There is an old story that I have come across on numerous occasions. It is about a wise Teacher who was once invited to attend a banquet hosted by the King. The King just happened to be a good friend of the Teacher, and was looking forward to enjoying the company of his old friend.
On the day of the banquet, the Teacher arrived at the gate in his humble teaching attire. The guard stopped him and said, “No one is allowed into the banquet without a coat.”
The Teacher responded, “I am a good friend of the King, and he is expecting me. Here is my invitation.”
The guard replied, “My orders are from the King himself. You may not enter without a coat!”
The Teacher left, went home, and obtained a coat. The guard permitted him to enter this time, and the Teacher took his place next to his old friend the King.
When the meal was served, the Teacher began pouring his drink on the coat. He also stuffed all the food into the pockets of the coat. The other guests were deeply concerned with this behavior.
Finally, the King spoke up in embarrassment. “Why are you putting your meal all over your coat?”
The Teacher replied, “When I came to the gate the first time to enter the banquet, I was denied because I didn’t have on this coat. But when I put the coat on, I was allowed in. I can only deduce from this that I was not the real guest invited to this banquet, this coat was. Therefore, the coat should enjoy the meal.”
Now, normally, we use such a story to drive home the axiom, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Or we try to teach people the reality that a person is actually more than what they wear. These things are most certainly true, but for today, I want to use this story to lead us toward self-reflection. I would like for each and every one of us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what kind of window dressings do we put on ourselves? And do those window dressings give us a sense of self-importance that we really do not deserve?
In the previous section of the book of Romans, Paul dealt with Jews who were counting on their knowledge of God’s Law–the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament for salvation. They believed that simply knowing the Law was good enough to ensure God’s love and mercy. Paul showed that it was not knowing the Law that counted but the doing of the Law that was required, and Paul showed how even Gentiles followed the Law that God had instilled deep within them. Simply knowing the Law was not a mark of salvation.
Today, Paul has to deal with another Jewish myth: the myth that Jews had a particular status before God that would guarantee them salvation. Let’s turn to the text, and I will try to make things more clear. Paul writes, “17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God 18and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, 19and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, 21you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’
Paul begins with five assertions that Jews made about themselves based upon their relationship with God and their knowledge about God’s will, and all five of these things can be found in the Jewish literature dating to this time period. Paul is not putting up a strawman. The Jews actually believed these five things:
1. They were guides to the blind–to those who didn’t have God’s Law.
2. A light to those who were in darkness–to those who didn’t know God’s will.
3. A corrector of the foolish–using the Law to correct those who didn’t know better.
4. A teacher of children–considering themselves more mature than those who didn’t have God’s Law.
5. Having the embodiment of knowledge and Truth in God’s Law–as opposed the rest of the world who were grasping at straws.
Notice that Paul does not say that any of this is false. Paul does not criticize the Jewish belief that these things are true. No. Not in the least because in a very real way, all of this is indeed true. This was the responsibility of the Jewish people. They were to be all of these things, but the point Paul makes is–they have failed.
“You that teach others, will you not teach yourself,” Paul says. When you look in the mirror, do you find yourself doing the things that you tell others not to do? Are you the kind of person who says, “Do as I say not as I do?” This is what is behind all of Paul’s questions about stealing, adultery, robbing temples, and the like He is not accusing EVERYONE of doing such things, but he is using easily understood examples to point out the failure of the Jews to obey the totality of the Torah. And because of their failure to obey the Torah, to keep God first, they have failed in their calling to be a light to the world. When God made the covenant with Abraham, God specifically said, “You are blessed to be a blessing to the rest of the world.” The Jews had not been that blessing. Instead of blessing the world, they had sought to keep that blessing to themselves. They were abject failures.
And their failure has had dire consequences!!! Paul quotes Isaiah 52:5 to show the consequences of the Jewish failure to follow the Law, “The name of God is blasphemed amongst the Gentiles because of you!” Your failure has actually led people away from God!
This is an all too common thing for the church in our society today. Over and over again, you will hear non-believers pointing out how our behavior does not match our words. You will hear over and over again how we are hypocrites–how we talk about loving one another and then fail to love. How we talk about the need to worship and then our constant skipping of church. How we talk of the sanctity of marriage and then have many, many divorces. How we talk about the sanctity of life and either support abortion or the death penalty. How we talk about feeding the hungry and then railing against government policies that do exactly that.
There is even the story of the man who was stopped at a light. The light turned green, and the car in front of him refused to budge. The man unleashed a string of curse words that would make a sailor blush. He made more than a few obscene hand gestures. He turned beet red with anger and frustration. All of which caught the attention of a passing police officer. The officer came up to the vehicle and asked for the driver’s license and registration. The man willingly gave it to the officer, and then asked, “Is there a problem, officer. Did I break the law?” The officer responded, “After looking at your license and registration, no. You didn’t.” “The man then asked, “Then why did you stop me?” The officer replied, “When I saw the way you were acting back there and then I saw the ‘Honk if you love Jesus!’ bumper sticker, I thought the car was stolen.”
It’s a laughable joke, but there is a deep reality to the situation because oftentimes we are hypocritical in our behavior as the church. We have not been a light on a hill. We have not followed the command of our leader, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples–if you have love for one another.” And people have turned away from God because of it. People have left the church because of our behavior. People have defamed the name of God because we have failed to be who God has called us to be.
For anyone who claims to be a Christian, this is devastating news. This is a scathing rebuke. It should make us hang our heads in shame.
But Paul is not done. He pushes the rebuke even further. 25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
Paul is merciless here. He is absolutely merciless. If there was a mark of Judaism that was revered, it was circumcision. It was personal. It was the sign of the covenant with Abraham. It physically marked a person as different from the rest of the world, and there were many Jewish rabbis who blatantly said, “If a person is circumcised, he is guaranteed salvation.” Paul says, “Um, no.”
In fact, Paul says, if you are circumcised and yet break God’s Law, you have essentially reversed your circumcision!! You are no longer a Jew!! This would not have simply raised a few eyebrows, it would have caused great consternation!! It would have caused an uprising!! This was sacrilege to a Jew!!
But Paul isn’t finished. Paul is going to drive the logic to its final conclusion. Real circumcision, Paul says, is a matter of the heart. Real circumcision is deep within a person, and if a Gentile follows the Law, then he is actually more of a Jew than a circumcised Jew who doesn’t follow the Law. And the one who follows the Law, even though he be uncircumcised receives praise from God.
Let me put this in modern terms. There are some atheists who put some Christians to shame when it comes to living a moral, upright life. There are some people of other faith traditions who are much more loving, kind, worshipful, and moral than some Christians. There are many Muslims who attend worship at Mosques much more regularly than Christians. The average Lutheran Christian in the U.S. considers himself or herself to worship regularly if he or she worships once a month. But half of all Muslims in the U.S. attend weekly worship. Think about that!!
Paul would say, “They are acting more Christian than you are!!!”
This is scathing for us to hear. And shameful. The idea that there are people of other faiths who worship more regularly than Christians; who treat others with more kindness and compassion; who are more generous; who are working for justice and peace; who have a deeper faith in their god than we do in ours is abhorrent. It should never, ever happen. Yet, it does.
I told you as we entered into these chapters that we would get to the point where we were so angry with Paul that we didn’t want anything more to do with God or we would find ourselves broken-hearted ready to hear the Gospel. In a very real way, this is the deepest rebuke Paul can offer those who believe. We are forced to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Do we simply wear the coat of Christianity, or is it something that resides deep within our hearts? Is our Christian faith simply an external thing–a part of our identity that can be discarded as we choose; or is it who we are–the core of our being? Is our Christianity something we wear thinking it will get us access to the final party without it really affecting our personhood?”
These are tough questions. They demand deep, personal reflection. They can be very humbling indeed. And they can prepare our hearts to help us hear the Gospel. That Gospel is just around the corner. Hang in there. We will hear it before long. Amen.