1st Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings 21.1-10 [11-14] 15-21a
By Robin Griffith-Jones
LUKE tells with great care of the Church’s expansion. Among
those who fled to Antioch after Stephen’s death, some Cypriots and Cyrenians
begin to preach to Gentiles. The Cypriot Barnabas is sent from Jerusalem to
investigate. He is pleased by what he sees; and takes the opportunity to fetch
Paul, by now back in Tarsus, to join him.
Barnabas and Paul are commissioned as missionaries by
Antioch’s church. They reach southern Galatia, preaching to Jews and Gentiles.
The Jews turn against them; and they declare themselves to be missionaries,
from now on, specifically to the Gentiles.
Back at Antioch, visitors from Jerusalem raise an objection:
surely any Gentile converts must undertake to observe the Law. Barnabas and
Paul go to Jerusalem, according to Luke, to debate such Gentiles’ admission.
The set-piece scene of the Jerusalem council is at the very centre of Luke’s
narrative (Acts 15).
James, now head of the church in Jerusalem, proposes four
rules for Gentile converts to observe. Three ban the use of meat from certain
animals: those killed in pagan rituals or in contravention of Jewish laws on
slaughter. The fourth bans sexual laxity. The rules match the minimal
conditions, stipulated by later rabbis, to which any Jew must adhere even under
the direst persecution. The rules provide, as it were, for a minimum of
Jewishness. The Jerusalem leaders send Barnabas and Paul back to Antioch with a
letter laying down the newly agreed regulations.
It is likely that Paul is referring to this conference in
Galatians 2.1-10. (Likely, but not certain: Paul never mentions the decree from
Jerusalem.) He and Barnabas believe themselves wholly vindicated. Their
converts — Jewish and Gentile — are a single community, and quite properly eat
together. Peter, also in Antioch, joins them.
Enter representatives of James. They object fiercely. James
is working for the renewed purity of God’s land and people. Gentiles who
observe the Council’s rulings — Gentiles, that is, who are now on the borders
of Jewishness — are more dangerous to that purity than they had been as
outsiders, before their conversion.
Peter and Barnabas stop sharing meals with Gentile members
of the church. Paul is on his own. He will later write angrily to the
Galatians, invoking the words he had used to Peter. But, however compelling
Paul’s words might be in retrospect, they had been ineffective at the time.
Paul is defeated. He leaves Antioch as a maverick, never to return.
James’s influence spreads through Paul’s churches. Paul
writes to the Galatians to defend his gospel. It is not, he says, through the
"works of the law" — that is, through the Law’s observance — that anyone is
brought into right relation to God (Galatians 2.16). Does Paul have in mind, in
these "works", the arrogance of a humanity that sees its justification in its
own achievements and so claims the right to a reward from God? No.
The Law was God’s greatest blessing upon his people and was
observed by that people in gratitude and faithfulness. In Christ’s death and
rising, however, God has offered a greater blessing that restores us to right
relations with God, as the Law (Paul now believes) never had.
It is through the "faith of Jesus" that our relation with
God is rightened (Galatians 2.16). Paul may well be speaking here not of our
faith in Jesus, but of Jesus’s own faithfulness, his obedient trust in God. Our
trust is a consequence of Christ’s and inspired by it.
"I have been crucified," says Paul, "together with Christ"
(2.19). For he has been baptised into the death of Christ (Romans 6.3). Death,
then, has been passed. Paul the visionary, who has been seized up to Paradise,
the home of the righteous dead, now lives their life. For that first
generation, looking forward to Christ’s quick return, death lay behind and not
ahead; the road to heaven lay open.
Jews, Gentiles and the Law’s observance: Luke himself,
writing in the 80s, is adamant that within the Church the battle is over. But
the Law and its adherents are an issue still, beneath the surface of his story
of Jesus. All four Gospels tell a story of a woman who anoints Jesus (Matthew
26.6-13, Mark 14.3-9, John 12.1-8). Luke puts his elaborate version straight
after the complaint, recorded by Jesus himself, that the Son of Man is a friend
of sinners (Luke 7.34).
Only Luke describes the woman as a "sinner" and Jesus’s host
as a "Pharisee", zealous for the Law. Such is Luke’s care for the woman and her
acceptance that the end of his story is unclear. At first sight, she has been
forgiven because of her love (Luke 7.47). But this runs counter to the rest of
the story: to Jesus’s short parable of the debtors; and to his following
remark, "Whoever is forgiven little, loves little."
Jesus does not suggest that forgiveness follows love; but
that love follows forgiveness. Does the woman, then, love because she has been
forgiven? In this case, 7.47 reads, "Her sins, her many sins, are forgiven,
[and we know this] because she loves much." It is unclear, though, how she
knows of this forgiveness, prior to Jesus’s next and climactic words: "Your
sins are forgiven . . . Your faith has saved you."
Luke is drawing — even at the cost of some confusion — the
strongest contrast he can between the woman’s passionate trust and the cool
courtesy of the Pharisee.