Sunday School Notes: Romans 12:15-17
15 Rejoice with those rejoicing, weep with those weeping. 16 Think the same things toward one another; don’t think loftily, but associate with the lowly. Don’t be wise in your own estimation. 17 Repay no-one evil for evil; consider what is good before all men.
Last week we discussed verse 14, and noted how the command to bless, not curse, one’s persecutors is distinctly Christian. Our natural reaction to those who oppose us is to fight back, to cause equal harm, to seek revenge. Paul will address this latter reaction in a few verses. For now, we should note that the context of what follows is Paul’s exhortation to the Roman church to live out the gospel. It goes without saying that Paul’s teaching throughout his ministry was based on the teaching of Jesus; however, in these verses, the influence of Jesus’s words is particularly explicit.
In verse 15, Paul calls upon the church to have empathy with one another. Verse 14 can be applied to our relationship with the world, but it could also refer to those who “persecute” us within the church (though I think the emphasis is clearly on how we respond to those who are not Christians). However, verse 15 can speak equally of our response to those inside and outside the church.
It almost goes without saying that we should weep and grieve with those in the body that are suffering. This is part and parcel of loving one another as Christ loved us; it’s also consistent with the body analogy–when one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts. But I think we often neglect how we can apply this in our relationship to those outside the church. We should certainly weep and mourn with unbelievers who are weeping and mourning: think of those who suffered loss after 9-11, or the Sandy Hook school shootings. As Christians we should have compassion for people–and perhaps a special compassion for the lost. Are we not the ones with a message of hope for those who mourn and weep? If we refuse to empathize with them, how can we reach out to them?
Our discussion took an interesting turn when we considered mourning and weeping on a broader scale. To what extent is it right for Christians to grieve the death of those who are vocal enemies of the faith–those who have spent their lives attempting to undermine the faith of Christians, or even those who have attempted to promote evil through violence? Is it right for Christians to weep over the death of atheist apologist Christopher Hitchens, or Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden, or Adolf Hitler–possibly the most notorious of all personifications of evil in recent decades? After all, Scripture says that God doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked would turn from their evil and live (Ezekiel 33:11). Even though we believe in God’s sovereignty, and that He ordains all that comes to pass–and even though we recognize that God is under no obligation to be merciful to anyone–I don’t think God executes His judgment upon the wicked with joy in His heart. Satisfaction that justice is served, perhaps. But I don’t think He rejoices over it.
When we contemplate the death of our enemies, we should, perhaps, have a similar attitude. There is certainly a sense of judicial satisfaction–and perhaps even necessity–when evil is curtailed by the death of the perpetrator of such evil. But I don’t think it honors God when we lose sight of the fact that these people are creatures made in God’s image. Even when the taking of life is necessary, it should never be done lightly, and it should never be done with pleasure.
That’s where we left the topic for now, and I’m sure there are a ton of related issues we didn’t get to. I’m also certain it will come up again when we discuss chapter 13 and the church’s relationship to ruling authorities.
A final, and very important, point that was raised about this verse is the fact that it calls the church to community. The exhortation to weep and grieve with one another should encourage us to share our lives with our brethren within the church. People can’t share your hardships if they don’t know you’re going through them. It drives us to be in each other’s lives, praying for one another, and showing the love and compassion of Christ to one another.
Verse 16 comes back to our attitude toward one another–primarily, I think, within the church. In verses 3-8, Paul spoke of how each person’s gift is of equal value, and how we shouldn’t think more highly of ourselves than we should. Verses 9-13 spoke of how we should be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Now, Paul says we should think the same way with regard to one another. While there should be doctrinal unity in the body of Christ, I think in this instance his primary concern is that we should value one another equally. We shouldn’t think too highly of ourselves, or only have thoughts for those in lofty and powerful positions (the Greek can be taken either way), rather we should be willing to associate with the humble. The Greek is, literally, “humble things,” but I think given the context, “the humble” or “the lowly”–i.e., people–is Paul’s intention. We could understand this in terms of the poor within the church, and perhaps our tendency to gravitate toward those who are wealthy and successful. We should avoid this temptation, recognizing that, in Christ, everyone is in the same position, and everyone is of equal worth.
“Do not be wise in your own estimation,” Paul continues, echoing Proverbs 3:7. This verse once again strikes against our pride, and once again I ask: why is humility such a problem, even for Christians? I would certainly agree that pride is, perhaps, the deadliest of all sins, and certainly at the root of many sins, if not all of them. A self-inflated ego, or a desire to be better than everyone else, or a “survival of the fittest” attitude, or the desire for one’s own pleasure, lie behind murder, adultery, theft, and a whole host of other evils in our society. And the fact that we, as Christians, struggle with this, indicates how powerful pride can be. Churches have split and church leaders have fallen because of pride. Perhaps this is why time and again we find Paul hammering home the importance of humility.
Verse 17 recalls Jesus’s teaching, this time in Matthew 5:38. “Don’t repay evil for evil” seems to refer to the church’s response to the world, but we shouldn’t discount the fact that we can encounter evil attitudes even among the brethren. Once again, this is an attitude that has no parallel in non-Christian worldviews. As we noted earlier, our natural response to being wronged is to take revenge–and I think Paul is building up to his comments on that in a few verses. This verse also echoes the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). Many religions have some form of the Golden Rule–do to others as you want them to do to you–but none go as far as saying “don’t repay wrongs done to you.”
Since we didn’t finish our discussion of verse 17, we’ll start here next time we meet.