NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XXII)
Henry Alford agrees with Barnes’ understanding of the various ways in which this term of “supervising” can be viewed. However, he does not believe it applies to the hierarchy of the Church because it is introduced so low down on the list. He then goes on to write about carrying out the responsibilities with faithfulness and care. As he sees it, when God ordains that someone be put in charge of a ministry, they first must be responsible members of the church. Secondly, they must be known as trustworthy and virtuous heads of their households. Furthermore, they must never be allowed to forget what their duties are, and not become lazy or careless. They must lead with earnestness, making it a serious matter of firm compliance and commitment.1
Charles Hodge agrees with what has been said so far but thinks that the word used here for supervision must not be understood just to mean someone who is put in a position of leadership; someone who presides over, or rules on various decisions and plans. Rather, in a more restricted sense. It was the office of a host, one who befriends others, and especially strangers. When we read what Paul says before this, and what he will say following this concerning giving and showing mercy, acts of compassion to the poor and also to the sick, then this word might be understood as showing kindness to travelers. If we take this into serious consideration, we must look at how this word is used elsewhere in the writings of Paul. For instance, Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to respect those who are over (proïstēmi) them in the Lord.2 Also, he wrote Timothy that elders who rule (proïstēmi) should be given double honor. So it is clear that such supervisor/hosts are the ones in charge. But when we put both meanings together, we get the characteristics of the type of leader Paul was really describing.
But Hodge feels that there is yet more to look at. Some scholars feel that Paul is painting with a broad brush here and is making reference to rulers in general, whether they are civil or ecclesiastical. Still, others restrict Paul’s usage to church-rulers or elders; others, that we understand it in light of what the German’s call a Vorsteher:3 a head-pastor or a bishop of the congregation. However, some object to this restricted reference to a presiding officer of a church because the list of duties are ordinary Christian tasks. For a pastor to be burdened with the gift of giving and the gift of mercy would be an inharmonious mixture of duties. Hodge feels that it is more common, therefore, to understand proïstēmi as anyone who exercises any level of authority in the church, even a head-usher. In this particular case of supervising, it required total commitment, namely, with attention and zeal. In fact, when the leadership of the church becomes involved with preventing disorder and the administration of discipline, it calls for constant attentiveness and accuracy.4
Verse 8d: Whoever has the gift of showing compassion to others, do it cheerfully.
We might call this gift of showing compassion as Paul’s idea of a church social worker. Someone trained to respond to emergencies dealing with loss, whether material, physical, or personal. Compassion requires patience because people who are dealing with grief have mixed emotions. In his instruction to the children of Israel, Moses talks about community suppers being part of the harvest festival (Sukkot – Feast of Tabernacles). He tells them: “Be full of joy during your special supper, you and your son and daughter, your men and women servants, the Levite, the stranger, the child whose parents have died, and the woman whose husband has died, who are in your towns.”5 When Paul wrote the Corinthians, he mentions those with compassion and mentions Psalm 112:9 as evidence of God’s special blessing.6
Martin Luther has some interesting thoughts on this command. He recalls Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “Each person should give as they have decided in their heart. They should not give, wishing they could keep it. Or they should not give if they feel they have to give.”7 God loves His children when they give because they are cheerful givers. People who do not show enthusiasm with cheerfulness when they feel the burden to help the needy because they would be ashamed if they didn’t give, or because they fear being called a hoarder, should be ashamed. Luther confesses that is why many in his day gave in the offering without identifying themselves because they didn’t want others to know how little they gave, or because they did so reluctantly and in a bad mood. They are no different than those who give to keep from being regarded as misers or rude and heartless individuals.8
Adam Clarke continues this same theme by calling on those who are appointed to perform acts of compassion and mercy to the needy, not to do so grudgingly nor reluctantly. It should be done with a spirit of pure kindness and sympathy. Clarke wanted those in this ministry to be aware that the poor and disadvantaged can also be at the end of their rope and feel worthless. So if those who are called to minister to them as stewards, supervisors, etc., are not careful, these hopeless sinners will have their hearts hardened when they see that those sent to help are deceptive, dishonest, or disinterested in them and their welfare.
Apparently, Clarke experienced that when many parishioners who were appointed to minister to the poor in their parishes, including the unemployed, and those in rehabilitation, when they resigned from their positions many reported that their moral consciousness had been considerably wounded. Perhaps the only effect they carried away from their field of labor was having become more insensitive to the needs of these people. So it was determined that those who were given such assignments must realize that what they do to these neglected people is being done to the Lord. Such ministry can never be performed without a calling and cheerfulness.9
The Albert Barnes comments on the necessary qualifier for this gift of showing compassion, in that it must be bestowed by the Holy Spirit. That way, it can be done with an honest smile. The reason why is because those who do have this gift always aim and strive to meet the purpose of the ministry given to them in support of the cause they represent. Since both the Spirit and the Church has entrusted them with such a mission they want to remain faithful and true. Barnes says that the specific duties that can be employed by the gift are various and scaled from difficult to normal. But the key factor in getting anything done is to do it with pleasantness and joy; with a kind, level-headed, and happy attitude. There are few things that enhance the value of any tender-loving care given to the sick and afflicted than a kind and cheerful attitude.
Having served as a hospital and hospice board certified chaplain, I can concur with Dr. Barnes that if there is any place that a mild, good-humored, cheerful, and tolerant disposition is needed, it is next to a sickbed, and when administering to the wants of those who are dealing with health or emotional problems, including grief and bereavement. That’s why anyone who feels called to such a ministry should remember that these characteristics are an addendum to the gift of showing compassion, and are indispensable.
Barnes adds that if moodiness, or impatience, or irritability is seen in our actions or heard in our words, it will only bring more pain and discomfort to those whom we seek to benefit. In some cases, it can embitter their feelings, and devalue our ministry to the point of being wasted time. The needy and feeble, the weak and the aged, have enough to bear without the impatience and harshness of professed Christian helpers and friends. We need to look no further than to our Lord Jesus for an example someone who displayed such an attitude like a bright star. Although He was constantly encompassed by the infirm and the afflicted, yet He was always kind, and gentle, and mild when treating them. He thereby left for us exactly what the Apostle called for when He said, “These good things from God are not given to someone because they want them or works to get them. They are given because of His loving-kindness.”10 The story of the good Samaritan is also another example of what is intended by this direction.11 And since this is a gift or the Spirit that is shared with others, what Paul told the Corinthians can also apply here12.13
Henry Alford says he cannot conceive of this gift of showing compassion being the exclusive property of officers of the Church, but every Christian who shows mercy. This is not just ordinary sympathy, it is exhibiting compassion and empathy. Many may think that this is a necessary put-on and compulsory attitude, like a forced-smile, when dealing with those who need help. That’s because they are simply obeying their conscience and doing what’s right. But that is not true. It is a spontaneous outburst of love when seeing those afflicted and infirmed. While such spontaneous cheerfulness is a requirement, according to the Apostle Paul, we wonder why it is so frequently found wanting. While, as Christians, it is good to have such a loving attitude at all times, yet if it was ever needed to have an impact on the consequences of our efforts, it is in the ministry of consoling those needing compassion. Alford then goes on to quote a motto: A good word is better than a gift14.15
Charles Hodge notes what Barnes saw in the previous gift of supervising, assistance was encouraged to be done with simplicity, while here the gift of compassion is to be done with cheerfulness. He notes that the first had to do with caring for the poor, while here it relates to caring for the sick and afflicted. Many Bible scholars believe that these two ministries were part of the deacons’ duties. Supervision was to be discharged with honesty; compassion with cheerfulness. Hodge also agrees that this cheerful attitude was not a matter of rehearsed decorum, but in a good spirit with kindness.16
1 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 112
2 1 Thessalonians 5:12
3 Vorsteher is a German word meaning “overseer” or “headmaster.”
4 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. pp. 609-610
5 Deuteronomy 16:14
6 2 Corinthians 9:8-9
7 2 Corinthians 9:7
8 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 173
9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 241-242
10 Romans 9:16
11 Luke 10:25-37
12 2 Corinthians 9:7
13 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Wisdom of Sirach 18:16
15 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 112
16 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 610