Summary: Jews have an advantage in that they have God’s law in written form and were the first to receive God’s grace but it doesn’t help since they’re unable to keep the law.
There is no doubt in Paul’s mind as he writes to the Church at Rome, that the Jews are pre-eminent in God’s sight. He makes it clear in 1:16 that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Mind you he uses the same hierarchy in ch 2:9 when he describes the judgement that God is going to bring on all people, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. So the Jews come first in God’s plan and in Paul’s thinking about the gospel. But the problem is, as he points out in this section here, they’ve somehow missed the point.
In fact there are 6 areas in which they’ve got it wrong. Let’s look at the passage and see what these 6 mistakes are:
1 They rely too much on the law
There’s no doubt that the knowledge of God’s law is the Jews greatest asset. No other nation, no other religion, has had God’s will explained to them in such detail. If, as I’ve mentioned the last couple of weeks, there’s a desire on the part of human beings to know how to be right with God, then the Jews are greatly privileged. They have God’s law in written form. They don’t have to wonder how to please God. He’s told them in great detail. But the trouble is that they seem to think, some of them at least, that just having the law makes the difference. That this position of privilege they have is enough. But relying on the fact that they have God’s law in written form isn’t enough, as we’ll see in a moment. Nor is it enough to be confident that you’re the chosen people of God. Their second mistake you see is that:
2 They’re over confident in their status of being the people of God.
He points out how they boast of their relation to God. The Jews have this position of being the chosen people of God. God had said to them on a number of occasions, "You will be my people and I will be your God." Of all the nations on earth only they could claim this relationship with God. But the mistake they make, again, is to boast of the relationship but not live out the responsibilities that go with that relationship.
3 They have a sense of superiority as those who have been instructed in what God wants
Next, because they’ve been instructed in the will of God and know what is the right thing to do, they have this sense of superiority. They think that just because they’ve been educated they must be better than those who are ignorant of God’s law.
Of course that’s an attitude that we recognise well in our own culture. There’s often a sense of superiority that accompanies education. We explain the foolishness of certain people by their ignorance. We look down on those who are ignorant as though they’re lesser beings than we are. And that attitude leads to the next mistake the Jews have made:
4 They glory in being able to teach those who are ignorant
This comes back to something I talked about a couple of weeks ago. When we look at someone else and discover how ignorant they are by comparison to ourselves, it makes us feel superior, like when we look at the sinfulness of some people and think how much more righteous we are. Paternalism and that sense of superiority are age old foibles of the educated.
And of course in the case of those who have received God’s word, well, doesn’t it talk about God’s word being a lamp to our feet and a light to our path? So when we teach God’s word to those who are in darkness, we feel good that we’re able to lead those who are blind into the light. We love being able to correct the foolish, as though they were little children, and feel superior to them, just because we were taught the law first. But the trouble is:
5 They’re unable to keep the law themselves
He lists a whole range of laws that they preach about, yet are unable to keep themselves. Now whether these are literal examples he’s giving or whether this is simply hyperbole isn’t clear. Perhaps he’s thinking of the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount where he expands the meaning of the law to include not just the literal infringement but the mental, inward infringement as well.
In our first reading today we read how Jesus took the law against murder and expanded it to cover not just murder but anger and hatred, a desire to do away with a person even metaphorically speaking. He took the law on adultery and showed how even to think of someone else in a lustful way was tantamount to committing adultery with them. Elsewhere he condemns the Pharisees for the way they twist the law about the tithe in such a way that they can escape their responsibility of supporting the temple, and so in a sense are robbing the temple.