. . . and then the other shoe dropped.
Yesterday, Paul seemed to be squarely on the side of the Jewish Christians, one more Jew who saw the Gentiles as an inferior people group and unfit for leadership in the Roman church.
Today, in a piece of literary genius, Paul turns the table completely.
So you have no excuse — anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment! When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. (2:1)
Sure, the Jewish Christians would not be practicing idolatry or sexual immorality or robbery of the conventional sorts. They were not literally like the Gentiles. But that is the problem with self-righteousness. It settles for literalism, and congratulates oneself for not doing some specific act of perversion. Yet the Law had become the Jewish Christians’ idol. And their adultery was spiritual not sexual. They were worshipping their own ability to be good, and stealing God’s glory.
Worse yet, these Jewish Christians had narrowly defined “good.” For them, good meant being of Jewish heritage, being among those chosen by God to have the Law, knowing that Law, being able to teach that Law, following the rituals of that Law like circumcision, food laws, and holidays. Good meant being a good Jew. So defined, yes, they were very good, and their Gentile brothers and sisters did not measure up.
Paul sets the Jewish Christians in Rome straight. Good is not defined by hearing the law or having the law, but by doing it (2:13). Paul goes one further: “Jew” — as in the people cherished by God — isn’t nearly as much about ethnicity as obedience. Circumcision isn’t about getting rid of unclean flesh as much as it is about getting rid of an unclean heart (2:28-29). Therefore, an uncircumcised but morally upright Gentile with a tender heart might actually be a better Jew, than someone who can trace their heritage back to Abraham.
If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church you have just been put in your place. These chapters might be a rough start to a letter, but we can be assured that Paul had everyone’s attention at this point.