Last night my small group discussed why the opening of salvation to the Gentiles by faith would have bothered the Israelites. Why was it a stumbling block that it should come that way? And how am I like the Israelites in the story?
“But the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written, “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame. 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 in 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.”
Romans 9:31 – 10:4
It’s a small example, but I realized this morning after coming across an article about Bill Gates trying to speak Chinese that I feel a protectiveness over my accomplishments sometimes with language. I spent 5 solid years learning to speak Chinese between living in China and grad school then Mark Zuckerberg goes on TV, speaks a little Chinese and gets all this praise when he was a far less serious student. It’s not salvation, but it is that feeling of not wanting to share or being closed to others having something good (in this case, accolades) because they didn’t work as hard as I did for it.
Perhaps a better example, though, is the older brother from the story of the prodigal son who was mad that the Father threw a big party for the younger son who went out and squandered what he was given. The older brother complains, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet, you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” I can see myself much more clearly in the older brother.
It’s even in the parable of the workers (Matthew 20:1-16) that start work at different times throughout the day but end up getting paid the same regardless of how long they worked. It’s why we’re all annoyed when someone cuts line after we’ve been waiting a long time.
I think sometimes, in our modern context, this frustration can come out in comparing our service within the church with others’ or even in thinking about how right we may be compared with others—even if the others are other Christians. Luke 18:11 says that the Pharisee stood off by himself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.” I don’t think it matters who the “other people” are. Perhaps what matters more is that there are other people we consider ourselves above at all and that we do not think that we could, in the very next breath, save for the grace of God, be caught in the same sins that ensnare them. We believe ourselves to be above reproach yet dole out reproach from a firehose.
In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul asks, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” Later, in 1 Corinthians 10:12 he warns, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” Matthew Henry’s commentary on that passage gets straight to the point: “The Christian’s security against sin is distrust of himself. God has not promised to keep us from falling, if we do not look to ourselves.” Ezekiel 16, the allegory of unfaithful Israel, is a great example of what happens when people begin to trust in the gifts and favor God has given and confuse them for things they have accomplished on their own. In the story, God finds, rescues, and cleans an abandoned baby lying in its blood on the street, he clothes her with the finest linens and gives her the most fragrant perfume, she blossoms and rises to be a queen. But verse 15 says, “But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute,” and the following verses list her other transgressions done on account of that misplaced trust. Verse 22 continues, “in all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, kicking about in your blood.” This goes back to God’s choosing the foolish, the lowly, those without influence, the weak, and the despised so that no one could boast (1 Corinthians 1:26-30) while the Israelites Paul was addressing couldn’t help but boast.
I think there’s definitely an element of comparison in the Israelites’ desire to keep both themselves and salvation from the Gentiles; it is built into their culture. 2 Corinthians 10:12 says, “Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.” Maybe this is ultimately their problem, their spiritual version of keeping up with the Joneses. Matthew 23:5-6 says of the Pharisees,”Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;” Perhaps it is religion that seeks to glorify the follower over the One followed that displeases God (even Jesus did not glorify himself—John 8:54). It strikes me that the self-centeredness and pride that list checking brings about is what’s bad.
In C.S. Lewis’ chapter on pride in Mere Christianity he gets at this idea as well, ” Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man…It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone…As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” If the Gentiles can get in without the law, it threatens the superiority of the Israelites. It levels the playing field. It takes away their advantage.