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.
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.
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?
Thanks 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 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.