Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Rotten to the core?

As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;
     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.”
 “Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
     ruin and misery mark their ways,
 and the way of peace they do not know.”
     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Romans 3:10-18

It always happens at times like this - and it’s always reassuring and heart-warming.

What times am I talking about? Crisis times, that’s what. Over the last few days in Britain the weather has been unusually severe, with cars stuck on motorways, houses without water or electricity, and people falling on the ice and breaking bones. Even, sadly, some deaths.

But set against this are the lovely stories of selflessness and heroism - like the doctor who walked ten miles through the snow (and presumably ten miles back) to get to the hospital where he worked. Or people giving out hot drinks and sandwiches to motorists stranded in their cars. Beautiful stories: and you think “There’s a lot of good in people after all!” 

And then you read the verses above. 

Sorry about the unusually long quote, but it all hangs together, and it’s not until you read it right through that you get the full impact. It’s basically a string of Old Testament verses, mostly from the Psalms, that Paul uses to illustrate the essential sinfulness and corruption of human nature.

And you feel like saying, “Hang on a minute, Paul! Aren’t you going a bit over the top? Even when things are pretty normal, I still find that, well, the way you describe people just isn’t the way I usually find them. Most of the people I rub shoulders with day by day are pleasant, friendly and helpful. So when you say that ‘no-one does good’, that ‘the poison of vipers is on their lips’, that ‘their throats are open graves’ and that ‘their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness’ - well, I’m sorry, Paul, but I find it hard not to feel that you’re guilty of serious exaggeration, to put it mildly. Is human nature really that bad?”

If we are Christians, we believe that the Bible is in some sense God’s inspired word - which means that when Paul wrote these words he did so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But what, then, are we to do when it seems so alien to our day-to-day experience? We don’t want to question God’s word. But at the same time we have to be honest with ourselves. We have a problem...

Various possible solutions come to mind.

First, let’s grant that Paul is using rhetoric here. And rhetoric (defined as “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques”) involves exaggeration for maximum impact. Paul wants his readers to sit up and pay attention - and I suspect this passage is pretty successful in that respect!

Second, it’s right to recognise that each of these damning quotes belonged originally to a particular time, place and situation. For all we know, things really were extremely dire when these words were originally written, and as Paul looked around him at the rottenness of the Roman Empire, he simply felt that they were indeed a good match for how things were.

Third, in order to get the full picture, remember that the Bible recognises in other places a certain “natural goodness” (sometimes referred to by theologians as “common grace”) which many people possess even though they have no knowledge of God. It’s been said that we in the western world are living on the diminishing capital of our Christian past - which means that many of us still act relatively “Christianly” even without a living faith in Christ.

(The unnamed centurion of Luke 7:1-10 is a good example of what you might call a “godly pagan”: he has earned a reputation for good deeds, and he shows wonderful humility and faith.)

These three considerations are worth bearing in mind when we read Paul’s ferocious words.

But having said all that, by far the most important things is this: God alone knows the truth about each of our hearts.

The basic point Paul wants to make in these early chapters of his letter to the church in Rome is that every human being is sinful. And that applied equally to Jews, the earthly people of God, and to Gentiles or “pagans”. As he puts it in Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

Most of us are pretty skilled at putting on an appearance of goodness: we know how to be “civilised”. But when we come to look into the depths of our own hearts... ah, what we see may be very different. It’s at times like that that we feel the force of the words of the Old Testament writer: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Jesus too doesn’t have a very high opinion of human nature: in what seems pretty much a throwaway remark, he addresses his hearers with the words “If you then, though you are evil...” (Matthew 7:11).

A long, honest look into our own hearts may help convince us that perhaps Paul’s scorching indictment is - well, not quite so over the top as we first imagined...

Search me, oh God, and know my heart. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.

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