A Provocation: Trinity Sunday: Romans 5:1-5

A Question:

“…we have peace with God…” Romans 5:1

  • Who is this “we” of which you speak?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, who is the “we”?

It must be us, don’t  you suppose?  After all it is our Bible, and Paul is our apostle (especially if we are Lutheran), and Romans (ESPECIALLY if we are Lutheran) is our favorite.  And it is, after all, OUR LORD Jesus Christ.

But, of course, there were no Lutherans among Paul’s acquaintances.  There weren’t even any people that we would recognize as “Christians like us.”

All of that is pretty basic stuff.

But who does Paul mean when he says that “we” have peace with God?

Some are Jews.  Some are Gentiles.  And, if Mark Nanos is right (along with Daniel Boyarin, for that matter), then not all of the Jews are messianists; some, but not all, are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, but all are part of the same mixed, complicated synagogue community.

The discussion in Romans 4 gives some clues, at least if you read it attentively.

Christian interpreters have generally read this chapter as “correcting” Jewish (mis)understandings of the Law.  In such interpretive schemes, Jews have misread the Law as if it were a guide to earning God’s favor.  Fortunately, according to this common Christian reading, Paul came along (following Jesus) to teach Jews that the non-observant Gentile followers of Jesus actually understood faith better than did the historic Jewish faith.

Whew.

Mark Nanos (see especially The Mystery of Romans) reads this differently.

So do I.

Frankly, I don’t know any Jews who think that Torah observance earns God’s gracious favor.  Torah observance creates safe spaces for human life and points toward the God who loves Creation.  Torah observance protects the vulnerable and upholds lives of self-control.  It is not a surprise that Abraham could be a model of faithfulness even before the Jews had been given either the command to circumcise or the Ten Commandments.  Jews have long known that faithfulness sometimes emerges out of the most unlikely lives.  You don’t always have to KNOW Torah to DO Torah.  This recognition can be found in the words of the prophets and in the teaching of Jesus.   It doesn’t hurt to know Torah, but it matters that you actually DO it.

But Paul’s argument in chapter 4 is more interesting even than that.  His argument hangs on how we understand the word pistis, which is usually translated (at least when Christians are translating the Bible) as “faith.”  “Faith,” when Christians use the word, is generally understood negatively: it is whatever “works” is not.  “Faith,” in popular Christian use, is an inner disposition of the soul, a feeling of being related to God, a sense that “it is well with my soul,” to quote an old gospel song that my father loved.

These understandings of “faith” are well-established, and have been useful to generations of Christians.

They are also more likely to grow out of the soil of American Protestantism than of ancient Judaism.  And Paul was an ancient Jew.

When translating pistis in an ancient Jewish text, it is best to read it as “faithfulness.”  And it is best to understand it the way it faithfulness functions in Jewish life and practice, in the ancient world and in our world.  “Faithfulness” names Torah-observance, that religious practice that shapes an entire life into a witness to the lovingkindness of God.  “Faithfulness” describes a life dedicated to caring for the widow and orphan, to defending the vulnerable, to doing the things that the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that God preferred to the usual religious rigamarole involving ritual and sanctimonious song.

Paul’s argument in chapter 4 is that Abraham did not engage in meritorious “works” so as to earn God’s favor.  Abraham lived a life of faithfulness, and God reckoned it as Torah observance, even without a Torah to observe.

From another angle, Abraham did not perform individual works that guarantee God’s approval.  The word that Paul uses in this chapter is ergon, a word that implies the strenuous expenditure of energy.  Paul says that Abraham did not do that.  He did not perform circumcision.  He did not keep perfect kosher.  He did not engage in strenuous observance of any religious act in order to be accepted.

But someone did those things, and strenuously.

If Mark Nanos is correct, it was the Gentile wannabes who did all of those things strenuously.  That is the way it is with converts.  They are often holier than anyone has ever been.  I have heard Native Americans talk about European Americans who think that they are more Indian than actual Indians.  I know people who have become Lutheran (or Roman Catholic, or Baptist) who are loud in their practice of their new faith, louder (and often ruder) than anyone who was actually raised in the community.  And it appears that some of the Gentile converts to messianism were like that, as well.

For instance, the converts Paul wrote to in Galatians were convinced that their religious zeal made them better Jews than anyone.  And the converts in Rome appear to have suffered from a similar malady, though from a different angle.  Both sets of converts have misunderstood faithfulness at a basic level.  They think that circumcision, for instance, is either a strenuous act to be bragged about or a matter of no importance at all, a trifle that only “foolish Jews” would value.  Paul argues in Romans 4 that “we” have always known that circumcision is a sign and seal on a life devoted to “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.”  To put it another way, circumcision signifies a life of faithfulness.  It is a religious act, not an accomplishment.

So, when Paul says “we” in Romans 5, he means, first of all, Jews (whether they are messianists or not).  Jews, he argues, have peace with God.  This is an understanding that he will repeat in Romans 11.

And, when Paul says “we,” he means to make an indirect argument to the Gentile messianists in the audience who have misunderstood what it means that Jesus is both Jewish and the Messiah.

WE, meaning “we all,” have peace with God.

And we have this peace together, as Jews and Gentiles, through the merciful act of God in Jesus, the Messiah.  This is a miracle bigger even than the resurrection of Jesus from death.  God is, through the faithfulness of the Messiah, bringing the entire Creation back together.

That miracle is needed now more than ever.  Religion has functioned to divide people, families, communities, and nations.  We have convinced ourselves that God wants us to make these divisions as sharply as possible.  We have convinced ourselves that God cheers when we declare that Islam is not a religion of peace, or that Judaism is rigidly legalistic, or that Christians are to be judged by the most fanatically ignorant examples of the faith, or that atheists cannot possibly practice morality.  In each case religion chops the Creation into jagged shards that reject each other.

Since the audience for these Provocations is Christian for the most part, I will address myself to Christians.  Perhaps we ought to practice believing that WE have peace with God through the work of God in Jesus the Messiah.  Perhaps we ought to practice imagining that the “we” includes all of Creation.

Imagine that.

 

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