Lectionary Commentaries for June 13, 2010
Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 7:36-8:3

Sarah Henrich

This portion of Luke’s gospel includes two quite distinct sections: the long parable-within-a-story (7:36-7:50); and a short transitional section in which some of Jesus’ women companions are named (8:1-3).

The two have little connection aside from the presence of women as significant actors in both portions of the reading. 8:1 begins with a shift in time from the preceding verses (“soon afterwards”) and suggests a wide-ranging ministry over an unspecified period of time. As a preacher, my focus would be on 7:36-50.

The story of the silent woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries those same tears from his feet with her hair, kisses his feet, and anoints them with the salve she herself brings may sound similar to stories in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8. It is, however, a very different story with very different emphases. Luke’s story, for example, comes quite early in Jesus’ ministry, unlike the event in the three other gospels. It is not connected with his death by any explicit reference or by proximity in sequence.  We must look elsewhere for meaning.

One major concern of this story is established explicitly in both the external story (verses 36-40, 42b-50) and the short parable that Jesus tells Simon (verses 41-42a). That concern is forgiveness. In the parable of the creditor and debtors, the pair of words is opheilo and charizomai (verses 41 twice, verse 42, and repeated by Simon in verse 43). In the larger story, the more usual hamartia (verses 47, 48, 49) and aphiemi appear (verses 47 twice, 48, 49). The woman is also called hamartolos in verse 37.

Connected to this interest in forgiveness are two other points:
      1. faith and salvation (connected in some way to
      2. Jesus’ status to offer both forgiveness and

The last two verses of Luke 7 use different words to describe the same reality for the woman:
        Who is this who forgives sins?
        Your faith has saved you.
        [You] Go in peace.

Trust/Faith that Jesus desires and is able to forgive sins restores this woman to the community of God’s people (“saved you”). It also establishes God’s shalom for a community where one who had been lost (a “sinner”) has been restored. This theme will be explored fully in Luke 15, but is a constant thread throughout the Gospel and Acts.

The status of Jesus seems to be a driving question for the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner (verse 39) and a summative one for the crowd gathered around the table (verse 49). As the Pharisee, his other guests, and Jesus gather for dinner, the scene is set for conversation and discussion. This scene has the characteristics of a symposium where guests gather to eat, drink, and debate some topic of importance. Expectations for the evening’s dining and discussion are interrupted by the sudden, surprising appearance of a woman. Or are they? Certainly teaching ensues because of her appearance.

Yet, discussion or debate is surely the wrong word to describe this “symposium.” For we hear no word from Simon, nor the woman, nor even from Jesus until verse 40. The silence is broken when Jesus addresses Simon, apparently out of the blue. We readers of Luke’s gospel, however, know that “God who knows the heart,” and we are not surprised that Jesus likewise does.

In fact, in these verses, Simon’s unspoken assumptions about what a prophet, let alone a king, would look like, his silent curiosity about Jesus’ prophetic abilities, and his wrong presumption of the woman’s status and motives generate the drama of this story. For it is to re-frame all those assumptions and presumptions of Simon (and his guests) that Jesus tells his parable.  We do not know how those present, aside from the woman, answered their own question, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (verse 49).

Jesus re-frames what we take to be out-of-place or even misbehavior (woman as behaving erotically, seductively) to seeing with the eyes of God (deeply grateful). We are challenged to see not only ourselves, but, more importantly, those around us. This woman was seen, forgiven and restored to community by God through Jesus. Whom does any community decide not to see?

It is important to be clear that in verse 47, Jesus draws a conclusion based on the extravagance of the woman’s outpouring of hospitality and Simon’s own conclusion from the parable (that the one who would “love more” would be the one for whom greater debt was canceled, verse 43). The NRSV translates the Greek particle hoti as “hence,” which gets the idea across well. Some translating license might work here. Consider something like: Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; see/see how she has shown great love.

To tackle Luke 7:36-50 for preaching is to take on a juicy set of possibilities. Both story and characters are unusually well-developed.  Both Simon and the unnamed woman merit some exploration. We enter the lives of both these people as they gather at or near the table with Jesus. It is very clear that both of them have some history with Jesus as well. In Simon’s case, we can highlight several items:

  • he decided to invite Jesus to dinner, suggesting that he knows enough of Jesus to be–at least–curious about him,
  • as a Pharisee who values religious cleanness, he understood that Jesus would be a welcome participant at a dinner,  
  • he was well enough known to Jesus that Jesus accepted the invitation and knew where to show up for dinner.
    Within the narrative, we see that Simon has some clear ideas about how Jesus would behave if he knew what kind of woman had entered the dining room.  When Jesus accepts the woman’s attention, Simon believes that he cannot be a prophet after all. This generates a nice irony for readers, who know that Jesus does know the woman and re-frames Simon’s (and the other guests’ perceptions) by his behavior.

We also see that Simon is willing to engage Jesus in a teaching scene, the parable and question/response (verses 40-43) and be declared “correct” by Jesus the teacher.  When Jesus brings the parable to bear on the situation at Simon’s dinner party, it is clear who is less grateful. Simon is shamed for his lack of hospitality. But there is a future for Simon. After the story itself, he disappears. What impact will Jesus’ teaching and the interrupted dinner party make on Simon? Recall that many Pharisees did come to believe that Jesus was God’s own Messiah (e.g. Acts 15:5). His open-ended story summons us to ponder our own futures.

Meanwhile, the woman also has a history with Jesus, as we can tell from her acts of enormous gratitude. She is a sinner in the city. She has been forgiven by Jesus and pours out her gratitude in tears, kisses, and lotion.

Within the narrative, the woman shows extraordinary behavior. There is no doubt that she would not have been welcomed at the dinner party. Yet, on her own initiative, she takes the risk of entering a males-only gathering, a woman deemed unclean in a Pharisaic meal because her gratitude is too great to be contained within ordinary boundaries. We do not know her future either. How like us these characters are, in having encountered Jesus, yet needing to ponder and live from such an encounter in the uncharted waters of an unknown future.

First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26—12:10, 13-15

Amy Erickson

To make sense of the lectionary text, we have to back up to the beginning of Chapter 11: the story of David and Bathsheba.

First and foremost, this is a story about power—desire, too, I suppose—but ultimately power.

2 Samuel 11 begins with David staying in Jerusalem. The Ammonite threat persists, but David is now getting so settled and comfortable in his role as king that he no longer feels the need to go out and personally engage in the fighting. So he stays behind, on his couch. We all know what they say about idle hands….

David sees Bathsheba, who is immediately identified as the wife of Uriah, the Hittite. David knows from the start that she is the wife of another, a man in his ranks no less. This fact should give him pause, but there is no hesitation. David acts swiftly and decisively. “He sent, he took, he lay” (11:4). The action is stark—no romantic words, no cuddling, no flirting—just action.

We see a real ugliness in David here. He can have whatever he wants. He is at the culmination of his enormous power, and he takes, simply because he can. I cannot help but think of Bill Clinton when I read this part of the story. In his book, he offered up an explanation as to why he pursued a romantic relationship with a White House intern. He said he did it because he could. This is exactly what we see here with David.

But before long, what David may have justified as being a strictly personal matter threatens to become public. It all threatens to come crashing down when Bathsheba announces (perhaps with some satisfaction, knowing that this fact will threaten to put a chink in David’s armor), “I’m pregnant” (11:5). Suddenly David’s world is spinning out of control.

Again David acts swiftly and decisively. There is no vacillation, no debate, no “saying in his heart.” David acts and sends for his right hand man (some might say his hit man), Joab. They decide to bring Uriah up from the battle to lie with his wife; this way Bathsheba’s sudden case of pregnancy can be easily explained. But Uriah is so noble! In contrast to David, he shows incredible discipline and loyalty. He will not visit his wife, and David is starting to get stressed out. For all David’s power, he cannot get this man to sleep with his very own,and presumably very attractive, wife. Uriah will not lie with his wife while the war continues and his buddies—not to mention the ark—are at risk. And we see this nobility in a Hittite, a foreigner! The whole business makes David look pretty bad.

You know what happens from here. David sends for Joab, the kind of hatchet man every king needs, the guy who will always act in the interest of the king without scruple or reservation. Joab, on David’s order, sends Uriah out to the front lines where he knows the fighting will be the heaviest and the opponents the toughest. There is no suspense this time. Uriah is killed quickly. The plan works, and David is off the hook. As soon as Bathsheba’s allotted time of mourning is over, he brings her to his house and she has a son. It looks as though David, at least, will live happily ever after.

However Chapter 11 concludes with the statement: “And the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of YHWH” (11:27; n.b. NRSV’s translation sounds a bit softer [(it) displeased the Lord]). YHWH, despite YHWH’s love for and devotion to David, is not blind to the evil of this action. In the narrative, there is no attempt to explain the reasons behind David’s deed—the complicated merging of power and desire, the changing royal perceptions of the world and of morality. The judgment of YHWH is unconditional. The thing was evil in YHWH’s eyes.

And so YHWH sends the prophet, Nathan to David (12:1). Nathan enters to shake David out of what looks like a power-drunken stupor, but Nathan’s method is sophisticated. He does not march in and confront David directly. Instead, he tells the parable about the rich man who takes the poor man’s beloved lamb. David is so self-righteous and self-assured that his anger kindles against this man (12:5). Sounding like a man accustomed to pronouncing judgments, David says that the man deserves to die “because he had no pity” (12:6).

At this point, when David arrogantly slips into his role as judge, Nathan delivers the judgment: “You are the man” (12:7). At this point, the formerly calm and detached parable-teller speaks for the Lord who seems to be brimming with anger and hurt. Like a parent who feels betrayed by her child’s behavior, YHWH launches into an “after all I’ve done for you!” lecture (12:7-8). God’s investment in David has been so great and God’s disappointment so deep that the lecture even ends with the typical parental question: “Why?” (12:9). “Why did you do it, David?” “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” YHWH takes this failure of David’s personally.

However, despite YHWH’s pathos, YHWH is not a parent who will be satisfied with a guilty expression and a sincere enough apology. In verse 10, God explains what David’s punishment will be. There will be a sword over David’s house, his family, and his dynasty for all time. The unconditional covenant, extended by God in Chapter 7, has not been revoked, but now there is the curse to accompany it.

Now the amazing thing about David is that here, he seems to recognize his depravity. He does not try to explain. He does not protest the judgment. He says simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Perhaps David realizes, not only that he has done something evil, but that as the anointed one of the Lord, there is no such thing as a strictly personal action or a personal sin, one that has nothing to do with his public role as YHWH’s anointed king.

The narrative in 2 Samuel 11-12 shows two very distinct sides of David. On the one hand, in taking Bathsheba and ordering Uriah’s death, David is presented as an unfeeling public figure who uses his vast power as commander of the army to pull off a shrewd and ruthless cover-up (2 Samuel 11:25). Yet, on the other hand, at the end of the story, we see David reacting to the illness of his son (12:15-17). He appears debilitated by profound grief and pleads with God to spare his son.

In the story, we see David trying to keep his professional and private lives separate. Yet by the end of the story, we see that God will not allow this boundary to be maintained. The “personal sin” has a “professional” and public consequence. The very nature of God’s punishment emphasizes the convergence of David’s personal and public self: David’s “house,” meaning his family as well as his dynasty, will both be punished.

As the Succession Narrative continues (from 12:15), David’s public and personal troubles infringe upon one another, and as the narrative builds, the boundaries between his two worlds become increasingly blurred. Hard as he tries, David cannot keep his private hell from seeping into his public life. The convergence of this seepage takes place in the rebellion of his son, Absalom. In the end, Joab, the same general who killed Uriah (or set him up to be killed), kills Absalom. Again, the murder accords with the king’s role as head of state. Even more than before, David is devastated by grief. His grief is so overwhelming to him that Joab has to summon David back to his public role as king.

Like so many of us, David tries to separate his personal and professional lives, his religious self from his public self. As it eventually does for so many of us, it threatens to tear him apart and destroy both of the worlds he inhabits.

As human beings in relationship with the living and demanding God of the Bible, we cannot divide our selves and our loyalties. We cannot be Christians on Sunday and non-Christians during the work week. Our God does not accept the compartmentalization of our religious and secular selves. Even if we give money for the mission trip, sing in the choir, and bring lunches to shut-ins, if we take advantage of the weak and abuse our power at work, we despise the word of our Lord.

The good news is: God is always calling us back to integration, to be whole and undivided selves, united within ourselves in our commitment to God.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 21:1-10 [11-14] 15-21a

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

The story of Naboth’s vineyard, a tale of a wealthy and powerful person (Ahab) who oppresses (to the point of death) a less wealthy and powerful person (Naboth) who is simply seeking to do the right, is rich in lessons for our world today.

First, some historical background. Ahab’s father Omri was perhaps the most influential king of the northern kingdom (ca. 885-874). According to 1 Kings 16:24, Omri bought the “hill of Samaria” and founded a new capital for the northern kingdom there (recall David’s conquest of Jerusalem as a new capital for the southern kingdom in 2 Samuel 5:6-10). Archaeological evidence suggests that Samaria quickly became a prosperous city due to its extensive international trade relations. Omri is also mentioned by named in the Mesha (or Moabite) inscription as a formidable foe of the Moabites in the ninth century. Also, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III refers to the house of Omri (parallel to the house of David?) in a ninth-century inscription called the Black Obelisk. Omri’s reign, however, is given a negative summary evaluation by the Deuteronomistic Historians (1 Kings 16:25-26). The reader will recall that the Deuteronomistic Historians evaluated the merit of a king’s reign by a single criterion–whether or not they were fully faithful to Yahweh alone. 

Omri’s son, Ahab, reigned over the northern kingdom of Israel from approximately 874-853 BCE. While the account of Omri’s reign merits only a brief thirteen verses in the book of the Kings (see 1 Kings 16:23-28), the account of Ahab’s reign consumes some seven chapters in the book of 1 Kings. It begins with the words, “[Ahab] took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians and went and served Baal and worshiped him. . . . Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:31, 33). In 1 Kings 17, the reader is introduced to Elijah the prophet, who will be an adversary to Ahab throughout his reign.

The Deuteronomistic Historians depicts Ahab as a king who is in constant conflict with God’s appointed prophet, Elijah (see 1 Kings 18:17 and 21:20) and, who, apparently, or largely, because of the influence of his wife Jezebel, is unwilling or unable to be fully faithful to Yahweh. In 1 Kings 16:32, we read that shortly after his marriage to Jezebel, Ahab built a house and established an altar for Baal in Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. In 1 Kings 18:19, we are told that Jezebel provided for four hundred prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah (“[they] eat at Jezebel’s table”). In the same chapter in 1 Kings (chapter 18), Elijah summoned the prophets of Baal to Mt. Carmel and demonstrated that Yahweh was far more powerful than the collective powers of the prophets of Baal. Then, Elijah one-upped Ahab by outrunning the king’s chariot on their return journey to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:20-46).

The story of Naboth’s vineyard, recorded in 1 Kings 21, can perhaps be read and interpreted as the ultimate trespass by Ahab against God’s admonition to (and the Deuteronomistic Historian’s judgment of) the kings of ancient Israel to be fully faithful to Yahweh alone. Before the “Naboth incident,” Ahab’s acts of faithlessness involved other gods and the prophet whom Yahweh sent to keep Ahab in line.

But Naboth’s story is different. He was a mere subject of Ahab’s kingdom, with no extraordinary or powerful means of recourse against the actions of his monarch.

Two issues will aid the reader in understanding the import of the story of Naboth’s vineyard–the vineyard itself and the role of the king in ancient Israel.

We will begin with the vineyard. 1 Kings 21 tells us that Naboth owned a vineyard near the palace of Ahab and that Ahab desired to have the vineyard as a vegetable garden (1 Kings 21:2). He offered to either trade the vineyard for another piece of land or to pay Naboth outright for the vineyard (verse 2). Naboth declined Ahab’s offer, stating “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (verse 3). And thus the wheels were in motion whereby Jezebel orchestrated Naboth’s death based on false accusations of cursing God and the king (verse 10).

If Ahab was willing to give Naboth another piece of land or to compensate him financially for the land, why would Naboth object with such vehement words? The issue can be summed up in one word, “land.” Naboth was not being obstinate; he was striving to protect and preserve the land–the source of income and stability–that was his family’s God-given gift. According to Numbers 33:54 and Joshua 13-19, the land of promise had been divided among the children of Israel and each family’s division was to be kept in perpetuity (see Leviticus 25:23–the provisions for the sabbatical year). Ahab’s offer asked Naboth to forsake his birthright, his own inheritance from God, for the mere sake of a whim of the king.

And that leads to the next issue: the role of the king in ancient Israel. Ahab was king; except for the pesky interference of Elijah, he seemed all-powerful. Could he simply do as he liked? Could he demand that Naboth surrender his vineyard? Psalm 72 says this about a king of ancient Israel:

        May he judge your people with righteousness,
                and your poor with justice.
        May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
                and the hills, in righteousness.
        May he defend the cause of the poor of
            the people, give deliverance to the needy,
                and crush the oppressor. (verses 2-4)

Psalm 107 continues by saying that the king is one who provides land in which:

        . . . the hungry live,
                and they establish a town to live in;
        they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
                and get a fruitful yield. (verses 36-37)

Thus the role of the king was to provide care and protection for those who were less able to care for and protect themselves. And the king’s task was provide land–space–for each person to live and thrive.

Acting out of his own selfishness, Ahab sought to deprive a subject of his kingdom of his God-given land, his security, and his ability to live and thrive. Ahab not only refused to faithfully follow Yahweh; he refused to honor the God-given human dignity of his subjects. Therefore, Elijah confronts Ahab at the conclusion of the story of Naboth and says:

Thus says the LORD: Have you killed and also taken possession?  . . . Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood” (1 Kings 21:19).

Harsh words? Yes. Words of warning to the modern-day reader? Yes. Self-centeredness and greed are pervasive in our world, especially among those who have power over others. May the story of Ahab and Naboth be a constant reminder to each of us of our responsibilities to those who are less able than us to defend and care for themselves.


Commentary on Psalm 32

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Three of the readings for this Sunday, including Psalm 32, speak of sin and forgiveness.

The first reading tells the story of the prophet Nathan confronting King David with his sin. Adultery and murder stain the reputation of this beloved king of Israel. In the Gospel reading, an unnamed woman, a “sinner,” washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. To the astonishment of those around him, Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven.

Psalm 32 could be the song of that woman and the song of King David (though Psalm 51 is associated more closely with the story of David and Bathsheba). The writer of Psalm 32 knows the terror of secret sin, and the joy of being forgiven. “Happy are those…” he begins his psalm. Or, in an older translation, “Blessed are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”

The psalm is titled, “a maskil,” which seems to mean a wisdom-poem, or a composition designed to make one wise. The psalmist uses the same root in verse 8 to speak of instruction: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go.” This psalm, then, is a composition designed to teach one how to live well, how to live a happy and blessed life.

So, how does one pursue this happy or blessed life? By confessing one’s sins to God: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away…Then I acknowledged my sin to you…I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verses 3, 5).

Unrepentant, hidden sin causes grief, shame, and guilt. The sinner’s body “wastes away,” and his strength is “dried up,” like a potted plant left too long in the scorching summer sun. There is no life or vigor left in him, and his secret sin eats away at him, mind, body, and spirit. God’s hand is “heavy” upon him (verses 3-4).

It is an apt description of the effects of guilt on a person, though it seems very dated in this day and age. We do not often talk about guilt or shame. Indeed, we do not see many examples of shame in our public figures. Too often, people in the public eye who are caught in moral or ethical sin exhibit less than sincere contrition, and they issue apologies that are not apologies. (Not “I’m sorry,” but “I regret…”)

Our public figures do not provide good examples of true repentance. Even many churches do not speak of sin or guilt, trying to distance themselves from the damaging effects of misplaced shame in generations past. I am not advocating a return to fire and brimstone preaching. But what this psalm tells us, and what life experience corroborates, is that sometimes guilt and shame are entirely appropriate responses to something one has done!

I recall a student of mine describing in class one day her relationship with her friends. She said, “Sometimes I tell friends something that I have done wrong, and they say, ‘You are only human,’ or ‘You meant well,’ or “That is an honest mistake,’ or something like that. But what I really need them to say is, ‘Yeah, you screwed up.’ A friend should be honest and tell us what we really need to hear.”

The writer of Psalm 32 is, in that sense, a true friend. He does not offer platitudes. Instead, for those who truly know the depth of their sin, the psalmist offers a remedy: Confess! Pray! And God, who is faithful, will forgive your sin.

That forgiveness is what leads to true joy. The one forgiven finds a “hiding place,” a secure stronghold, in God. “You preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance” (verse 7). The forgiven sinner can “be glad in the Lord and rejoice.” She can “shout for joy!” (verse 11). The sinner does not have to deceive himself or anyone else (verse 2). When he confesses his sin, God forgives, and he can start life anew. Such new life is what the psalmist calls “happy” or “blessed.”

For those who do not know or want to follow the “way” they should go, the psalm provides a vivid image: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you” (verse 9). There is no place here for stubbornness or ignorance. The discerning person will hear and receive the instruction the Lord gives, and will follow in the way of life.

The prophet Nathan makes David see clearly the sin he has committed. The woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears knows the weight of guilt and sin. Over them, and over every person who knows and confesses his or her sin, Psalm 32 pronounces this blessing: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 2:15-21

Jaime Clark-Soles

The Argument Leading Up to 2:15

Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins with a defense of his own apostolic authority, which has clearly been contested by the teachers who come behind him after he leaves Galatia. Paul narrates his earlier life as a zealous Pharisaic Jew who tried to annihilate the church until he joined it. According to Paul, he received a “revelation” (1:12, 16) of Jesus and a call (in the manner of the prophet Jeremiah) to become a proclaimer of the gospel. As part of that call, he established the churches in Galatia, baptizing the converts who, in the process, received the Holy Spirit. During his time with them “Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (3:1) and miracles were worked among them (3:5).

Paul was called to evangelize Gentiles, and he did so without requiring circumcision or keeping the food laws carefully laid out in the Torah. Those who come behind Paul tell the Galatians that Paul had given them only part of the story and that they did, in fact, have to submit to circumcision and keeping the Law to be part of God’s salvation plan. To put it succinctly, the question was: “Do Gentiles have to become Jews to be Christians?” Paul’s resounding answer was “Heck, no!”

Paul declares his apostolic authority to be independent of any human being. He does, however, speak about a meeting with the Jerusalem leaders where they all perfectly agreed that they would evangelize Jews and Paul would evangelize Gentiles (2:9). Not everyone was happy with this arrangement, however, as is indicated by Paul’s reference to “false believers secretly brought in” in Galatians 2:4-5. Apparently, some chafed at the idea of Gentiles not having to keep the Law.

Even Peter and Barnabas disappointed Paul on this matter. Paul refers to a time when Peter joined him in Antioch and enjoyed unencumbered table fellowship with Gentiles. However, when a group of Judaizers came, Peter became a hypocrite and separated himself from his Gentile brothers and sisters out of cowardice. “And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas [i.e. Peter] before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” (Galatians 2:13-14).

Paul’s Proclamation: Justification by Faith
At any rate, Paul aims to set everyone straight, both Jew and Gentile (this is how Paul divides his world until his dying day). He needs to clarify the relationship between the law, faith, justification, and the cross. This is not easily done, of course, and Paul will arduously attempt to work it out in Galatians for the first time.

Since he just finished speaking about his Jewish compatriots, it is not surprising that he says in verse 15 that “we ourselves are Jews by nature and not Gentile sinners.” Maybe not the most politically correct way to refer to a Gentile, but his point is clear: Paul, Peter, Barnabas and all Christians, Jewish or Gentile, are to realize that the works of the law (of which circumcision is considered one) cannot effect justification. Justification comes only from the faith of Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 3:28). Paul worries that by submitting to circumcision, the Galatians will think that they have to adopt the whole law. He is so angry about the chopping off the foreskin bit that he makes numerous plays-on-words with “flesh” and “cutting” language in Galatians 5:4 and 5:12.

Pistis Christou: Faith “in” or Faith “of”?i
Much ink has been spilled on the objective and subjective genitive of pistis Christou (faith of Christ). As an objective genitive, the phrase would mean human faith in Jesus; that is, Jesus would be the object of our faith. As a subjective genitive, the phrase would mean Jesus’ own faith that he displayed; that is, Jesus would be the subject of the faith. So, the agency lies either in us or in Jesus. Either we effect justification by believing in Jesus or Jesus effects justification by his own righteous obedience.

Richard Hays argued in his book, The Faith of Jesus Christ, for the subjective genitive. Many have agreed with his position; that is, they put their money on Jesus. Certainly the early translations (Coptic, Syriac, and Latin) support this view. Furthermore, if justification rests upon human belief, then faith becomes a work and no longer faith. Also, it assigns Jesus an entirely passive role.

What is Justification?
The Greek verb behind the English word “justify” is dikaioo (2:16–used three times, 2:17, 3:8, 11, 24; 5:4). The noun form, dikaiosyne, is often translated as “righteousness” (2:21; 3:6, 11b, 21; 5:5).

I remember someone once teaching me a short-cut definition of “justified”: just-as-if-I had never sinned (you must say this aloud to get the gist).  While I appreciated the simplicity of the mnemonic device, it is somewhat off base. First, justification does not imply turning back the clock; rather, it is a full, honest reckoning of our sin for diagnostic purposes. With any luck (and wisdom gained through experience), we will learn from our mistakes as we move forward in our relationship with God, a right relationship that God has trued. Second, where the quip above focuses on the individual, justification in the Biblical sense is communal in nature. As Helmut Koester writes, Paul’s God is “not interested in righteous individuals,” but wants “to create righteousness and justice for people, communities, and for nations.

What is Paul’s Beef With “Works of the Law?”
The works of the law served as a distinctive ethnic and religious identity marker for God’s chosen people, the Jews. Now, Paul has no problem with the Law, but to understand his stance concerning it, you must understand that he divides salvation history into three epochs, each marked by a historical figure and a noun:

                              Jesus Christ/faith

During the era of Abraham, righteousness was based on the promise. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness (Galatians. 3:6). Since there was no Law as of yet, Abraham’s justification was patently not dependent upon the Law. Abraham, for Paul, is the prototypical Gentile convert who is justified apart from the Law (you can bet his Judaizing opponents disagreed thoroughly with this interpretation which makes the father of Judaism the first Gentile convert!).

The next phase in salvation history was that of the Law as mediated by Moses. The Law was good and it served its appropriate function, but that function was temporary (if necessary), much like that of a pedagogue or disciplinarian (see Galatians 3:23-28).

Paul wants the Galatians to see that those of us who live in the period of Christ/faith gain righteousness through that means and no other. It is not as if the promise or the Law were negative in any way at all; it is simply a matter of locating ourselves accurately in the chronology of salvation history.

iI would like to thank Mr. Sang Soo Hyun, a current doctoral student in New Testament at Southern Methodist University, for the careful, creative, provocative lecture he did in my Interpretation class on March 2, 2010. His lecture, “Justification, the Law, and Faith,” has inspired my own thinking and his innovative proposal about what he calls the “ecclesiological interpretation” of pistis Christou is compelling. Stay tuned for his dissertation.