Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Neglected Passages #5: Romans 15:30-32, Prayer, Providence, and Fate

Romans 15:30-32 is one of those "throwaway" sections, but it opens the way to pressing questions concerning prayer, providence, and fate.

Clearly Paul is wrapping up the epistle, and he's finding ways to pull things together. In fact, most scholars used to believe that the original version of Romans ended with 15:33. It certainly looks like a conclusion: "The God of peace be will you all. Amen." Most scholars no longer believe Romans 16 is a later addition to the epistle, but that doesn't change the fact that Paul is bringing it to a close here.

In 15:30-32 Paul asks the Romans to pray on his behalf, that his trip to Jerusalem will go safely, that his collection for the poor will please the Jerusalem church, and that he will be able to visit Rome after his Jerusalem trip. We often forget that at its heart Romans is not a doctrinal treatise but a pastoral fundraising letter. Paul wants to visit so that he can use Rome as an operational base for a mission to Spain (15:23-24), just as Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus have supported his work in the past. (Take a look at these cities on a map, and you'll see the pattern of aggressive territorial expansion.)

In the light of Romans' high-flying rhetoric and its unrivaled doctrinal influence, such a meek pastoral conclusion hardly commands our attention. However, let's look at that prayer more closely. It involves three basic petitions: (1) that Paul will escape harm, (2) that the church in Jerusalem will approve of his collection, and (3) that he'll be able to complete his mission by means of a journey to Rome. How well was that prayer "answered"?

(1) Most historians believe that Paul's journey to Jerusalem marked the beginning of the end for him. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, and because he "appealed to Caesar" he was taken to Rome in Roman custody. Most traditions have it that Paul died during his imprisonment in Rome. So Paul did not escape harm.

(2) We'll assume that the Jerusalem church gladly accepted the offering, though quite a few historians discern a great deal of tension upon Paul's arrival. (Acts 21:17-26 provides a notoriously difficult account of Paul's visit with James.) We'll give the prayer the benefit of the doubt, and judge that Paul's offering was acceptable.

(3) If Paul made it to Rome and carried on a mission there, he did so as a prisoner. Acts records such a ministry on Paul's behalf. Again, as Acts has it, Paul continued a robust ministry as a prisoner (28:30-31). So, Paul never uses Rome as a base for a mission to Spain, but he does carry on his mission in Rome.

Though every historical judgment in this post is open to challenge, I'll resist the temptation to turn this post into a research article. The point is: Paul's prayer met its fulfillment only partially and ironically.

What does this mean theologically? I don't have an answer for how prayer works, but Paul's prayer is suggestive. Prayer aligns us with the will of God, but it also opens up our lives to God's work. It does not seem that God micromanages the universe, but neither is God's will thwarted by the vagaries of fate. Paul may not have received the answer to prayer that he desired, but without a doubt he did wind up preaching the gospel in Rome.

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