Are we saved not by faith or belief, but by Jesus’ faithfulness?
by Carl Gregg
Epistle Reading: Romans 4:13-25
For Sunday, March 4, 2012: Year B — Lent 2
Many Christians have begun to have ears to hear the rightful Jewish protests that “law” is a problematic translation of “Torah.” “Teaching” or “Instruction” are preferable options. In our context, the word “law” imports all the negative baggage associated with the bulky U.S. Law Code.
Do You Hear “Torah” or “Law?”
Landmark books such as E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) emphasize that many Jews view the Torah not as a burden, but as God’s gracious gift of a covenant and way of life. Sanders was a leader in studying what Jews in and around the first-century said about themselves compared to the increasingly anti-Semitic Christian rhetoric about Jews. The “New Perspective on Paul” seeks to understand Paul in his authentic Jewish context instead of through the lens of Christian theologians such as Augustine (354-430) and Luther (1483-1546).
The Jewish Annotated New Testament argues that the word “law,” such as in verse 13 (Greek: nomos, without a definite article), often refers not to the “Torah,” but to Roman law (see the burgeoning field of Empire-critical interpretation) or Jewish “conventions” such as circumcision.
Do You Hear “Faith” or “Faithfulness?”
This commentary also invites us to hear the word “faith” (Greek: pistis) as more about faithfulness than “faith,” especially as opposed to faith heard with the connotation of “belief.” (Remember complications such as Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified,” which challenge simplistic portrayals of justification by faith alone.) Thus, in verses 20-21, “Paul is defining a continuum of decisions and concomitant actions based on trust in God’s promises…. Paul may be alluding to Abraham’s willingness to be circumcised as an act of faithfulness toward being able to father this promised child.” Like the Christians in Rome to whom Paul was writing, we are called to similar faithfulness.
Hello — That’s My Watch!
Many Christians are accustomed to reading the Bible only among other Christians and typically with a slant of supersessionism. Literary critic Harold Bloom, discussing how Christians have reordered and reinterpreted the Tanakh as the “Old Testament,” has said that, “Christians stole our watch, and for the past 2,000 years have been trying to tell us what time it is.”
We are fortunate to live in an age in which we have greater access not only to dialogue with Jewish people and to Jewish interpretations of scripture, but also to Jewish interpretations of Christian scriptures — if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Father Abraham Had Many…
Many of us have also become accustomed to the realization that Jesus lived and died as a Jew. But the Jewish New Testament scholar Pamela Eisenbaum challenges us to the further realization that Paul Was Not a Christian. He calls himself a “Jew” in the present tense (Galatians 2:15), who is an apostle to the Gentiles.
Eisenbaum and other scholars say that in highlighting Abraham as the “father of many nations” (verse 17), Paul is arguing that through God’s righteousness and Jesus’ faithfulness, Gentiles are now included — along with Jews — in those “many nations” as children of Abraham.
The Hardest Question
What does it mean to twenty-first century Christians that we are saved not because of our “belief” in Jesus as the founder Christianity, but because of the faithfulness of a first-century Jewish peasant?
Similar questions could be raised about Peter, Paul, and Mary as well as other early Jewish leaders of the kingdom movement that became Christianity.
Carl Gregg is a New York Times-reading, vegetarian-eating Progressive Christian, who also loves Centering Prayer, Ultimate Frisbee, and praying-by-biking-to-work. Carl has been the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland since July 2010. He is a trained spiritual director, and will graduate with a Doctor of Ministry from San Francisco Theological Seminary in early 2012. He is currently transforming his dissertation into a popularized form for publication. Carl lives with his wife Magin LaSov Gregg, who is a Lecturer in English at Bowie State University. They have three cats and two dogs.