Passages like the one presented to us today from Paul’s letter
to the Romans are nearly impossible to understand without some knowledge
of the historical realities of the first century. Many people have
the impression that Paul’s primary theological idea was that
grace was more important than works. Thus, according to this view
of Paul, the disciple spent his energies sailing around the Mediterranean
seeking to deliver people from their guilt and exhorting them to
accept that they are graced children of God. But this is not the
case, and that is not what Paul was trying to do.
Paul’s great idea—an idea that followed his dramatic
conversion—was that the covenant that God had made with Abraham
and which had been the exclusive possession of the Jews, was now,
after Christ, available to everyone. All non-Jews, the gentiles,
were now potential Children of the Promise because of God’s
grace in Christ. Membership in the covenant no longer depended on
the Law; it could now be accessed through faith in Christ Jesus,
without traditional Jewish legal observance.
This was a very big idea, so big that most of Paul’s co-religionist
could not go along. Paul was simply asking too much of them. His
theology was too radical a departure from the generally accepted
principles of Judaism in the first century. Today’s reading
from Romans is, in many ways, a record of Paul’s frustration
as his tries to offer a theological reason for the rejection of
his ideas. God can’t reject the Jews because they have the
covenant that has now been offered to everyone. Yet, these very
Jews don’t want to share—at least that was Paul’s
thinking. God must therefore be using their obstinance as part of
his over all plan for the redemption of the world.
Paul “radical” ideas were roundly challenged by the
Pharisees, the same group with whom Jesus dines in today’s
gospel. The Christian tradition has historically loved holding up
the Pharisees as examples of utterly derelict haters of the truth.
However, if we are historically honest, they were generally just
being loyal to the tradition they loved. For them, someone like
Paul seemed to be out of his mind. What he was suggesting was impossible
for Judaism to absorb and still remain Jewish. Of course they rejected
him. The interesting thing is that Christian religious leaders do
this all the time. We make judgments about the theological positions
of others and evaluate them based upon how well or how poorly they
adhere to the Christian tradition. Ideas that are too “out
there” are rejected and resisted, and rightly so.
The problem is, what if one of those ideas turns out to be the will
of God for the future, as we hold, in faith, was the case with Paul.
How do we know? The Gospel today suggests that we should at least
get ourselves out of the way. Power and position is a dangerous
thing, and they can blind us to the truth. If we are spending our
time worrying about our place at the banquet, we could easily miss
the word that God is whispering at the lower end of the table. When
I think about this I am sobered by the psalmist’s stern reminder
that “were not the LORD my help, my soul would soon dwell
in the silent grave” of my own inattention. I am equally grateful
that when “my foot is slipping,” God seems to find a
way to invite me back.