Commentary on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
The epistle that Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome was a letter he intended to be sent, not to one, but to a number of church communities scattered throughout the city.
Therefore, he knew that he was writing to diverse audiences that did not always agree with one another. He also knew that he was, if you will, coming in on the middle of a conversation. These Christians were not blank slates. They had been living their lives in a variety of cultures both political and religious. Some had been raised as Roman citizens, required to sacrifice to the empire’s gods. Others had been raised in the synagogue, telling the stories of Moses and the children of Israel, following a prescribed set of laws. How do you think that these people, Gentiles or Jews, reacted when told by Paul that none of what they had done would make them right with God? It is not easy to give up old habits.
An important part of the Lenten journey is learning to reject old patterns and old ways of being that keep us from accepting God’s gift of grace and new life. But before we reflect on one such challenge, Paul’s challenge to the law, let us first think about how difficult and challenging it is to change something more mundane; something like crossing the street.
If one was raised in North America one learned, as a child, to cross the street looking first to the left, and then to the right. Why? In North America cars, by law, drive on the right hand side of the road. So, when we travel to the British Isles, something that is second nature to us — crossing, can become dangerous and life threatening. When stepping off the curb we must first look to our right lest we are hit by oncoming traffic. In London they recognize this is a major problem for foreign visitors. If you look down while standing at an intersection you will often see stenciled, in large white letters, the admonition “LOOK RIGHT.”
The old way of thinking about Abraham, Paul tells us, is to think that Abraham was honored and praised by God by his works. Paul wanted people to look in a different direction. Look not to the works of the law, but look to faith.
Abraham was claimed as the father of the children of Israel. However, there was always a problem with Abraham. He had lived before the giving of the Torah, the law, to Moses. How, then, could they say that Abraham had been honored by God for observing the law? For the author of Ecclesiasticus, Sirach, it was not a problem. He simply ignored this reality and declared “Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. He kept the law of the Most High” (Sirach 44:20). Likewise, for Paul, this was not a problem. He saw in Abraham a father, but not a father in the law but rather a father in the faith. It was crucial for Paul that he recast Abraham and challenge Christians to see, in Abraham, a model of a faithful servant of God.
I suspect that there were times that many of the Jewish Christians felt as though they were foreign visitors needing a “LOOK RIGHT” reminder. Here is Paul telling them that Abraham was not justified by his works. What’s more, he declares that the law brings wrath. How can this be? Likewise, how can Gentile Christians claim Abraham as their father?
Abraham was the father of many nations; but Abraham was righteous in the eyes of God, not because he had followed the law (which of course had not been given), nor because he had earned that righteousness (that, after all, is impossible.) No Abraham, Paul observes, was made right with God through God’s gracious gift and because Abraham believed God. We are justified by grace through faith.
Things that Do Not Exist
Paul had experienced God’s amazing, unbelievable, overflowing love and forgiveness. How could God, in Jesus Christ, have forgiven him for all the evil that he had done? How could God accept the one who had sought to murder the disciples of Jesus? Because that is who our God is. For Paul, justification by grace was a theological concept only after it had been a life changing, throw-you-to-the-ground, awe-filled experience. God had offered him new life, and he had believed.
Paul had been raised to think that if he worked hard enough and followed the law, he would find himself right before God. In his letter to the church in Philippi, he records that he had every reason to boast. I was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to seal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). Paul came to understand that he had viewed all of this as “wages.” With God as his master, he was working to earn salvation. But when he met Jesus on that Damascus road he saw that God is not that kind of master. We do not earn our salvation. Rather, salvation is a gift. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7).
In Abraham Paul saw the story of another person who had met God on the road; someone who had had those throw-you-to-the-ground, awe-filled experiences. God told Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2a). And Abram went. Paul knew, Abraham knew that they believed in a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17b).
Lent is a time to “LOOK RIGHT”. It is a time to look for the amazing “things that do not exist” in our lives; those throw-you-to-the-ground, awe-filled moments that God is offering us every day.