Reading Romans with a Little Help from My Garden (Day 26)

A reading of Romans 4–6

In a nutshell: Paul develops an elaborate analogy between Abraham and non-Israelite nations, between Adam and Jesus, and between Moses and the Israelites, all to explain how people who don’t follow Israel’s law can serve Israel’s God.

The corrupting seduction of power has a pay-off: death.
—Romans 6:23a

It’s the weekend, so I’ve been working my garden. Working in my garden reminds me that plants grow best in well-composted soil, that is, in soil that is full of decaying matter. Paul knows that, too, and it shows in today’s reading.

When Paul talks about “circumcision of the heart,” he is saying the law is universal in the same way we mean scientific law is universal. It doesn’t matter if people “believe in” gravity; either gravity is a real phenomenon or it isn’t.

Back in 1 Corinthians Paul very clearly stated that he saw no problem with eating meat sacrificed to other gods because even if human beings chose to handle the meat in that way, the meat is still a gift for our benefit from the actual, living God rather than human-made ones. Paul stressed that the more important reason for not eating the meat was to avoid confusing other people.

Romans 3 and 4 follow the same basic logic. The law is the law is the law. Some people have observed that law and some haven’t. They could be Jewish or not. You don’t have to belong to the Sir Isaac Newton fan club to stumble upon the concept of gravity. The reality is there to be found, and it affects you whether you understand it or not. Just try jumping off a cliff with the intent to fly.

Where do resurrected bodies come from?

Likewise, according to Paul, corruption (sin) exists whether human beings acknowledge it or not. It represents a third puzzle piece alongside Abraham’s trust in God (loyalty) and the law once announced by Moses to the people of Israel. Corruption is death in the broadest definition (5:14)—the natural decay experienced by all living things. Paul sees no difference between the decay that makes your potatoes go soft, and the “decay” fostered by poor moral choices. Rotten potatoes come from the same decay that fosters the impulse to murder.

Perfection is the opposite of (physical and moral) decay. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul shows a gardener’s commonsense knowledge that decay is needed for new creation. He claims immortal bodies sprout from corpses. Resurrection is like an infinity plant that sprouts in a well-composted garden. This might even be true of the whole world: the old era dies—in fact, is “crucified” with the Anointed king Jesus in a shameful way—and then a new era sprouts from the shamed, mutilated corpse. This is a pretty ugly way to explain things, but it smacks of common sense if only you spend a little time in a garden.

decaying flowers
One of several shots in a project by photographer Sara Sweet capturing the rapid transition from a once living to a decaying object.

The Seductive Power of Decay

Here’s something new I learned about Paul’s idea of reality from today’s reading: Decay is “seductive” (6:2b). It’s almost like saying we like to wallow in the compost heap. Paul thinks we’re lured by corruption until we are resurrected; Jesus is free of it now, and anyone who belongs to him will eventually be free of it, too. Jesus got there by trusting God to the bitter end, so that’s the model to follow.

It’s sort of like saying you wed yourself to the new, perfect creation, and since that can only come about by growing in what has first died and decayed, the only way out is through: you have to die in order to be resurrected. This whole reality has to die to pass into a new reality. Don’t serve the old reality by trying to perpetuate it; let God “dispose” of you as “instruments for doing right” (Romans 6:12–13). Where we think of “law” as “ultimate reality,” what Paul means is basically that we should be living out that ultimate reality and not being fooled by the dying throes of what can be seen from our very limited perspective.

This subject makes me really, really, really uncomfortable. It sounds so apocalyptic, like we’re talking about the end times. I agree with Brandon Scott, though, that this apocalyptic point of view may not be as violent as it is in the book of Revelation. Paul seems to view this as a natural sort of decay that is just hard for us to see because we’re in the compost heap. We can’t see the flowers blooming.

On the other hand, if the whole world is dying by crucifixion, that’s pretty brutal.

This subject needs must continue tomorrow, since Paul has to deal with the question of where the law fits into the metaphor of world-as-dung-heap.

Questions for the Road:

  • Are you familiar with the story of Abraham? If you have a little extra time, you might go back and read Genesis 15. How would you interpret God’s promise to Abraham?
  • What definition of sin were you taught? How does this compare to what Paul is actually saying about sin (“corruption”) here in Romans?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

2 thoughts on “Reading Romans with a Little Help from My Garden (Day 26)

  1. Romans 4-7:6, a paraphrase: Paul explores, in about every which way he can, the historical and personal dynamic of Sin-Law-Trust. At 7:7 thru 8 he, not quite subtlely, shifts the examination to the dynamic of Sin-Flesh-Spirit.

    How does Abraham, father to the Jews, fit into God’s Torah/Trust story? Well, the Torah itself calls Abraham righteous based on believing God’s promise to have a child despite being very elderly in years. Abe’s declaration of trust and God’s pronouncement of righteousness occurred before he was circumcised. Circumcision was just the sign and seal of the declaration. So Abraham, whom the Torah calls ‘the father of many nations,’ is the father to all who trust, whether circumcised or not. And this condition undermines the law-sin-wrath triad which has ruled. And so we trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead, who died for our wrong-doing that we might be counted right-doers.

    Now we are at peace with God and hope to share his glory. Because we live by God’s love poured into our hearts, we are even thankful for sufferings, as they produce endurance, character, and hope. God loved us in spite of our wrong-doing, and, incredibly, Christ was willing to face death for wrong-doers. By shedding his blood while trusting the Father, he saved us from death for life. So through Adam sin came into the world and exercised dominion in the judgment of death; and the Torah even increased the condition of trespass; but Christ’s free gift, trusting unto death, brings God’s declaration of righteousness and the gift of eternal life to us.

    Having died to sin with Christ we can’t go on living in it, so don’t do it. You know that when we are baptized, we die with Christ and rise with him to newness of life. Your old self is crucified with Christ, freed from sin and alive to God. Your members are no longer instruments of wrong-doing but instruments of right-doing. It’s ridiculous to think that we should use God’s grace as our excuse for wrong-doing. If you are a slave you have to be obedient to your master, either wrong-doing, or right-doing, either impurity and iniquity or righteousness. So know your master. You used to be free from righteousness, but that meant death. But now, enslaved to God, it means sanctification and eternal life. Sin earns you death, Christ’s free gift earns you eternal life.

    You know very well that laws are binding only for a life-time. For example, marriage laws only bind the husband and wife while both are living. Similarly, you are no longer living for Torah; it no longer has any influence over you. We now belong to Christ to bear fruit for God, where before under the law we bore fruit for death. We are still slaves, but our master is not a written code, but the new life of the Spirit.

    Comment: Paul presents the same message over and over again, trust trumps Torah, and he constantly repeats the same words, perhaps with a little different twist, and sometimes he uses different analogies (Abraham, Adam, marriage), sometimes he calls on the scriptures of old, sometimes he appeals to the conscience of the reader, but from chapter four through seven he says over and over that the rules for being right with God have changed from Torah to Grace and Trust. At times his remarks seem to imply frustration with the limited effectiveness of his message.


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