A parable about you, Jesus, and some other friends* (A summary of Romans 1-3)

drowning-manA friend who’s a new follower of Jesus asked me to give him some input on how to read Romans. I shared this simple parable on how to outline the first three chapters. Thought I’d share it here.

You and four friends won tickets for a trip to Hawaii on an ocean liner. On the second day of the trip a guy offers to take your picture. The five of you pose near the edge of the port side of the top deck. He instructs you to back up, “Just a little farther back. A little farther. Just a little more,” he says. What you didn’t know was that he removed the rail behind you and all four of you fall overboard into the freezing Pacific while the ship cruises on its way.

The Atheist:  Your first friend, a natural born skeptic, doesn’t believe in the existence of life preservers or that there is anyone left on board the ship to save you. Against all the evidence to the contrary he stubbornly believes that the ocean that envelops you is all there is, so he tries to will himself atop the water by the power of positive thinking. But eventually he drowns.

Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Romans 1:19-20

The Idolater:  Friend number two is a devoted follower of Mammon, the god of wealth. Since he’s never photographed without his effigy, the money god with an image of Wall Street hoisted above his head, he retrieved him from his room so he could be in the picture. (He’s always in the picture.) Problem is, the gold-laden image weighs about 100lbs and instead of it supporting him, he’s now supporting it, flailing and kicking with all his might, until he also drowns.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles… Romans 1:21-32

The Moralist:  Your third friend is an expert swimmer who does countless laps in the public pool every day. He’s not only in fantastic shape but he’s extremely proud of it. “You guys are all flabby and out of shape. You should be more like me. I can swim forever!” he proudly shouts as he backstrokes off. Confident or not, the crisis is beyond his natural capability to master. No matter how much better he is than everyone else the distance is too great, and in the end he is no better off!

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? … Romans 2:1-16

The Legalist:  Your last friend has been up in the ship’s chart room for the entire cruise studying maps, water temperatures, and currents. He knows everything there is to know about the journey and what it takes to get there. While he’s treading water, charts in hand, he spouts statistics and boasts of his expertise. “We have 1,679 miles left, the water temperature is 41 degrees, the current will carry us in a north by north-west direction,” and so on. Predictably, his navigational knowledge isn’t enough to keep him from drowning, and down he goes with all the others.

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? … Romans 2:17-29

You:  Now you’re treading water all by yourself out in the open sea. Your friends have all drowned and you have no hope for any other outcome. You don’t have an idol to cling to, you’re not a good swimmer, you don’t know anything about nautical science, and though you do believe in life preservers, you don’t have one at the moment.

It’s hopeless. You could no more survive alone out in the open sea than stop a volcano from erupting or fly to Venus. Even if you had an idol or were in perfect swimming shape or knew how to chart the sea or could convince yourself of the undefeatable human potential, the sea is too big and too deep. You’re sinking and about to breathe your last.

All are under the power of sin. 10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” . . . so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. . . . All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:9-23

The Substitute Savior:  You have no alternative but to use what little breath you have left to scream for help. “Someone? Is there anyone? Help!” you shout over and over until you spot movement on the water in the distance. At first you think it’s one of your friends somehow still afloat, but whatever or whoever it is comes closer and you realize that it’s someone swimming toward you. It’s a man who, when he had seen you all fall overboard, found a life preserver and, at the peril of his own death, leaped into the icy water and began swimming toward you with all his might.

He’s exhausted by the time he gets to you and urges you to hold onto hope until the ship returns for you. Since the preserver won’t hold you both, he takes it off and immediately sinks straight down into the cold ocean water to his death. You gratefully strap on the preserver and wait until you begin to see the ship’s lifeboat coming toward you in the distance. When it arrives, you’re lugged aboard by the strong hand of the man, who you recognize as the one who had drowned while saving you!

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:21-26

*Forgive me, ladies. I put all this in the masculine only because it’s clunky to do otherwise. Of course, we all – both sexes – are drowning. And we all – both sexes – need saving. Our ideas or idols or ideologies are all inadequate. We all, regardless of gender, need Someone to give us a life saving hand up. 

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