Connections 07.10.2016: Privilege

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Romans 3:9-20

We hear a lot of talk these days about privilege. Since I’m one of the privileged, I try to take such talk to heart. I try to be aware of my privileged status and of the pitfalls and advantages that accompany it.

I’ve not had every advantage, but I’ve had a lot of them.

I was born a white male into a society dominated by white males. (Thankfully, that has changed and is changing, but it was a fact in 1958.)

I was born to parents who didn’t have a college education, but who valued what higher education could do for me. I think the lullaby they sang to me said, “Go to sleep. Go to sleep. You need to rest up for college.” I don’t remember them ever telling me I should go; it was just assumed.

I was born to a mother and father who embraced their Christian faith and raised me in it. They loved Jesus, they tried to live their faith, and they were committed to their church. To say we were at the church regularly is like saying Earth’s atmosphere is occasionally present.

So I’ve been privileged to have always been a church insider. My insider status gave me a lot of benefits. One benefit was an awareness that I belonged to God’s people. I belonged to the Christian community, to my denominational community, and to my congregational community. Belonging to those communities was truly a blessing.

But blessings often come with a dark side. Awareness can become presumption. Gratitude can slip over into pride. When such happens, my communities become superior to other communities. Members of my communities become better than members of other communities. We become better than they are.

I become better than you.

Paul didn’t deny that the Jewish people—a community to which he belonged—were privileged. They had the advantage of being “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2). But the law, he said, mainly served to make them aware of their sin (3:20). They, like everyone else, needed to realize their need for God. They needed to give themselves over to God.

So, when you got right down to it, the main advantage of their privilege was their opportunity to know just how needy they were.

They needed grace.

It’s one of those counterintuitive truths that are basic to the Christian faith: one of the greatest privileges an insider has is the increased opportunity to realize what you lack.

Such realization is where the grace flows in.

It’s also where the humility flows out.

Discussion

1. Why do you think Paul quotes so much from the Old Testament in this passage? What seems to be his point in sharing so many Old Testament quotations?
2. Paul said, “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (v. 20). How did you learn about sin? Is learning about sin a good or bad thing? Why?
3. What does it mean to be “under the power of sin” (v. 9)?
4. As you read Romans, do you find yourself identifying more with the Gentiles or with the Jews? Do you think of yourself as an “outsider” or as an “insider”? Why? What difference does it make?
5. How would you summarize Paul’s message in this passage? Try to put it in one sentence.

Reference Shelf

In Paul’s usage, however, “sin” tends to carry with it more of a note of consciousness and deliberation. If, to borrow Freudian terms, idolatry can be seen as the impulse of the id, sin has something of the calculation of the ego, what Paul terms “the hard and impenitent heart” (2:5). Sin can be considered the potentiation of idolatry through consciousness, or the choice of idolatry even when presented with an option.

Paul’s argument here, then, has been that “sin” has become such a pervasive and powerful distortion of the human world that no one can escape its influence: all are in one way or another “under sin.” A person locked into the idolatrous impulse can make even morality, even the observance of God’s commandments, an expression of sin, by using it to assert the self over others. Virtue therefore can actually become a possession that is claimed as one’s own and used as a source of boasting over one who is wicked. But such a condemning judgment is itself the expression of hostility and a sign of sin (2:1-3). Observance of God’s commands also can be the source of boasting (2:23), even a means of trying to bribe God for a reward (11:25).

Precisely these last remarks, however, call for an important qualification. It is of the first importance to assert at this point that Paul has said nothing about Judaism as a religion. He will in fact affirm in as many ways as he can the validity and greatness of God’s revelation through Torah. Law is not the problem. The problem is a disease of the human spirit that can distort even God’s good gifts. Paul writes from the side of one who considers himself to have been given the greatest of those gifts, “the love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (5:5), and it is from that perspective that he thinks through what impulse there is in humans that can enable them to resist and even reject such gifts (see E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977]).

It would be a fundamental mistake to think that Paul is adjudicating religious systems, declaring Judaism inferior to a new religion called Christianity, as though Judaism were a “religion of law” and Christianity a “religion of grace/Spirit.” These are caricatures drawn by later theological polemics. Paul never calls himself a Christian. He is a Jew from beginning to end. He seeks the pl ̄ero ̄ma (“fullness”) of his people as an eschatological hope. And he will declare that the first thing the power of the Holy Spirit enables “those weakened by the flesh” to do is “fulfill the just requirement of the law” (8:3)! Rather, Paul is trying to show the consequences of God’s giving an entirely new gift in Christ and how that gift enables a new perception of both Jews and Gentiles in their relationship to God and to each other.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 49-50.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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