When the chapters are doled out to the women’s Bible study teachers for the book of Romans, no one particularly likes to be handed Romans 16 as her teaching topic. Seemingly void of meaty theology, it is mostly devoted to Paul’s greetings to this person and that person—more like coatroom good-byes after the lecture is done.
But what can we learn from this chapter of Romans, which like Ephesians and Colossians, brings the heavy theological front-loaded first chapters down to street level at the end of the book?
What strikes me first from Romans 16 is the simplicity of the lives Paul commended. Here were everyday people doing everyday things for the visiting apostles. No highfalutin and spectacular endeavors were hinted at, no Byzantine church programs or national conferences. Paul told the Roman church (I paraphrase), “Treat Phoebe right, and help her out; she’s a fellow believer.”
He went on to tell them, “Prisca and Aquila risked their necks for me.” (This tells me that it’s a good thing to help another Christian, even if it puts you in some kind of jeopardy, whether it’s loss of employment or finances or relationships.)
Paul reminded them, “Mary worked hard for us.” (We don’t know what exactly Mary did. Maybe she stuffed envelopes. Working hard for the cause of Christ is a good way to spend your short life on this earth.)
Others who pitched in in some undisclosed way to help the apostles were Urbanus, Tryphaena, and Tryphosa.
“Rufus’ mother was like a mother to me,” Paul pointed out. (She probably made meals and offered the spare room. That was her way of helping out.)
The aforementioned people might serve as examples of Psalm 131:
“O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
In contrast to these simple-hearted, unassuming, wash-the-feet-of-the-saints believers were the people Paul warned about in verses 17 and 18. These were more “complicated” people. They fancied themselves intellectual leaders, and their edgy doctrines “cause divisions and create obstacles,” We cannot imagine their type washing anyone’s feet, or putting anyone up for the night, or slaving over a meal for an apostle. They want to have servants, not be servants.
The deep theologies of the opening chapters of the epistles distill down to simple and livable lives of serving with whatever particular gifts or resources or opportunities God gives us.