“But what does it say?” (v. 8). The question that begins this pericope signals that we are entering into Paul’s argument in medias res, in the middle of it. And the broader context is vital to our understanding. Romans 9-11 is that much-discussed section of Paul’s magnum opus where he considers the conundrum of the Jewish denial of Jesus as Lord. This is not a rhetorical or philosophical exercise for Paul, but deeply personal, in two ways:

  • Paul is himself a Jew who persecuted Christians. His own conversion—saying with his own mouth “Jesus is Lord,” and believing in his own heart that God raised Jesus from the dead—bears witness that Paul’s whole life is now bound up in this conundrum.
  • Even after his conversion, he did not leave his ethnic and religious identity behind. So this conundrum regarding his Jewish sisters and brothers is, for Paul, a source of deep pain and anguish. You can hear it in his voice: “…my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved. For I bear witness that they have a zeal for God…” (10:1-2).

Paul states the conundrum most succinctly in Romans 9:30-31, in his paradoxical observation that Gentiles did not strive for the righteousness expressed in the Torah, yet attained it through faith, while Israel strived for the righteousness of the law, yet did not succeed. And yet, this very conundrum between Jew and Gentile is, for Paul, a paradox that goes to the very heart of God, the same sort of paradox that Jesus himself would preach when he would proclaim that the last are made first, the least made greatest, in the reign of God. So, even as he weeps over his Israelite family, he sees in that failure the very work of God to make the righteousness of salvation available to all, namely to the Gentile. Faith—and faith alone—becomes the great equalizer, “so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:4, NRSV).

What makes this paradoxical reality possible? Paul finds it in the very Torah that makes righteousness impossible. He directly quotes Deuteronomy 30:14, words of Moses preaching his final sermon among the Israelites as they stand at the brink of the Promised Land. It is the word of God, brought near in the voice of a Palestinian Jewish son of a carpenter, that makes it all possible. The Word speaks and it happens, and the deepest comfort of that word is that it does not speak from on high, but is brought near, on the lips, in the heart.

The Word speaks and it happens, and the deepest comfort of that word is that it does not speak from on high, but is brought near, on the lips, in the heart.

Paul then spends the rest of the pericope illuminating this intimate connection between mouth and heart, between what we say out loud and what our heart most deeply desires. The formula in vv. 8-9 is quite simple: if you say “Jesus is Lord” (perhaps the early Christian’s creedal equivalent to the early Israelites’ “My father was a wandering Aramean…” in today’s first reading), and if your heart trusts that God raised him from the dead, salvation is yours. Yet, there’s something going on here that is mysteriously chicken-or-egg: if we believe it in our heart, then our mouth has no trouble saying it. And if our mouth can say it, then our heart will believe it. It is impossible to say which comes first. This is a word of comfort, because it assures us that even when our words fail, our heart can rest secure. And even when our heart doubts, we can still speak the simplest three-word creed: Jesus is Lord. None of it depends on how hard we’re believing or how loud we’re speaking, but only on the tiny seed of trust that clings to the promise that God is God, and we are not.

Nearly two thousand years after Paul scribbled out these lines, the only reason “we” are here, reading Paul’s magnum opus together, is that we are inheritors of the promise Paul sees in the paradox. And the conundrum Paul sees between Jew and Gentile can often be the same conundrum at work in any Christian community and the same conundrum at work in every human heart. Who of us has not at some point in our lives pursued a law leading the righteousness, only to fail? And only then to find that the righteousness we would have pursued became ours only by sheer gift when we finally trusted God to be who God promises to be? Not only that, but then to discover that the righteousness that God now gives goes beyond anything we might have dared dream possible while we were pursuing it. Peace passing understanding. Complete joy. Gladness without measure.

All of it is ours because of the One whose lips confessed the purity of heart that is his alone, to resist every test and temptation of the evil one, until the “opportune time” that would reconcile the whole world back to God. Every single bit of all this is, after all, centered in the singular death that—at the end of this Lenten journey—will lead to a resurrection.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Romans 10:8b-13.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 10:8b-13.