Posts Tagged With: prejudice

Romans 2: Those Self-Righteous Jews

. . . 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.

Do we ever do this same thing?  How so?

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Romans 1: Those Perverted Gentiles

Imagine you are one of the Jewish Christians in this ethnically divided, prejudicial church and you hear Phoebe read the last part of this chapter aloud.  You know Paul can only be talking about Gentiles.

They knew God, but didn’t honor him as God or thank him. (1:21)

They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans — and of birds, animals, and reptiles. (1:23)

They dishonored their bodies among themselves. (1:24)

Men performed shameless acts with men, and received in themselves the appropriate repayment for their mistaken ways. (1:27)

They were filled with all kinds of injustice, wickedness, greed and evil. (1:29)

They know that God has rightly decreed that people who do things like that deserve death. (1:32)

Andrea Mantegna, “Bacchanalia with a Wine Vat” (c. 1500)

If you are one of the Jewish Christians who had started this church in Rome after returning home from Jerusalem after that first Pentecost of the Church (Acts 2), who then had been expelled from Rome by Claudius only to return to a very different, Gentile church, what are you thinking?

See, we were right!

Look what they come from.

Sure, they are Christians now, but can anyone really reform that much?

Their heritage is riddled with perversion, idolatry, and revelry.

We are so much better than they are!

Get rid of circumcision?  What comes next?  Some pagan festival like the Bacchanalia?

We should be the leaders in this church.  You can’t trust people like this.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church, you are liking this new letter from Paul, a fellow Jew.  Preach on, brother!

What grabbed your attention in this chapter?

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Acts 13: Pure or Prejudiced?

Tell me if I am reading this passage wrong:

As Paul and Barnabas were leaving, they [Jews in the synagogue] begged them to come back the next sabbath and tell them more about these things.  Many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed them once the synagogue was dismissed.  They spoke to them some more, and urged them to remain in God’s grace. 

On the next sabbath, almost the whole city came together to hear the word of the Lord.  But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with righteous indignation, and spoke blasphemous words against what Paul was saying. (13:42-45)

At first, when Paul and Barnabas were in a synagogue, the Jews were interested and wanted to hear more.  Less than a week later when the whole city — Jew and Gentile — shows up to hear Paul and Barnabas, the Jews who were rather receptive turn on them in anger and have them driven out of the city.

Why such a strong change?

I am wondering if the answer isn’t at the beginning of verse 45: “But when the Jews saw the crowds.”  Now, when they were out in the city streets, in neutral or even foreign territory, in mixed company, when Gentiles are included in the audience being encouraged to turn to God, things change.  They don’t like what Paul is preaching.  More to the point, they don’t like who Paul is preaching to.  God is our god, they thought.  This party is by invitation-only.  No Gentiles allowed.  The Gentile water-fountain is around the corner.

Why the change?  Well, it wasn’t because of doctrine or theology.  As Paul points out in 13:47, they were arguing with their own prophet Isaiah, not him:

“I have set you for a light to the nations, so that you can be salvation-bringers to the end of the earth.”

Jewish election was not an end unto itself.  God didn’t just want the Jews to receive divine light then keep it to themselves.  The election of Israel was a means to an end.  They were given light in order to shine it on the whole world.  Blessed to bless.  As far back as the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12, the Gentiles were in God’s sights.

So it seems to me that the Jews in Pisidian Antioch (and so many other places) were actually reacting from emotion rather than theology.  Socially driven prejudice, not the Scriptures, flavored their decisions about what they thought God should and should not do.

I am sure glad we don’t ever do that today.

What do you think?

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Acts 10: God Leads the Way

This was not Peter’s plan at all.

Go to a group of Gentiles?  Eat with them?  Even baptize them?  No, this is not Peter’s plan, at all.

But it was God’s.

All throughout this chapter God through His Holy Spirit is leading the way:

  • Long before Peter came along, Cornelius and his household had developed a reverence for God and a life of prayer and giving (10:2)
  • The messengers from Cornelius’ household were sent by God to Peter, not vice versa (10:5-6, 20)
  • God brought Peter the vision of the sheet and animals
  • The Spirit coaxes Peter along: “It’s all right; get up, go down, and go with them.  Don’t be prejudiced.” (10:20)
  • Peter says his change of perspective came because “God showed me I should call nobody ‘common’ or ‘unclean.“” (10:28)
  • Out of the ordinary pattern we see in Acts, the Holy Spirit fell on the household before they were baptized (10:44-48), which is best understood as God showing proactively that these Gentiles were acceptable and baptism should be extended by a reticent Peter

As one of you said in a recent comment, this book is more about the acts of the Holy Spirit than the “acts of the Apostles.”  And yet, it is the acts of the Apostles too, in that they are the vehicles of God’s gospel and grace in a partnership between God and humanity.  They have to obey and go.  Still, this is God’s mission to rescue a lost world.  Like Peter, too often we wouldn’t choose to go where God sends.  We wouldn’t reach out to the people He chooses.  Leave it to God to broaden our horizons!

May we find the places in life where God has already been working.  May we set out to simply play the part that is needed next.

Lord, send us to the Corneliuses of our neighborhoods!

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