(Rom. 2 : 10 – 6)
The words of St. Paul addressed to the Romans, in its second chapter warns and instills fear in us, but also gives us hope in the belief that there is a higher form of justice than the one in this world and that God sees every individual, every nation and tribe on this earth with different eyes than we do and is a righteous judge to all His creatures. “There is no partiality with God” (Rom. 2:11). He will “render to each one according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6).
In St. Paul’s day there was a very strong awareness of Jews as the chosen people of God and of their special place before God and priority over other nations in His eyes. St. Paul put an end to this erroneous way of thinking by saying that all God’s creatures are equal in His eyes; every human being is a child of God in as much as he or she does the will of God and obeys His sacred Law. “For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him” (Rom. 10:11-12).
With these words St. Paul follows closely the Forerunner of our Lord, St. John the Baptist, who always endeavored to sober up his compatriots and taught them that they were in no way privileged as a nation. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’” St. John cries out. “For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Lk. 3:8). In His great righteousness, the Lord goes so far as to deny His mother and brothers, the closest of kin, any kind of privilege over anyone else. Remember the Gospel story in which “His mother and His brothers came to Him, and could not approach Him because of the crowd. And it was told to Him by some, who said, ‘Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (Lk. 8:19-21).
It has somehow become a widespread view among us contemporary Christians that the Lord will be merciful only to us. Even among overzealous Orthodox Christians there is a deeply rooted understanding that the Kingdom of Heaven is reserved exclusively for us, whereas the billions of heterodox will be cast into the depths of Hades where they will burn for ever. This makes them similar to sects such as Jehova’s Witnesses. They assert that there is no other way to God but our way. But St. Paul says otherwise: “Tribulation and anguish on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 2:9 -10). It is true that we Christians are the “chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Pet. 2:9), but not by birthright. We have been called to this honor and we must make ourselves worthy of it.
Did not the Lord say that not even His own Mother and brothers are in any way special. It is the same for them as for other people: they, too, must do the will of the Father. Christ’s closest of kin did not become worthy of the Kingdom of heaven and ineffable glory because of their blood ties to Christ, but because, as we can see from their holy lives, they obeyed the will of God and witnessed to His Law “to bloodshed” (Heb. 12:4). Therefore, bear in mind, brothers and sisters: the Lord will not take us into His embrace just because we call ourselves by His name and because we cry, “Lord, Lord,” but only if we do the will of the Father (Mt. 7:21). “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). By giving us the example of the centurion, an infidel, the Lord warns us that “many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom of heaven will be cast into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 8:11-12).
Furthermore, St. Paul sheds light on more questions for our benefit. He tells us about the measure which the Lord will use to judge the secrets of men (Rom. 2:16). What about the secluded tribes in Africa, the aborigines in Australia, the godless tribes in the rainforests of South America and other tribes and nations who have never had any contact with the Word of God? How will they be judged? The holy Apostle Paul gives us a clear answer: “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged in the law” (Rom. 2:12). “For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having a law, are a law unto themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Rom. 2:14-15).
Here is our answer: everyone will be judged according to what he or she has received. The Lord has planted an awareness of good and evil into the soul of every human being on earth. It is called conscience. Conscience is the voice of God which tells every man what is good and what is not. “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal” (Ex. 20:13-15) and the other commandments God gave to the Hebrews which were etched onto stone tablets, were also given to other peoples and nations, and He etched them into their hearts, so that they are called to do good “by nature” (Rom. 2:14). “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). This includes non-Christians of all kinds as well as atheists, “because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them” (Rom. 1:19). The creation reveals the Creator. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard” (Ps. 19: 1-3). St. Paul adds to the Psalmist’s verses, saying: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
The Old Testament shows us an example of how the law of God is imprinted into the hearts of even such ungodly men as the Philistine king Abimelech. When Isaac dwelt among the ungodly tribes with his beautiful wife, Rebecca, “the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, ‘She is my sister,’ for he feared to say ‘She is my wife’ lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebecca, because she was fair to look upon. And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the philistines looked out of the window and saw Isaac was sporting with Rebecca his wife. And abimelech called Isaac and said, ‘Behold, of a surety she is thy wife: how siadst thou, ‘She is my sister?’ And Isaac said to him, ‘because I said, lest I die for her.’ And albimelech said, ‘What is this thou hast done unto us? One of the people might lightly have lien with thy wife and thou shouldest have brought guiltiness upon us. And Abimelech charged all his people, saying, ‘He that toucheth this man or his wife shall surely be put to death (Gen. 26: 6-11). Abimelech had never seen the tablets with the commandments but he felt in his heart that adultery was a terrible sin.
Also St. Paul, when he found himself among the tribesmen of Malta, bore witness how the law of God was written into their hearts. He writes about how after they were shipwrecked, the natives took them in and gave them shelter from the rain and cold. “When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live (Acts 28:3-4).
“Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal (Ex. 20:13-15), are among the commandments that were given to the Hebrews on stone tablets. Then the Lord Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, made Himself manifest to the Hebrews and to all other nations and developed His law to the most minute details, elevating its moral precepts to the greatest height. When St. Paul invokes “tribulation and anguish on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek,” and “glory, honor and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom.2:9-10), he wants to say that those who have been given the most honor have also been give the most responsibility. “What advantage then has the Jew?” (Rom. 3:1) asks St. Paul and immediately supplies the answer: “Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3;2). The advantage breeds responsibility. He who is given more will be asked for more. The Lord explains it in a Gospel story: “That servant who knew his master’s will and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with a few” (Lk. 12:47-48). It is true that we, Christians, have been given the most. There are things that can be forgiven little children, but not adults. In matters concerning the faith we Christians are considered adults. Orthodoxy shortens the path to salvation but is also clear about the manner salvation is attained. What condemnation to us if we know, yet fail to act or, even worse, if we act badly. “Indeed, you are called a Jew,” says St. Paul, “and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having a form of knowledge and truth in the law. You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, ‘do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, as it is written (Rom. 2:17-24).
It is profitable to reflect about the following story: the Apostle John approaches Christ and says to Him, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us. But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side” (Lk. 9:49:50).
It is good to remember: we must never look down upon the children of God, and never despise them, our brothers and sisters of another faith and race. We must not believe that being Orthodox alone will save us, even if we live an unorthodox life. “They are not all Israel who are of Israel,” says St. Paul. And truly, “there is no partiality with God (Rom. 2:11). “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God (1 Cor. 4:5)