I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. But then the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you."
In today's reading St Paul writes about the visible manifestation of God's power within the created world, by which our minds are drawn to the invisible reality of God himself. The gospel insists that it's more vital for the inside of the cup to be clean than the outside, and values generosity of spirit more than the washing of hands. One could say that the thought in our passage from Romans moves from the outside in, while that in the Gospel works from the inside out. Ultimately, we seek a happy medium, a harmonious blending of faith and love, flesh and spirit, inner and outer cleanliness. If such an integral wholeness exists in us, then Paul's ideal of perfect liberty will be ours.
This year we have in various ways recalled the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. And since it was largely through his immersion in the Epistle to the Romans that Martin Luther challenged the whole Church to return to the primacy of Scripture, all of us might pay some special attention to this Epistle during this year.
Let's admit that, while rich in theological ideas, this Epistle to the Romans is not easily interpreted. Paul's words shimmer with paradox as he glides from one aspect of salvation to another. We can get a clearer focus if we recall one key phrase as the dominant theme for all of Romans, "The just person lives by faith." Faith here implies fidelity and trust over the long run. It recognizes that the mysteries spread across the universe are also deeply imbedded in each person's soul..
Jesus calls for an active exercise of faith through works of love: "Give what you have as alms." Love involves concern for the needy and being generous to them. Then, says the Lord, "all will be wiped clean for you." This is a curious thought. The poor and the needy generally have a more difficult time with cleanliness than the wealthy and leisured classes. Poor people often work longer hours, are involved with dirt, grease and dust, and do not always have privacy and the convenience of hot and cold running water. Could this be why Jesus had not properly washed his hands before sitting down to eat at the Pharisee's house?
The familiar expression "missing the wood for the trees" warns against the common tendency to obsess about trivia and lose sight of essentials. A fine example of this tendency is in today's gospel scene, where a Pharisee who had invited Jesus to a meal was taken aback when his guest did not observe the usual Jewish rituals of washing before eating. In response Jesus accuses the Pharisees as a group of being preoccupied with non-essentials while paying little attention to essential values, such as giving alms to the poor. When it comes to our faith, we constantly need to keep returning to the essentials. You could say that Vatican Council II was a collective effort on the part of the world's bishops to get our Church back to essentials.
Saint Paul had a clear sense of the core values when describing the Christian calling. In Galatia, he was up against some Jewish Christians who insisted on the need for all males to submit to the Jewish tradition of circumcision. But Paul states the essentials plainly; circumcision is optional, because what really matters is faith working through love. We are called to loving-faith, a personal entrusting of ourselves to Christ who gave himself for us in love upon the cross. True faith has to find expression in a life of love, in a lifestyle that lets the love of Christ to flow through us and touch the lives of others. For Paul everything else is secondary to that single goal.