Paul’s Pious Phonies

Paul’s critique of religious hypocrisy has a contemporary bite.

Venice_Carnival_-_Masked_Lovers_(2010)

The word hypocrisy derives from the masks that actors once wore in drama.

You don’t get very far into the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans before you encounter his sharp critique of hypocritical Jews in chapter 2. Paul is severe on his fellow Jews who seem to elevate their noses as they assess the many failures and flaws of the Gentiles. We might call them Paul’s pious phonies.

These Jews take great pride that God’s Torah has been given to them. They therefore know God’s will. This gives them a sense that they hold a superior responsibility for instructing others in that truth. We hear that attitude coming through in this question posed by Paul:

…if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law [Torah] and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself?

Who do you think you are when you judge and condemn others, asks Paul, when you yourselves commit the very same sins? All you are doing, he contends, is storing up God’s judgment on yourselves.

A Pointed Message for Christians, Too

It’s a pretty devastating critique. Christians, however, have no reason to feel self-satisfied. If Paul were to visit most churches today, he might level the same charge against a good many Christians. We Christians have no grounds for feeling superior over our Jewish cousins, let alone unbelievers.

Many of us, like the Jews Paul critiques, hold this idea that we are in possession of the Truth, with a capital T. Therefore we have no hesitancy in telling others how to live. I know this because I grew up in just such a church environment. I was constantly being told what I should believe and how I should behave. Church members harbored no doubts about the truth because they were self-proclaimed Bible believers.

But many did not live by the standards they proclaimed, especially the very stringent standards they proclaimed about our sexual lives. Just witness the many TV evangelists over the last 40 years who have been caught up in sexual scandals. The same could be said about financial scandals or irresponsible fundraising.

It gets worse as we broaden our vision beyond the evangelical world in which I grew up. Just take the continuing revelations of sexual abuse that are rocking the Roman Catholic Church. Nor is it just ethical breaches we must note. We can also cite the extreme bitterness shown in local church and denominational fights over power to control church administration and to define doctrine. The picture is not pretty.

The consequence of this Jewish behavior, says Paul, is that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles. They violate the third commandment by making wrongful use of the name of the Lord. They bring a blemish on the good reputation of God.

The same can be said for Christian hypocrisy. Many atheists and agnostics cite the hypocrisy and judgmentalism of Christians as the primary reason they have no time for religion. It also underlies the attitudes of many today who claim to be spiritual, but not religious. Trust in religious institutions and religious leaders is low. It is not hard to find some of the compelling reasons why.

This should be a serious concern as Christians assess their own behavior as well as hold church authorities accountable.

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Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek.  Reproduced by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

 

 

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The Setting-Things-Right God

The gospel releases divine power to set the world right.

I have led many adult Bible study classes. I have never, however, taught the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I have two good reasons.

First, the theology of Romans is dense. Paul manages to pack so much into the letter’s text. When I try to unpack it into easily digestible segments for an audience that has little or no knowledge of the Bible, it resists such a breakdown.

Second, many of the words Paul uses have a different emphasis in the Greek and Hebrew from their equivalent translations into English. The English words in our translations can therefore mislead, confuse, or even distort what Paul is saying.

One example is the word righteousnessas used in Romans 1:16-17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

The words righteous and righteousness are not common words in daily English conversation, at least not outside of church circles. When we do use them, we usually understand them to refer to something that is morally upright or virtuous.

For that reason, the words in English do not have an appealing emotional association. The most common use of the word righteous is in combination with the word self, creating the hyphen word self-righteous. Self-righteousness has the flavor of an alienating hypocrisy. Most often we hear it used in describing grim, buttoned-up religious folk.

If we have this idea of righteous in mind when we hear Paul talk about the righteousness of God, we are likely to be confused. It’s going to convey an idea of God in the negative sense of self-righteousness. This in turn feeds the common conception of God as a severe and demanding judge.

Exploring the Biblical Meaning of Righteousness

If we are going to understand these two crucial sentences of Paul, we must do some work exploring the meaning of righteousness in the wider context of the Bible. For we can be sure Paul is using it with its Biblical meaning front and center.

The Greek word that Paul uses that English translators translate as righteousness is the Greek word dikaiosune. It, too, is a translation for the Hebrew word tsedaqah. This Hebrew word can sometimes mean something that conforms to the moral character of God.

But with the Hebrew prophets it gains an extended meaning. When used of God, it refers to the work of God to establish justice in the land, especially on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged (summarized by the stock phrase the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien). In the intertestamental period, it also becomes associated with alms giving.

So the word righteousness comes to take on the meaning of God’s compassionate efforts to set things right in the world against all that fractures and corrupts God’s creation. It is, in short, a synonym for salvation. Salvation is also understood in the sense of restoring things as they should be, but presently are not.*

In Paul, this divine setting of things right is not limited to human individuals. It extends out to include society and the whole cosmos. God’s righteousness is God rescuing the whole creation from evil, corruption, and disintegration, and particularly rescuing humans from sin and death.**

Paul’s Confidence in the Gospel

With this understanding of the righteousness of God in mind, we can then begin to realize the astounding claim that Paul makes in Romans 1:16-17. In the gospel message about Jesus Christ, especially the message of his death and resurrection, we have revealed how God is at work to set things right in his troubled and corrupted creation. This is God coming to creation’s rescue or, to use a synonym, to creation’s salvation.

What Paul seems to be saying is that every time we preach the gospel, we are releasing God’s power into the world to continue that rescue mission–first in the lives of believing individuals and ultimately within the whole cosmos. It opens our eyes to see what we have always hoped for, but could not see: God compassionately coming to our rescue. In the words of the gospel hymn: I once was blind, but now I see.

That healing of our spiritual vision then allows us to begin to realign our own lives with the often hidden and seemingly humble work that God is performing in the world. We can begin to behave in ways that are consistent with how God is working to rescue us from the unseen powers and forces that keep human beings in bondage.

When we read Romans 1:16-17 in this light, we realize the immense confidence Paul has in the sheer preaching of the gospel. It is charged with power to change lives and even social settings.

But it seems to me that it only exercises this great power when the gospel we preach is not a message about God’s stringent demands for our strict ethical uprightness. This false preaching leads to a vision of God as an angry, vindictive judge whose goodwill we can never really count on. Rather if we would release the power of the gospel, it must be a gospel about God’s compassionate love for the world, a compassionate love that will go to the ultimate extreme to restore a corrupted world to health, wholeness, harmony, and abounding life.***

This gospel gives us a God whom we can love, adore, and trust because this is a God who is truly for us, not against us. Thanks be to God!

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* For the Biblical understanding of righteousness, I am particularly indebted to the entry on “righteousness” by N.H. Snaith in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, New York: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1950. Pages 202-204.

** The particular wording that I use in this sentence comes from N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. Page 399.

*** For my understanding of what constitutes the good news of the gospel, see my previous posting from February 14, 2016 titled Can You Summarize the Gospel in One Sentence?