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An Age Of Shame

1:26-27 Because of this God abandoned them to dishonourable passions, for their women exchanged the natural relationship, for the relationship which is against nature; and so did the men, for they gave up the natural relationship with women, and were inflamed with their desire for each other, and men were guilty of shameful conduct with men. So within themselves they received their due and necessary rewards for their error.

Romans 1:26-32 might seem the work of some almost hysterical moralist who was exaggerating the contemporary situation and painting it in colours of rhetorical hyperbole. It describes a situation of degeneracy of morals almost without parallel in human history. But Paul said nothing that the Greek and Roman writers of the age did not themselves say.

(i) It was an age when things seemed, as it were, out of control. Virgil wrote: "Right and wrong are confounded; so many wars the world over, so many forms of wrong; no worthy honour is left to the plough; the husbandmen are marched away and the fields grow dirty; the hook has its curve straightened into the sword-blade. In the East, Euphrates is stirring up the war, in the West, Germany; nay, close-neighbouring cities break their mutual league and draw the sword, and the war god's unnatural fury rages over the whole world; even as when in the circus the chariots burst from their floodgates, they dash into the course, and, pulling desperately at the reins, the driver lets the horses drive him, and the car is deaf to the curb."

It was a world where violence had run amok. When Tacitus came to write the history of this period, he wrote: "I am entering upon the history of a period, rich in disasters, gloomy with wars, rent with seditions, savage in its very hours of peace.

All was one delirium of hate and terror; slaves were bribed to betray their masters, freedmen their patrons. He who had no foe was destroyed by his friend." Suetonius, writing of the reign of Tiberius, said: "No day passed but someone was executed." It was an age of sheer, utter terror. "Rome," said Livy, the historian, "could neither bear its ills nor the remedies that might have cured them." Propertius, the poet, wrote: "I see Rome, proud Rome, perishing, the victim of her own prosperity." It was an age of moral suicide. Juvenal, the satirist, wrote: "The earth no longer brings forth any but bad men and cowards. Hence God, whoever he is, looks down, laughs at them and hates them."

To the thinking man it was an age when things seemed out of control, and when, in the background, a man could hear the mocking laughter of the gods. As Seneca said, it was an age "stricken with the agitation of a soul no longer master of itself."

(ii) It was an age of unparalleled luxury. In the public baths of Rome the hot and cold water ran from silver taps. Caligula had even sprinkled the floor of the circus arena with gold dust instead of sawdust. Juvenal said bitterly: "A luxury more ruthless than war broods over Rome. No guilt or deed of lust is wanting since Roman poverty disappeared." "Money, the nurse of debauchery and enervating riches sapped the sinews of the age with foul luxury." Seneca spoke of "money, the ruin of the true honour of things," and said, "we ask not what a thing truly is but what it costs." It was an age so weary of ordinary things that it was avid for new sensations. Lucretius speaks of "that bitterness which flows from the very fountain of pleasure." Crime became the only antidote to boredom, until, as Tacitus said, "the greater the infamy, the wilder the delight."

(iii) It was an age of unparalleled immorality. There had not been one single case of divorce in the first 520 years of the history of the Roman republic. The first Roman recorded as having divorced his wife was Spurius Carvilius Ruga in 234 B.C. But now, as Seneca said, "women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married." Roman high-born matrons dated the years by the names of their husbands, and not by the names of the consuls. Juvenal could not believe that it was possible to have the rare good fortune to find a matron with unsullied chastity. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the typical Roman society lady as "girt like Venus with a golden girdle of vice." Juvenal writes: "Is one husband enough for lberina? Sooner will you prevail upon her to be content with one eye." He cites the case of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. He cites the incredible case of Agrippina, the empress herself, the wife of Claudius, who at night used to leave the royal palace and go down to serve in a brothel for the sake of sheer lust. "They show a dauntless spirit in those things they basely dare." There is nothing that Paul said about the heathen world that the heathen moralists had not themselves already said. And vice did not stop with the crude and natural vices. Society from top to bottom was riddled with unnatural vice. Fourteen out of the first fifteen Roman Emperors were homosexuals.

So far from exaggerating the picture Paul drew it with restraint--and it was there that he was eager to preach the gospel, and it was there that he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. The world needed the power that would work salvation, and Paul knew that nowhere else than in Christ did that power exist.

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