A New Look at Romans 1:26-27

This is a reprint of a post from Nota Bene:

I believe it is the most interesting and convincing argument I have yet seen on the issue of homosexuality and “Paul’s” alleged beliefs about it. It is compelling in my opinion.


Whenever I’m debating with someone who authoritatively declares that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and who cites the infamous Romans 1:26-27 as proof, I almost always offer this rejoinder: “What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?”

The question is admittedly pretentious on my part but I’ve found it effective, because those often most eager to wield the Bible as an authoritative weapon are also often those who have read it only in translation, and not very closely at that.

But it’s not an idle question.

Anyone who has engaged the issue of sexuality and the Bible has at some point contended with Romans 1:26-27, in the NRSV: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Sounds pretty bad, and indeed, so does the entire last half of the first chapter of Romans. Who, broadly, is being described here? Most agree it’s the Gentiles, and most agree that what is being represented here is boilerplate, Hellenistic Jewish material that attacks the Gentiles. But the condemnatory nature of the verses from 1:18-32 also fits awkwardly, if at all, with the spirit of the rest of the epistle, which goes from talking about the “uprightness of God” in the early verses to suddenly referring to the “anger of God” here, an anger that God uses to “hand over” these people to all manner of horrible behaviors.

But then, they’re Gentiles. They’re rotten, horrible individuals. Did you hear the sorts of things they do? In fact, as pointed out by scholar Calvin Porter, “they” recurs in this section with striking concentration, with repetition of the third-person pronoun αὐτός thirteen times, the reflexive (“themselves”) once, and third-person plural verbs over and over: “No other section of Romans contains such a concentration,” he observes.

What’s even more striking, notes Porter, is what comes next: an abrupt change to the second person in Romans 2:1:

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?

It’s actually a very big question.

Scholarship has been preoccupied often with the content of verses 1:26-27 to the distraction of its context. Scholars such as James Miller and Mark D. Smith have gone back and forth as to whether the behavior described in those verses can be considered “homosexual” from our culture’s standpoint, or whether they refer to something else entirely. But an even more interesting angle surfaced in Roy Bowen Ward’s entry into the fray: “It is still open to question whether these two verses represent Paul’s voice or the voice of a rhetorical spokesperson in Rom 1:18-32, whom the apostle criticizes beginning in Rom 2:1.”

That’s right. Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute. Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter ultimately concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.”

Other explanations of what ὦ ἄνθρωπε is doing here are less satisfactory. Some have suggested that Paul is sincerely making these condemnations, stressing here (but only here) God’s anger instead of his kindness (as in 2:4), and then he imagines some onlooker applauding what he’s saying and turns to address him, condemning him for judging but somehow still agreeing with the content of what was just said.

Porter’s argument (which he thoroughly supports with rhetorical models from antiquity) makes much more sense: that the arguments present in the last half of Romans 1 were typical of those made by Hellenistic Jews to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles (thus the repeated use of “they” as noted before), and Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles, finds this condemnation problematic and thus seeks to refute it, leading up ultimately to his similar conclusion in Romans 14:13, using strikingly similar language to that in 2:1: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Paul goes on to offer advice on healing the rifts between Jew and Gentile, so Porter’s reading is compelling, and certainly the best I’ve seen for answering the question of who’s being addressed in 2:1: “The shift to the direct address, the second person singular, along with the coordinating conjunction, διό, indicates that the reader who agrees with or is responsible for 1.18-32 is now the person addressed.”

Of course, there will be all sorts of arguments apologizing for the words of 2:1 so that one can keep the words of 1:26-27 as a straight-up, unambiguous condemnation, which one can then rely upon to rationalize all manner of discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the flurry of scholarship on this score, not to mention all of that preoccupied with the words of 1:26-27 themselves, should in the very least make it clear that it’s not all that clear.

It’s yet another example of how close study of the Bible – in this case, the function of a single word – raises far more questions than it does answers.

It’s Always a Process


Is: 55:10-11

Ps: 65:10,11, 12-13-14

Rom: 8-18-23

Mt: 13:1-23

What these readings have in common is process. We sow seeds, rain falls, crops grow and are harvested. Even the reading from Romans suggests that process is the key. Creation is a process that is being worked out in time.

Typically, what is garnered from Matthew’s parable of the sower, is that we must be the fruitful seed. We must take the Word, let it enrich us, grow in us and we must then use it to facilitate the creating desire of God. And that is perfectly true.

Yet, it also bespeaks something about our faith and how it prospers or not. I often wonder how a fundamentalist reads this parable. Surely they don’t see themselves as seed that has fallen on rock or the path. They see themselves as seed that fell into rich soil. They do not let the cares of the world, or the vicissitudes of life interfere with their dedication to Jesus and the Gospel.  They remain committed to their understanding of the Word.

But I suggest there is another way to look at the parable and the readings in general. They don’t necessarily relate to one’s tenacity in committment to “spreading the Word” but rather to the process of being in faith.

And what we see here is change. There is a process being announced. Seed, rain, soil, each is needed. The seed bursts forth, becomes a plant, sets seed, produces its fruits, and then is harvested. It’s not simply a matter of sowing day in and day out. It’s not merely a matter of reading the same passages again and again and reminding ourselves of the standard meanings.

Growth and change signify each of these readings, and that means ourselves as well as our duties to spread the “good news.”

To cast in iron the meaning of any parable or any passage is to stop growing. And to stop growing is death. We can wave the banner of faith, but if it is a faith that is stagnant, unyielding in its interpretation, then we are failing quite simply to honor Jesus’ words.

Faith is messy as some have suggested. It is, and should be full of starts and stops, turns, flips, inquiry, doubt, doubling back, and throwing up our hands in confusion. We should get angry sometimes, we should find deep peace at others, joy often, confidence–in other words, faith involves the entire panoply of our emotions.

Faith is a living thing. For we are in the process of a creation, one that is still ongoing, still unfolding. And we are deeply a part of that process. The very evidence that our world is not as it should be is all the evidence we need. It is not complete because we are not complete.

Faith is work. It’s not easy nor always pleasurable. Talk to those of advanced spiritual growth and they will explain all the months and sometimes years of deep meaningless agony that must be fought through. To the degree that we attempt to avoid that, but painting a picture of faith as steady and unchanging, we contribute to the stalling of creation unfolding from us. We become the rocky soil, the path where fruitless sowing has occurred.

It is like walking along with a handful of seeds and each step turns to concrete before us. We can sow seed all day long, and we will produce nothing. The vessel is sterile, and can generate no life.

That is what seems to me is the fundamentalist. The fundamentalist has deeply erred in concluding that any question, any confusion about what the Word might mean, is not faith and thus must be avoided at all costs. Fear becomes the stick that guides the fundamentalist.

We must realize that we are in process as believers. It is okay to say, I don’t know. It is okay to say, I can’t agree with that this seems to say, therefore, I must dig deeper to uncover its meaning. It is okay to conclude that perhaps the writer was wrong! But it is right to seek answers that satisfy one’s heart, because that is the truest location of good judgment.

It is all about growth. Jesus called his disciples to grow out of their old thinking into new thinking, and in doing so, he shows us how to as well. Remember, on more than one occasion Jesus made clear that there was ever so much more to tell and to learn, more than he had time for in his short time in our world. So he taught us a method–simply love your God with all your heart, mind and soul, your fellow human being as yourself, and be servant to all.

That is how we grow: by each day making a new effort to proceed throughout that day mindful of those directives.



What Have You Done?

We are a silly species when you really think about it. Really we are. More to the point, we are a people of convenience. We tend to interpret the world and especially our “values” and our “principles” in ways that make things easy for ourselves.

I think of the movie the Godfather, which portrayed, correctly or not, the Italian mafia. The men plotted by day the demise of other men or the stealing of their property, but on Sunday they genuflected and crossed themselves as they accepted communion.  Convenient?

I few days ago, a commenter on another blog related that after a woman had said really nasty things about the President in not repeatable graphic fashion, he asked, “and I suppose this is an example of Christian charity?” The woman responded with a certain self-righteousness, “God will forgive me any sins I have just by asking him to.” Convenient?

The readings today, remind us that our self-serving definitions and interpretations may not serve us well at all. The words of Moses come to us in Deuteronomy 11:18.26-28.32.

“See I set before you today a blessing and a curse: a blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord our God that I enjoin on you today; a curse, if you disobey the commandments of the Lord your God and leave the way I have marked out for you today, by going after other gods you have not known. You must keep and observe all the laws and customs that I set before you today.”

Moses makes it clear: DO right, don’t just mouth right. Obedience is an action, not an afterthought. You don’t have a perpetual “get out of jail” free card.

Now, I don’t believe in literal concepts of heaven and hell. I believe that we seek unity with God. That is the goal. To have God perfectly present to us in every moment. That is the unity of singleness that Jesus achieved and attempted to teach us. That is how we are as Spirit, and it is how we are able to be in our humanity. If we work at it–actively.

When we emulate the teachings of Jesus, we move toward that unity and we find peace and joy in our lives. When we go it alone, acting out of our baser evolutionary beginnings, we generally spend a lot of time in fear, and that is not a happy state to be in.

Yet, we don’t like to think about these Jesus truths. Why? Because we are busy  going after other gods as Moses put it. We are intent on money, and fame, and fortune, and things. And so we turn to what Paul appeared to say to the Romans:

“[We] are justified through the free gift of his grace by being redeemed in Christ Jesus who was appointed by God to sacrifice his life so as to win reconciliation through faith since, as we see it, a man is justified by faith and not by doing something the Law tells him to do.” (3:21-25.28)

So many of our believing friends love words like this, since it “lets them off the hook.” Paul appears to say that works, or DOING mean nothing, it is pure faith that saves. And we all know the types don’t we? Those who invoke God every third sentence, yet don’t ever seem to DO anything that suggests they have gotten the message. Jesus is avoided, Paul seems much easier to follow.

Yet, if read carefully, Paul only means that faith is a gift freely given. And we cannot, truthfully, work out way into heaven. Yet, he also tells us that those who have accepted their faith and really believe what has been preached, NATURALLY act it out in various good works.

And this is precisely what Jesus says in Matthew 7:21-27:

“It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. When the day comes many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out demons in your name, work many miracles in your name?’ Then I shall tell them to their faces: I have never known you, away from me, you evil men.”

Don’t in other words strut around the streets and church pews spouting my words, shouting your faith to the heavens. DO what the Father wants. Feed the hungry, tend to the sick, free the imprisoned, clothe the naked. DO the works of LOVE. DO, not say. DO, not judge. DO, not preach. DO, DO, DO.

It strikes me today, as Lent approaches, that doing is a better way of  experiencing this most important of seasons. Doing rather than “giving up X”. What are you planning this Lenten season? What can you DO to evidence your faith and your seeking?

Joyous Preparation

Those of us who chase our faith know that this time of year is more special than anything non-believers can experience in this season.

Chase our faith? I mean by that those of us who are not content to “believe in God,” attend church now and then (mostly weddings and funerals and perhaps midnight Mass and Easter), and otherwise give lip service to faith. We are out there seeking, running God down and demanding with humility but sincere intensity, “I want a relationship with YOU!”

Today we welcomed and accepted into our community those seeking full admission into the Church and full communion with God. The Catechumenates and Candidates were presented at Mass, and we promised to “stand with you and pray for you, child of God”. They received the sign of the cross upon their foreheads, eyes, mouths, shoulders, hands and feet. They were presented bibles. They are entering the final few months before reception into the Church at the Easter Vigil.

I remember the time well. It was more exciting that I can tell you. Along with all the preparations for the holidays, the shopping, the parties, the decorating, baking, wrapping, and so forth, there was all this wonderful mysterious, glorious newness–the new person I was becoming. I was awed, humbled, bubbling with excitement and joy. I couldn’t wait for the next week, the next class, the next opportunity to grow in knowledge and faith.

I saw that in the eyes of the assembled class today. The shining eyes, the bright smiles, the reverence. It was all there, and took me back to those days. That in fact is a good reason for doing this ceremony in public. We are all reminded of our days of preparation for full communion with the Church.

It is no accident that the timing of all this coincides with Advent, the annual time of preparation of the entire Christendom for the coming of the Lord. As our Catechumenates and Candidates stand in a special relationship with Jesus– actively preparing to be joined to him in the most intimate and perfect way, they also  join in the Church’s preparation. Doubly blessed!

We, the congregation, also get to recall our own time in similar  shoes, as I have said, and we too join this with the entire Church in her readying for our Savior.

We prepare our secular lives, and we prepare our spiritual lives. We are all about preparing. In our readings today, Isaiah reminds us of the Kingdom to come when our Lord returns. Paul in Romans, tells us that our preparing is done by way of “putting on the mind of Christ,” in other words, by  treating others in the “same friendly way as Christ treated you.”

Matthew concludes with the teaching of John the Baptist, who called all to repentance in preparation. Thus we know what to look for, and what to do.

We leave the Church on Sunday, renewed, refreshed, and joyous. Our steps are a little livelier, our smiles a bit broader. We are kinder and more gentle with friends, strangers and family. We have a secret.

We are not just preparing the feast, the gifts, the parties. We are in an intimate and beautiful dance with the Lord as we confide in him, feel his steady comfort and guidance. It is all so very special and personal. Every Christmas light takes on a special twinkle, we find ourselves misting up at the silliest of things.

We know that the Lord is close. We are walking on holy ground.


Getting Ready

We have made it! Advent begins today, and a whirl of parties, cooking, buying and trimming are at hand.

Yet, there is, to the believer, so much more to the season. The readings for the first Sunday of Advent speak to what we really need to be preparing for: a celebration of the birth of the Lord, and most especially we prepare ourselves for the second coming of Christ.

All our readings speak to this today. Isaiah speaks in 2:1-5 of our hope in the coming Kingdom, a place and time of peace and goodwill. I time when war is gone forever, when we join together in unity among all.

So too Saint Paul who reminds the Romans that the time is close at hand and we should be practicing only those things that are of God. All those things that we tend to hide under darkness of night, we should finally and forever put aside. With the “armor” of Christ, we can rise to our highest selves. We will be ready to receive our Lord. (Rom 13:11-14)

And Jesus himself reminds us himself in the gospel of Matthew to be ready, for we know not the day nor hour. (Mt 24:37-44)

Ready means of course to be ready to be judged before God. And thus Paul and Jesus say the same thing–prepare by living a blameless life, don’t put it off until tomorrow, because you may be caught unawares, and thus found not worthy before your God.

Yet, none of us is very good at taking care of business as we should. We lead lives often so busy that we need lists and reminders to just get us to where we need to be some days. We are constantly having to juggle and prioritize to get most of what we need done. All too often, the first and most expendable “should” is that time we devote to Godly things, prayer, meditation, reading, studying, and just plain living out our baptismal promises.

And to be truthful, it is wrong, I think to place all this on one event only, the second coming of Christ and the full coming of the Kingdom. There is more to it than that, I venture. It is certainly true that the early Christian community expected the return of Christ to be within their lifetimes or soon thereafter. As time passed and that did not happen, the community had to rethink that proposition.

There is dispute as to whether Jesus himself believed that the full kingdom would arrive, with him in short order. Scholars disagree. Yet, if we only focus on the “end times” as what our preparation is for, we are always sure to fail. For life does get in the way. More than two thousand years have gone by. It is quite easy to put off our spiritual responsibilities for a week or so, or a month?

We should not limit ourselves in this way of thinking. Preparing is necessary now, because we needs be prepared to receive God’s grace, love, forgiveness, and love today. At any moment our world can come crashing down around us and we will desperately need all the support and hope that God offers. We must be prepared, if we are to see that and to receive it in fullness. Otherwise our suffering will be magnified, we will feel abandoned and alone. This God does not want.

So Advent reminds us to work every day in anticipation of the Lord’s return and also the day when we shall call upon the Lord to hold us most tightly as travails assault us. We know not when that will happen, but as humans, we know it will. It is part of life.

Our priest sang to us this morning, the opening lines of Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Bottle.” You surely remember it: 

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day
Till Eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you

If I could make days last forever
If words could make wishes come true
I’d save every day like a treasure and then,
Again, I would spend them with you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty
Except for the memory
Of how they were answered by you

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

Father Neal suggested that this might be Jesus’ song to us. There is never enough time in our lives, but Jesus offers us eternal time and he stands ready and waiting to go though time with us, making every wish a memory of love and unity with God.

Make this Advent special. Remember to devote time every day to prepare to receive God’s love and support in your life.


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