One of the most unpleasant food experiences I’ve had is to bite in to what appears to be a bright red, crisp and juicy apple, only to find it mushy and tasteless, all the sugar and tartness gone to starchy pulp. The outside is beautiful, but the inside is terribly disappointing.
In our text for this Sunday, Romans 2:17-29, Paul argues that external observance of God’s law may lead to human lives that are like that mushy apple. There may be every external appearance of being a proper member of God’s people. In the Jewish case the external mark is paradigmatically the physical sign of circumcision. Yet having the correct external appearance is both useless and misleading if what’s inside a person does not coincide with what’s exhibited on the outside.
It’s important to note here that Paul is not arguing for a merely internal spiritual life. He singles out circumcision as a paradigm external mark of Jewish identity, but he is not concerned to deny the validity of or importance of external keeping of the law for Christian living. That’s crystal clear in his choice of three of the Ten Commandments in verses 21 and 22 (against theft, adultery, and idolatry) as matters with which to chide the Jewish person relying solely on circumcision. The insufficiency of the one external sign is manifest in the failure to perform externally these other commandments.
What Paul is concerned to show is that in Christ no one, including the Jewish person, may rely solely on external ritual markers to claim a place in the community of God’s people. There is in Jesus an internal transformation of character (or of the spirit or the heart, various language for internal human being can be used), which has the external consequence of significant and consistent obedience to the whole law and not just to external identity markers.
Once again, if Paul’s understanding of good spiritual life was that it was entirely internal, his condemnation of those who fail to keep those other commandments and his charge in verse 24 that they have thereby dishonored God’s name would make no sense. It’s only by failure in externals in other than circumcision that the internal failure is manifest.
So the lesson for us in this week’s text is not to move our spiritual focus entirely inward. That always leads in the direction of Gnosticism and a spirituality that is false in another way. No, the lesson is a proper appreciation for an internal life and character that manifests in a matching and coordinated external life. The apple is to be both colorful and shiny on the outside and crisp and sweet on the inside. And the latter of course does have an external manifestation in firmness to the touch.
We may want to consider what external markers we as Christians today may be inclined to regard in a way similar to the Jewish regard for circumcision that Paul condemns. Baptism is one possibility since it is the external identity marker that replaces circumcision for Christians. Yet baptism alone, apart from an internal Christian character and resulting further Christian obedience, is meaningless.
However, there may be other even less central cultural Christian identity markers that we have mistakenly moved to a central role in our lives and churches. One thinks of various and changing strictures about Sabbath keeping, tobacco, alcohol, church attendance, etc. As Jesus said about the Pharisee’s scrupulous tithing, none of these are necessarily bad guidelines for Christian living, but elevated out of proportion over other matters of faithful obedience, they give Christians, and ultimately God, a bad name.
One way to go at this text practically may be some individual and corporate examination of our lives to consider which markers we may have elevated too highly and which commandments thereby we have neglected. In that way we might avoid the state nicely connecting verse 19 of the text to this week’s Gospel reading from John 9:1-41. We will with spiritual eyes be better able to discern what is truly going on inside us, and thereby avoid being blind guides of the blind.