If the sermon title sounds familiar today it is because you may have heard something similar out of the previous President’s administration. At the time, President Bush, his spokespeople, and allies repeatedly spoke out against what they called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Bush said it was bigotry to apply a lower set of standards to minority and low income schoolchildren. I have in mind something different although it still has to do with a set of standards – the law – and those who thought of themselves as teachers. Paul’s words confront a bigot who despised the Gentiles as those uncivilized awful idolaters who engaged in really disgusting behavior. But that same bigot had low expectations for himself compared to God’s standard of perfection. This Pharisee thought of himself as a teacher to the Gentiles but did not practice what he taught from God’s law. Now if you were a Gentile, as most of the Christians in Rome at the time were, you would have taken delight in the way that Paul scolds the arrogant Jewish bigot in these verses we will hear. Yet Paul’s goal ultimately is to help the Christians in Rome to overcome their own bigotry of low expectations by supporting his mission to those they considered barbarians. Thus you may want to cheer Paul along as he goes after the arrogant religious bigot, but then we must ask ourselves if we too practice a bigotry of low expectations.
You practice a bigotry of low expectations if you think only that other kind of people are awful.
The bigot calling himself a Jew had to have low expectations of himself in order to look down in disgust upon the Gentiles as if he was morally superior to them. Yes he made five lofty claims about himself: to take comfort in the law, to boast in God, to know God’s will, to approve what is important, and to be educated from the law. Moreover, he made five lofty claims about the rights or privileges that Jewish people have: to be (1) a guide to blind Gentiles, (2) a light to Gentiles who are in the darkness, (3) a tutor or instructor for foolish Gentiles, (4) a teacher for immature or childish Gentiles, and (5) an expert of legal truth. But these claims don’t square with reality. The Pharisees thought they had high expectations for themselves and they could see the idolatry of the Gentiles clearly but some were blind to their own idolatry. They either had low expectations for themselves or were blind to their own sins. So Paul lists five ways such bigots betrayed their calling as Jews: starting with teaching others but not teaching themselves, preaching against stealing and yet stealing, saying one must not commit adultery but doing it, abhoring idols and then robbing temples, and boasting in the law while dishonoring God by breaking the law. Paul then proves it with a Scripture citation ironically saying that God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of Jewish sinners. The Pharisee looked down upon the Gentiles as if the Jewish people were morally superior to the Gentiles when Jews were no different than the Gentiles – all were gross sinners.
Brothers and sisters in Christ not only are those sinners living in other parts of the world awful but so are we. We too have betrayed our calling as Christians and then unbelievers have blasphemed God because we are sinners. We can be just as blind to our idolatry. This past week we were talking about the idolatrous use of art among some Christians and the professor said that we ignore our own idolatry and gave the example of church attendance. He pointed out that if you think that Jesus is present when the numbers are growing that is idolatry. He said that to evaluate the effectiveness of preaching or the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst by whether we are growing is a common idolatry in American churches. The point being that every human being on this earth can fall into idolatry in one way or another. Paul was upset that some of his opponents were even slanderously saying that Paul was teaching that we should do evil so that good may come and he says that their condemnation is just. Such slanderers deserve to die. But such is the situation for all of us – we sinners deserve to die. The only way we could look down on others is for us to have lower expectations of ourselves than God’s standard of perfection or be blind to the ways that we don’t measure up to His law. But if we have eyes to see and we compare ourselves to His law then we will be disgusted by our own sins rather than thinking we are any different than anyone else. We need the righteousness of God by faith in Jesus as much as anyone else for we do not have any righteousness of our own. It is bigotry to say otherwise. (We can even go so far as to say…)
You practice a bigotry of low expectations if you are not helping to reach people from another nation with the gospel.
Paul wants the Christians in Rome to be excited about reaching those that Greeks and Romans would call barbarians. The churches in Rome were not full of Jewish bigots like the one that Paul pretends to debate in this passage. Instead, those hearing this message would be agreeing with Paul that Jewish bigotry against Gentiles is wrong. It is not difficult to encourage them to see then that Roman bigotry against the barbarians is also wrong. Indeed, he has already made the point earlier in the chapter that God shows no partiality – Paul is encouraging the Christians in Rome to show no partiality. If they only reach out to share the gospel with their neighbors and others like them then they are being partial to Romans, but if they reach out to share the gospel with the barbarians in a far away land then they are being impartial like God. This was an ambitious project that Paul had in mind – no one could accuse him of setting low expectations in that regard. However, to do nothing would be to practice the soft bigotry of low expectations.
I know that you too will get excited about reaching people with the gospel somewhere else on the globe. We can start at home by finding ways to reach out to the nations who visit Niagara Falls with the gospel. After all, you would be showing partiality if you only tell your fellow Americans the good news of righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ. You have the advantage of living in a place people stream to from all around the world. This is one reason that God has you here. But you do not need to stop with those who are coming to you. Instead you can have high expectations that God can use you to make an impact in some part of the world far from here. Some of you could eventually even go there in person. But no matter how unfaithful we may be God is faithful. Indeed, God is just to forgive everyone who is righteous by faith in Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.