Ioannis Karavidopoulos, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Hermeneutics, A. U. Th.
The Epistle reading for the 5th Sunday of Matthew is taken from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: ‘The person who does these things will live by them’. But the righteousness that is by faith says: ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, in order to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, in order to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart’, that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim. If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.
The letter to the Romans, which was addressed to a church that wasn’t founded by Saint Paul himself, is his most important in terms of theological content and scope. It’s often called ‘Saint Paul’s Gospel’. This letter doesn’t contain a summary of his theology, however, but rather sets out a basic tenet of Pauline theology: the vindication of sinful people by the grace of Christ, not by deeds of the law. Paul developed the same theme in his letter to the Galatians, which he wrote in Ephesus, some two to three years before the one to the Romans. In the former, however, the tone was polemical (against the Judaizers), whereas here the presentation is more calm and systematic.
This particular excerpt comes from the first part of the epistle, the dogmatic part (chaps. 1-11), and more specifically from the unit comprised of chapters 9-11, where the issue of the final salvation of the people of Israel is treated. Within the context of God’s general soteriological dispensation, the temporary rejection of Christ by this people facilitated the entry of the gentiles into the Church. If salvation is a matter for the whole of humankind, then God’s chosen people can’t be excluded. This is the great apostle’s ‘heart’s desire’ and the substance of his prayer to God, as he states at the beginning of the extract.
This people has God’s Law, which was given to Moses, but is unable to understand that Christ is the fulfilment of the Law, in that he bestows salvation on all those who believe. Christ himself is the ‘culmination’ of the Law, not only in terms of time but also of its purpose. Because those who believe in their heart that Christ is the Son of God whom the Father raised from the dead, and who boldly proclaim this belief gain their salvation, which- and this bears repeating- is not the result of observing the provisions of the Law but of faith in Christ. God ‘wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2, 4). And if he wants everyone to be saved- that is, not just to live a life far removed from evil, degradation and the fear of death, but with the hope of the future good things of the Kingdom of God- then, naturally, he wants the same thing for the people of Israel. Saint Paul says as much at another point in this letter, at the beginning of the section from which today’s excerpt is taken: ‘I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race’ (Rom. 9, 2-3).
It might be asked: ‘What has all this to do with our own age?’ The answer is as follows.
As people, we’re never in a permanently fixed situation, and surprises can never be completely ruled out. Some of those who fought against Christ and his Church have experienced astonishing events in their life and have undergone a conversion, becoming not only faithful disciples, but also preachers of his Gospel. History, both ancient and modern, is replete with such examples of astounding changes and conversions, the most telling and important being that of Saint Paul. Once a zealous persecutor of the Church, he became a fervent preacher of Christ crucified and the author of the epistle from which today’s reading was taken.