The First Mourning, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1888, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Argentina
Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time
June 21, 2020
From this Sunday to September 13, we will be reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans at Mass. We will take time each week to examine these sections, so I ask that you read the introductory material from last week if you have not done so.
Let us begin with the conclusion “The surest way to end with God is to begin with Him.” Our focus for these months will be on what God has done for us in Jesus. Today’s passage is a perfect example of why it is necessary to keep this in mind. There are temptations to wander.
In the introduction, I mentioned that one of the advantages of Romans is that there are few digressions. Today however is one of them and it may seem a very peculiar one at that.
The passage begins:
Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world,
and through sin, death, and thus death came to all,
inasmuch as all sinned.
Knowing that Paul will insist on salvation through Jesus alone we might expect him to say something like:
Just as sin came into the world through Adam
(and with it death, which affects all human beings),
so through Christ came uprightness (and with it life eternal)
This is obviously his point. He says further on in this chapter:
In conclusion, just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act
acquittal and life came to all.
But seemingly inexplicably he writes instead:
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world,
though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those who did not sin
after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,
who is the type of the one who was to come.
Paul is not weakening his argument but strengthening it. All people are freed from sin by Jesus’s death and resurrection. Sin for Paul is not primarily breaking individual laws, rules, and regulations, it is a dangerous force that has been unleashed into the world. Through sin, we embrace death which he sees as separation. Here separation means more than the end of biological existence, but the far more dangerous separation from God. Paul is insisting that sin exists even before the law of Moses. All human beings in every place and time need to be saved by Jesus and Him alone.
Paul believes that we all sin and when we do, we join with this force of death and division. Our individual transgressions may seem quite insignificant, but they connect us with the sin that brings death. We become its allies.
It is only when we are willing to accept that sin is pervasive and deadly that we can understand Jesus and his power over it.
But the gift is not like the transgression.
For if by that one person’s transgression the many died,
how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift
of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many.
Sin is so powerful a force in our world that we cannot by ourselves escape from it. There is no philosophy that can lead us away from sin, and even it could, we do not have the strength to escape its gravitational pull.
We can only escape this by clinging to Jesus. This is his free gift. It is pure grace.
In Paul’s terms, it is Jesus sharing his righteousness with us.
It is good for us to begin our treatment of this letter with the recognition that all which will follow in Romans is based on this: Jesus is the way.
The real concrete world is infected with sin. This is the weight of history and Paul wishes to bring it back to the very beginning of history in Adam. Paul is not creating a theology of Adam or how sin has been perpetuated throughout the ages. Jesus is always his focus. Adam is present as a necessity; he is virtually a literary device for Paul. No one has escaped the power of sin because it was there from the beginning. Theories and doctrines have been developed from this but they at best may be said to be based on Paul’s insight.
One of these is the sense of structural sin. This has been discussed recently because of the obvious disparity of deaths from COVID-19 and police treatment of Black and white people. Its range extends further than this. Let us look at housing matters. I lived in the epicenter of the subprime mortgage debacle in the last recession. It was not a disaster for everyone. The financial institutions which issued subprime mortgages and then packaged them clearly knew what they were doing. That the people could not pay them was not a bug but a feature. Some institutions set up companies to take over the mortgages when the people defaulted, charge the same people rents which were greater than the mortgage payments and then not do proper maintenance. The people who designed and executed this clearly sinned, but why were people who made decent salaries in the situation of needing a subprime mortgage.
For Black people, the answer is easy. They were consciously excluded from home ownership for decades. It is well known that Levittown and other post World War 2 developments legally excluded Black people. We need to remember that this was the continuation of a policy that stretched back to the New Deal of the 1930s. This combined with the exclusion of farm and domestic workers from Social Security and the policies of many labor unions made it impossible for the vast number of Black people to get a house. Did the people who took the opportunity to get a house in Levittown sin directly? Of course not. Are people like me however whose families could develop equity because of home ownership while others could not beneficiaries of sin? Yes. Are there consequences to this? Yes. (Extra credit question: “Why did Martin Luther King live in Chicago in 1966 and why did he leave?)
We still live in Paul’s world. We can take this back deeper to the reasons for legislative compromise, we can take it wider to other aspects of structural injustice, but there is enough here to see the relevance to the letter to the Romans. Sin is alive: deep, wild, and dangerous.
I hope that laws are made and enforced to address all these problems. They could vastly improve our country. Paul will however show the Romans many times that they cannot solve the “Problem.” Paul’s message is as true today as it was 2000 years ago, good intentions do not vanquish the sin into which we are born, only Jesus does.