John the Baptist, Alexandre Cabanel, 1849, Musée Fabre (France – Montpellier)
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2022
Because scholars assert that the scriptures tell us not to be afraid 365 times, an enterprising printer has made a calendar with a quote for every day of the year. This is the phrase most used in the Bible because it reflects both that God is a protector, who will stand with us, but also Lord, who we approach only with his permission. There are other common ideas. We would not be able to complete a year’s calendar with encouragement for endurance and perseverance, but we could easily get a month. This is especially important in the New Testament because Jesus has promised to return and relatively quickly, the faithful got anxious and asked not only why he was delayed but also what does this mean for them. Every New Testament writer has examined this question from his own perspective. As we will see today Paul emphasized that we need endurance not only or even especially from threats from outside the community but more importantly from within. We must persevere to maintain harmony. This is a theme throughout his letters but is especially important in Romans.
Paul did not found and does not know the Christian community in Rome. He is also not going to Rome as an evangelist to preach but as a prisoner to be tried, (see our earlier introduction). He hopes that the Christians in Rome will pay for a private jailer so he can have some freedom while waiting for his court date. He is known throughout the Christian world and not always favorably. His confrontation with St. Peter, who may also be in Rome at this time, reported in the Acts of the Apostles years later was disturbing. Far more so was his letter to the Galatians in which he spoke passionately, if violently, about Judaizers who he thought betrayed the uniqueness of Jesus by demanding circumcision of converts. The church in Rome maintained trade connections with the church in Jerusalem and was attached to Jewish customs. Paul had to walk a very thin line.
He addressed this in chapter 14 immediately before today’s reading.
Paul has heard that the division in Rome is between those who abstain from meat and wine (14:2, 21) and continue to observe Jewish feasts and fasts (14:5) and those who embrace an unrestricted diet and make no distinction between days. He calls the first group “the weak” and the second the “strong” He is very clear as to where he fits but in that there are more important things than winning:
Know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus
that nothing is unclean in itself;
but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat,
you are no longer walking in love.
The unity of the community is more important than showing off, even if one has the better argument. Paul clearly agrees with the position of the strong but understands that “walking in love” is more important.
He recognizes that community requires compromise on everyone’s part. He tells the weak:
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?
For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God
We might refer to the weak as rigorists, a group we will always have with us. The rigorists often consider those who do not follow their customs to be less devout or, indeed, to be not even Christian. Paul tells them that they are taking God’s job. They too must work for unity.
This would have been very reassuring for the Roman Church which might be afraid that Paul would bring even more dissension to their community. Paul is clearly stating that unless there is a clear denial of the faith, e.g., demanding circumcision before baptism as in Galatia, then people should compromise. In a quote attributed to St Augustine and much loved by St Pope John 23rd ““In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Paul sees this as following Jesus. The line immediately before today’s reading is:
For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written,
“The insults of those who insult you fall upon me.”
Much is contained in this passage.
Jesus did not seek to build himself up but give himself to all. Paul expressed this most beautifully in the Letter to the Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness
A disciple shows him or herself as strong not by taking from others but by giving to others. This will require suffering: “The insults of those who insult you fall upon me.” This is a quote from Psalm 69:10. It was chosen because it was often used in the early church to interpret the crucifixion. Paul wants us to see that this emptying is painful but redemptive.
We begin today with
For whatever was written previously
was written for our instruction,
that by endurance and by the encouragement
of the scriptures we might have hope.
This chapter has many quotations from the Old Testament beginning with the exhortation above to sacrifice. Paul is not a theologian in our sense of the word. He connects the interpretation of Scripture with how one lives. Thus, the endurance of bearing with weak brothers and sisters is joined with the encouragement of scripture to give true hope. Precisely because scripture was written in the past it shows that God has understood our situation for all eternity.
He now puts this into a prayer:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you
to think in harmony with one another,
in keeping with Christ Jesus
We see again that the mystical and the ethical are always together in Paul. Having the mind of Jesus is the way we can have true harmony. This does not mean that we must agree on everything but that we respect everyone.
Paul understood that this must be public in our sense liturgical.
That with one accord you may
with one voice glorify the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ
Private prayer is always commendable and necessary, but it is not enough. We must pray together in order to bring ourselves together. The family that prays together, stays together is as true of our parish as it is our household. This unity brings glory to God.
Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,
for the glory of God
Here the weak and the strong are told to follow Jesus who emptied himself of pride to embrace humanity. This, however, is more than just the strong and the weak.
For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised
to show God’s truthfulness,
to confirm the promises to the patriarchs,
but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
Paul reminds the Romans that Jesus, as the Christ, the Anointed one, fulfilled the promises of God to the Jewish people. These included that the just and the unjust would be separated but also that all peoples would accept his Lordship.
Thus, the circumcised know that God’s truthfulness has been vindicated but the Gentles know that God in his mercy has extended his salvation to them as well.
Our selection today concludes with a quote from scripture to underline the importance of this double mission.
As it is written:
“Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles
and sing praises to your name.”
(Ro 15:9b) quoting from Psalm 18:50
This is not, however, the conclusion of this section, Paul quotes the Old Testament three more times (Deut 32:43, Ps. 117:2, and 15:9–11) to the same end. Jesus came to bring all people weak and strong, Jew and Gentile together in one community,
This section and indeed the theological element of this letter concluded with
May the God of hope fill you
with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope
by the power of the holy Spirit.
Because our hope comes from God, we can bear with all adversity including that within our own communities. Only then can we reach out to those who need the Gospel; for the Romans, the Gentiles, for us perhaps our own families and neighbors. To have this hope, to persevere in this way is truly to understand that we can live without fear.