Rev. Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J.
Reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
1st Part: The Background: The Covenant
The letter of St. Paul to the Romans uses the same basic structure found in his other letters. It features one important aspect of the mystery of Christ (chapters 5-11) and brings out its implications for Christian life, morality, and spirituality. In this case, the focus is on Christ as enacting the new and eternal covenant in His blood. The early parts of Romans (chapters 1-4) show our desperate need for Christ while the final portions (chapter 12-16) set forth the implications of this covenant for faith, conduct, and prayer.
After the flood, God not only arranges to repopulate the earth through the offspring of Noah but also creates a second covenant that softens the stipulations of the first. There remains the need for each person to face a moral reckoning with God, precisely because of God’s special love for human beings as made in His own image (Genesis 9:6). The rainbow that God designed to appear in the clouds will serve as a reminder of this new covenant, for God promised never again to destroy the world by flood (Genesis 9:8-17). Instead, He will rain upon the just and the unjust alike – a symbolic way of expressing that in His own time God will call both the good and the evil to account but that no longer will there always be an immediate punishment for wickedness as there was with Adam and Eve or with Cain when he murdered Abel. Jesus alludes to this change in the covenant within the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:45).
It is significant for our understanding of Romans to appreciate that these first two instances of the covenant concern the whole human race. God then undertakes a special relationship with His Chosen People in the covenant made with the childless Abram. God promises not only descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky but a special land in which to freely worship the Lord alone (Genesis 15: 1-11). As a sign of this covenant God changes his name to Abraham (“father of the people”) and specifies the requirement of circumcision (Genesis 17: 1-14). The remainder of the story of the patriarchs recounts the protection and the blessings that God brings on Abraham and his descendants until the moment when it is time to bring the Chosen People to the Promised Land (as foretold to Abraham in a dream at Genesis 15:12-16).