Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 13, 2023
Romans 10:5-15 Commentary
Few passages of Scripture hit me harder and closer to home than this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In fact, its verses 14-15a leave me figuratively squirming as I try to open myself to the Spirit’s prompting toward writing something meaningful about them.
Eugene Peterson’s The Message’s paraphrases verse 13 as Paul’s profession that “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.” But then it goes on to paraphrase the apostle as asking, “How can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them?”
I plan to retire in July, 2024. I have dedicated much of my ministry as well as much of my life to telling people near and far about the One who can be trusted. However, in less than a year, I will no longer be formally charged with telling them that.
For more than 25 years, my wife and I have had the immense privilege of living in a heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Hundreds of Jews live within figurative shouting distance of our home. There are four orthodox synagogues within a quarter of a mile of our house and church.
During especially the past five years, God has graced my wife and me with countless conversations with our Orthodox Jewish neighbors, at least some of whom have also become our friends. We haven’t just talked with them about the weather and our families. The Spirit has also graced us with many conversations about our respective faiths. We have, what’s more, sought the Spirit’s leading as we’ve shared our faith by what we do as well as say.
But I wonder what will happen when we move out of our neighborhood next year. How will our Jewish neighbors hear about Jesus if we’re not there to “preach” (14b) to them? And what will happen to what my wife and I have already preached to them in both word and deed?
Of course, it’s not obvious from this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson itself that Paul is talking in it about preaching to people who are Jewish. In fact, Romans 10:5-15 never mentions the Israelites. And when it mentions Israel, it doesn’t explicitly link her to her failure to receive Jesus as Messiah with her faith.
While preachers might take this omission as a kind of generic invitation to preach and promote the gospel, wise preachers pay attention to Scott Hoezee’s advice about that. He encourages preachers not to sheer Romans 10:5-15 off from its original context, thereby shrinking it to little more than a general assertion of preaching’s importance.
Of course, most of the people to whom we preach don’t live in heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. In fact, I’m not sure how many Christians even know Orthodox Jews. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. After all, it’s not some just Jews who pursue an understanding of righteousness through their own words and actions. All of us naturally do what we can to justify ourselves in hopes that others will accept us.
Of course, beginning in Romans 9, Paul has been deeply grieving his fellow Jews’ general failure to receive God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. They have, he mourns in verse 2, misdirected their religious “zeal.” Instead of submitting to “God’s righteousness,” they’ve sought to establish “their own” righteousness (3).
The apostle’s “solution”? That “everyone,” including members of his Jewish extended family, “call on (epikalesetai) the name of the Lord (to onoma Kyriou)” (13). That everyone literally “appeal to” not their own righteousness, but God’s righteousness that can be received only through faith in Jesus. That divine righteousness alone, after all, “saves” (sothesetai) God’s dearly beloved people.
“But how,” the apostle goes on to basically ask, “can [his fellow Jews] call on the one they have not believed in (ouk episteusen)? (14).” How, in other words, are people supposed to trust someone whom they don’t know well to help them? Might it not be a bit like people calling a local pastor they’ve never met for help with their plumbing problem?
In verse 14 Paul implies that most of God’s Israelite people don’t know Jesus very well. Oh sure, they may know about him – though in our family’s experience, modern Jews don’t know much about Jesus beyond the basics. Many of our neighbors, including Jews, certainly don’t know Jesus through his Word and Spirit.
However, as Paul continues in verse 14, how can his fellow Jews “believe in the one of whom they have not heard (ekousan)?” Here he suggests that hearing leads to trusting. No wise person will ever appeal for help to a Lord about whom they’ve never heard more than just a minimum of facts. How, The Message paraphrases Paul here, “can [people] know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted?”
The apostle goes on to link that hearing to “preaching.” “How,” he continues, “can [people] hear without someone preaching (keryssontos) to them?” This, of course, raises something of a knotty issue: what is “preaching”? Is it only the formal proclamation of the gospel within some sort of church setting? Or is preaching simply any declaration of God’s grace that’s received through faith?
And, perhaps especially importantly in any sort of Jewish context (like Paul and my family’s), is preaching always and only a verbal proclamation? Or is it more like the proclamation of God’s amazing grace that somehow entails both words and actions?
At least some of the people to whom we preach have had bad experiences with preachers and preaching. The causes of some of Jews’ deep pain are both cultural and historical. Others have been hurt by the kind of witnessing that Christians have offered them. Wise preachers remember that our neighbors are more likely to faithfully hear the words of people who have already shown them that they love them.
Yet, as Paul adds in verse 15a, how can people hear about the living God unless someone is “sent” to tell them about the Lord? It’s basically a call to the Church to send “preachers” to those who haven’t yet heard about God’s amazing grace. Not just ordained preachers, but all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Perhaps that’s where preachers at all stages of ministry can take comfort. We do what we can to share the best news anyone will ever hear with our neighbors. We continue to preach that good news long after our formal call to do so ends. But preachers also pray that God will send more preachers not just alongside us, but also after us to those who are dying to hear the good news.
In an earlier commentary, Scott Hoezee reflects on one aspect of Marilynne Robinson’s breathtaking novel, Gilead (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004). Hoezee points to one refrain in the reflections that the Rev. John Ames addresses to his young son: what will happen to all the boxes of his old sermons in the attic after he is gone? Were they ever worth saving in the first place? Would anyone have the slightest desire to read those boxes of his old sermons in the future? What finally is a sermon once it is delivered?
In the end Ames’ reflections come down to the following: “I’ll just ask your mother to have those old sermons of mine burned. The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow. Of course she can set by any of them she might want to keep, but I don’t want her to waste much effort on them. They mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.”
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