God Shows No Favoritism (Fri. June 17)

The word for today is “alike.” Justice is blind. It does not discriminate but treats all alike. That is our ideal. But does it apply to the judgments of God? In today’s reading of Romans 2:14-24, Paul answers the Jews who “rest on the law.” They boast that they “know His will” and are “instructed out of the law” (OSB vs. 18). Therefore, they think that the Almighty Creator of the world treats them differently. His promises are for them and not others who are outside the covenant. If the Gentiles want a share in these promises, they must be circumcised and become Jews. Then they would be qualified to be part of God’s Chosen People to whom God sent the Jesus as the Messiah.

What Counts in God’s Eyes?

Today we examine Paul’s theological argument that circumcision is not necessary for membership in the church. He argues that what counts in the eyes of God is not the outward and visible mark of circumcision but the inner and invisible condition of the heart. Thus, he writes, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly and circumcision is that of the heart” (OSB vs. 29).

Let’s begin to explain with the observation that the Mosaic law includes the ritual, dietary, legal, and societal rules that govern the life of the Jews. Paul insisted that the Gentiles need not keep these rules of Jewish identity. But Paul never questions that the Law of Moses includes moral commandments. And he consistently indicates that this morality is equally binding on the Jews and Gentiles alike. For instance, he writes, “Of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person–such a person is an idolater–has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (NIV Ephesians 5:5).

The Question for All: Do You Keep the Moral Law?

In terms of the moral Law, the question is not whether one is part of the Chosen People. The question is whether one keeps the commandments. In our reading, Paul addresses the Jews who boast in their possession of the moral Law, “You, therefore, who teach another do you not teach yourself. You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery…?” (OSB vs. 21-22).

Paul asks these questions to suggest that it is possible to disobey the Law even if you are bound to it by circumcision or even teach it. Conversely it is possible for those who are not circumcised and do not possess the written Law of Moses to keep God’s rules for righteous living.

Why is this the case? It must be that God has given both Jew and Gentile the same moral Law. The circumcised know the ethical directives of God because they are written in the Scriptures, the “oracles of God” (OSB Romans 3:2). The uncircumcised pagans, however, know the law because it is written on their conscience (OSB Romans 2:14-15).

The Teaching of the Natural Law

With this understanding in mind, the church fathers taught that there is a “natural moral law” that applies to all humankind. Fr. Stanley Harakas states: “Thus, the Eastern Orthodox Church accepts and teaches the reality of a natural moral law which is found in human beings, through which the fundamental rules and laws of human moral and social life are acknowledged. This law has its source in the will of God, who created humanity in His own image and after His own likeness, and which may be discerned through experience and reason” (Harakas 1977, 42).

The moral Law of Moses and the “natural law” have the same source in the will of God. Moreover, they are not two sets of ethical rules but one. Thus, Clement of Alexandria states, “whether then he speaks of the law given at birth, or that given afterwards, whatever the case, it is from God; the law of nature and the law which is learned are one” (Clement of Alexandria quoted in Harakas 1977, 45).

No Double Standard

God is just. Justice requires that like cases be treated alike. Thus, the God of Justice does not judge by a double standard. In his charge of the sinfulness of humankind, Paul addresses the whole human race, “Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are” (OSB 2:1). And again, he writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (OSB Romans 3:23). The moral Law, therefore, applies to both the circumcised Jews and the uncircumcised Gentiles. The Almighty judges both Jews and Gentiles by the same ethical criteria.

Therefore, note Paul’s logic:  in respect to the moral Law, circumcision does not make any difference. If it did, God would be playing favorites. However, Paul states if a circumcised person sins against the moral Law, then he might as well be considered uncircumcised. Conversely, if an uncircumcised person keeps the “righteous requirements of the Law” then he might as well be considered circumcised (OSB vs. 26).

For Reflection

What then is the standard by which all shall be judged? Earlier in the same chapter as our reading, Paul states that God “will render to each one according to his deeds.”  Yet here he says that God’s justice is a matter of the heart. He states, “…but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter” (Romans 2:29).

The source of the deeds that God will evaluate is the heart. And the Lord said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (NKJV Matthew 15:19). The prophet Jeremiah said, “I, the LORD, search the heart, test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:10). If our heart is good, our actions will be good. If our heart is evil, our actions will be evil. Therefore, God will scrutinize the state of the heart of every person.

If God judges solely by the state of the heart, we can claim no special standing before God. God looks beneath the appearance of status, wealth, power, reputation, achievement, social class, ethnic background, and group membership. As both Paul and Peter say, “God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11and Acts 10:34). If God does not show favoritism, we should not expect it for ourselves nor treat others according to it.

Works Cited

Harakas, Stanley S. 1977. “EASTERN ORTHODOX PERSPECTIVES ON NATURAL LAW.”  Selected Papers from the Annual Meeting (American Society of Christian Ethics):41-56.

 

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