I’ve been participating in a small group Bible Study for the last few months and we have been looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans. We’re at the end of the letter and the study and conversation has been interesting and enlightening. Each day on our own we look at a small section of the letter – just a few verses, and then reflect on what we read and offer a prayer. It’s a self-paced study in a way.
Yesterday I read Romans 16:17-18 which read:
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.”
This passage has been stuck in my mind since reading it. I think there are a few reasons for that.
For one, these verses could just as easily be for today in our context in the US as when Paul wrote them about 2000 years ago in a far different context. And it comes down to the unpleasant reality that humanity hasn’t changed one bit in that time.
There are plenty of people who cause dissension and offense. There are plenty who are more concerned with their own appetites and use smooth talk and flattery to deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. There are plenty of simple-minded people too.
If Paul were writing this today, I wonder if he would use words like con artist, narcissist, scam artist, fraud, etc. I wonder if he would point out that these folks are in churches, elected in office or running for office, in business, and more. I wonder how he would refer to the simple-minded.
Or would he even need to? I’m not sure he would. He obvious had specific people in mind when he wrote those words to the church in Rome so many years ago, yet he didn’t name names. That’s probably because he didn’t need to – everyone knew who he was talking about. And those that didn’t were probably the simple-minded to begin with. They were clueless.
Is it any different today? We could take the time to list who the con men, but really, do we actually have to? If you are honest with yourself, you already know who the con men are in our world today. You know who the con men are in the churches, the politicians, the businesspeople. It’s not all that difficult to see who the con artists actually are. There’s plenty of articles you can read on how to spot a con artist. But here’s the quick way to spot one – they don’t act normal. There’s something off about them, and not in a good way. They are smooth talkers who spin everything away. And they are always looking for ways to part you from your money.
This isn’t anything new. Paul was writing about this 2000 years ago. And here we are – his words are just a s true as when he wrote them.
Humanity hasn’t changed one bit.
Recognizing this frees us from a whole assortment of things. First, stop trying to change everyone else. I can’t change you. You can’t change me. The only way any of us change is by our willingness to change. And then it’s a matter of how we change and how much. And the deeper question is why we change at all.
Second, this doesn’t give us a reason to excuse abusive behavior – which is what a con is. We still have a responsibility to stop abuse, to speak out against injustice and attempt to change course. We might not win in that battle, but at the very least, we will have spoken up so that it will be known that we couldn’t be fooled by the con artists of society. In that sense, they will have failed. Sure, they might win some kind of short-term gain. Sure, they might fool a portion of the population. But they will know that we didn’t trust them or fall for their BS – they were a failure.
Third, there are lots of simple-minded people. That’s not a judgement about someone’s worth. It’s not a statement about how someone is better or worse than anyone else. There have always been a large number of simple-minded people. They work, they live in neighborhoods and cities and in rural settings. They are married and have children. They go to school. They go to church. They go shopping. They serve their country. They are people. I don’t think Paul was trying to be elitist when he wrote about the simple-minded. He was genuinely concerned for people. Go back and read the verses. His concern was for these folk’s well-being. How are we concerned for the people around us?
Humanity has not changed in 2000 years as a whole. We still have con artists and simple-minded people. We probably always will as long as humanity is walking the earth. The fourth take away is this – Paul says avoid the con artists. Why? Because you aren’t going to change them either. It’s not about making the world perfect with perfect people. It’s about following Jesus and his way as an alternative to how the world operates.