therefore a ‘body of flesh’, a ‘body of sin’, and ‘a body of death’, is not however doomed to perish, as Greek philosophy would have it, but, in accordance with the biblical tradition, destined to live, through resurrection. The principle of this renewal is the Spirit, which takes the place of the psyche, and transforms the body of the Christian into the likeness of the risen body of Christ. Until this ultimate deliverance takes place, the body of the Christian, provisionally delivered from the ‘flesh’ by its union with Christ’s death, is even now the home of the Holy Spirit, who produces in it a new life of righteousness and holiness, which is meritorious, and gives glory to God.”

And Paul concludes:

So then, with my mind I am enslaved to the law of God, but with my flesh I am enslaved to the law of sin.

On our own, we can never win this war. But, with Christ’s help, which can come directly, but also in a very special way through the support of a Christ-centred community, I can grow in freedom and overcome these irrational and destructive instincts. In their place, the values of the Gospel become more and more a reality in my daily living. In the end, I may be able to say with Paul,

…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.
(Gal 2:20)

That is the meaning and the goal of our being baptised into Christ.

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