Commentary on Romans 4:13-25
There is a story told among Zen Buddhists about a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.
“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.” Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”
Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”
It is a common human weakness, of course, to forsake what is beyond our spiritual grasp for that which lies much closer at hand. Perhaps this is the reason why idolatry — exalting what is passing and temporal in place of the eternal — is among the first prohibitions of the Decalogue. Not only does it dishonor God but it also prevents us from realizing our fullest humanity. As Paul attests so clearly throughout his epistle to the Romans, Christians are called to be a people of faith who are not misled by the forms their tradition has adopted over the centuries, whether it be circumcision or law.
Our model in this is the great patriarch Abraham, “our father according to the flesh” (4:1) as Paul states to his Jewish readers. But this description only serves as a rhetorical strategy for what ensues, for it is not Abraham’s flesh that is Paul’s concern, but rather the faith that Abraham was able to demonstrate, despite his ninety-year-old form. Abraham believed that he would become the father of a great nation and it was “reckoned to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:22).
Paul makes it clear that this righteousness had nothing to do with a reliance on some of the common crutches with which his readers were familiar. It was not a matter of Abraham’s circumcision, for the man had not yet gone under the knife. Nor was it a function of his strict observance of the law, for the Sinai experience still lay in the distant future. Though necessary for the growth of faith, these covenantal blessings are only fingers pointing to the moon. As such they can become stumbling blocks for those of weaker constitutions. Righteousness, Paul insists, is a matter of faith, not form.
We can understand why form became so important to some many during the Second Temple period. As a repressed minority living perpetually under the control of foreign nations they found it necessary to build a kind of religious wall around themselves, lest they become culturally assimilated and surrender the promise made to Abraham all those years ago. Circumcision was emphasized as an outward sign of the faith. Intermarriage among Gentiles was prohibited, kosher foods were required. The result was a highly exclusive community whose rituals and customs became in many ways a source for their own salvation. Through such practices they could remind themselves that they were indeed the seed of Abraham “according to the flesh.”
Under such circumstances it was only a matter of time before form came to take precedence over faith. Paul himself had been one of the most zealous advocates of this brand of Judaism, until his Damascus road experience convicted him of a paramount insight: “the law brings wrath” (4:15).
Is it God’s wrath that Paul refers to here? It seems more likely that he is making reference to a psychological state of mind, a kind of deep despair that results when form is confused with faith.
The law has always been a means of pointing the way toward God, an instrument that helps us to know and do the divine will. As such it is meant to liberate. But when the means is mistaken for an end in itself, the consequence can be a state of spiritual confusion in which all hope is obscured. The moon slips behind the clouds and only an insufficient finger remains. We then grasp at straws, redefining our world in ever simpler terms — us and them, insiders and outsiders — until we eventually reach the depths of our own private hell. Here, as the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev observed, our self-absorption is so complete that “eternity is closed off and nothing but bad infinity is left.”
Paul was saved from the depths of his xenophobic despair by a blindingly simple revelation: that the God of creation, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17), could not be fully approached by relying on the exclusive tradition bequeathed to him by his ancestors. Therefore, God approached creation in the form of Christ, in whom we also are made righteous. In this way, Abraham is the spiritual father of both Gentile and Jew. The church is the seed of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but according to faith.
The season of Lent is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on the ways that we too often place our trust in inadequate earthly forms at the expense of a simple, liberating faith. While the former serve to perpetuate distinctions that divide the body of Christ and alienate members of other religious traditions, the latter has the potential, through the work of the Spirit, to open doors and invite creative dialogue. While one incites wrath, the other encourages reconciliation.
This is the essence of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, as relevant today as it was in the first century: to perceive the truth we must look beyond the forms that bind us to behold Christ, in whom we are reckoned righteous before God. Indeed, it is only in him, God’s incarnate Son, that faith and form ultimately become one.