Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Thoughts on Romans 9
One of my parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas asked about a section we heard a couple of weeks ago in the second reading at Mass. Here is how I responded:
I appreciate the questions you posed about the reading from Mass--Romans 9, specifically 9:3: "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race." This piqued my own curiosity and here are a few thoughts I found through some research.
First, the overall sense of this passage is that Paul is mourning over his brother/sister Jews who did not believe in Jesus Christ.
It should be noted that in Paul's time there were two basic divisions of people according to the Jewish religion: Jews and Gentiles (anyone who was not a Jew). At the same time, there was not yet a clear distinction between Jews and Christians. Remember that Jesus himself was Jewish, as were his apostles and most of his disciples. Paul even boasted of being a Jew with more credentials than others (cf. Philippians 3:4-6)! The definitive split of Christianity from Judaism took around forty years and many in Paul's day could be considered Jewish-Christians. In this section, Paul is referring to the Jews who failed to believe in Jesus Christ.
Later, in Romans 10:1-4, Paul writes, "Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [the non-believing Jews] is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they [the non-believing Jews] did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified."
Second, the English translation as we heard it in Mass was accursed and separated. The Greek word here is anathema (cut off, separated, rejected) which has many roots in the Old Testament. To be anathema in the Old Testament occurred after failing to uphold God's covenants with His people. As interpreted by the writers of the Old Testament, this resulted in material loss, defeat by enemies and other calamities.
What Paul is saying is that he would be willing to take on such material curses if it would help his Jewish brothers and sisters grow in faith of Jesus. He would even sacrifice everything he had experienced in his relationship with Christ for the sake of others. This is indeed a radical, yet hypothetical scenario. Note that he says, "I could wish..." and not "I wish" above. Paul was known for his intense love of Jesus and this spilled over into many dramatic statements or other bold claims in his writings and ministry. In the end his motivation was always to proclaim Jesus Christ crucified.