Yesterday in my Sunday school class we continued our study of Romans, reaching the start of chapter 3. In trying to sum up Paul’s seemingly conflicting points about the advantage of being a member of the Jewish people (yes there is an advantage, no we are not any better off) I used the analogy of gym membership. I wonder whether others find this a useful analogy for illustrating Paul’s point.
Paul’s contrast in Romans 2 can be compared to a contrast between someone who boasts of being in good shape, having a membership in an excellent gym, and someone who has no such membership but (unlike the first person) exercises regularly. Paul’s point about the advantage of the Jews in Romans 3 is akin to pointing out to the first of the two individuals previously mentioned that the advantage of gym membership is access to equipment that facilitates being healthy, not that membership itself automatically means that one is in good shape.
Paul’s point is that belonging to God’s chosen people conveys the advantage of having revelation of God’s will, but it is still up to a person to respond to that revelation. And as he said in chapter 2, those outside the Jewish people who seek after God and do what the Law requires without even having the Law will be more pleasing to God than those who have the Law but do not do what it requires.
Of course, some of this is in at least apparent tension with the Lutheran tradition of exegesis which claims that trying to observe the Law is misguided. Paul, thus far at least, says just the opposite.
I still believe that Romans has a powerful message to challenge the church in our time, if it is contextualized to address the church. It is ironic that the church often seems to reflect a stance closer to the one that Paul is arguing against here rather than Paul’s own view. I could imagine Paul writing to the church asking whether there is any advantage to being a Christian, and saying yes – but at the same time, emphasizing that it is not the hearers but the doers of the Gospel who will be saved, and that the non-Christian who shows that God’s requirements are written on his or her heart will condemn the Christian who is part of the ‘right group’ and has access to the message and teachings of the Bible, but does not respond to them, and is not even aware of how they have failed to respond to them, because, like many in ancient Israel and many Jews in Paul’s time, they understand membership in the chosen people to constitute privilege rather than responsibility.