Next week's readings:2nd Sunday after Trinity

by
02 November 2006

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Genesis 12.1-9 or Hosea 5.15-6.6

Romans 4.13-end

Matthew 9.9-13, 18-26

THE GOSPEL of Judaism is the gospel of God’s forgiveness for those who repent and return to the covenant. Only those who flout the covenant are beyond forgiveness: those who ignore the covenant’s demands for moral and ritual purity, and who do nothing to recover that purity when (inevitably) it is impaired. “I will return to my place”, says Hosea’s God, “until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and seek me, saying ‘Come, let us return to the Lord’” (Hosea 5.15-6.1).

The covenant’s conditions were laid down in the Law. But Paul insists: “Now apart from Law, the justifying power of God has been made manifest, to which the Law and the prophets bore witness: the justifying power of God through the faith of Christ Jesus” (Romans 3.21). We readily assume that Paul is speaking of the Christian’s faith in Jesus. But he probably had more in mind than this.

Paul will speak later of Abraham, “the father of many nations” (Genesis 17.4-5, Romans 4.17). The promise made to Abraham was made “to all his seed, not just the seed dependent on the Law but also the seed dependent on the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Romans 4.16). This “faith of Abraham” was Abraham’s faithful trust in God, long prior to the Law. Paul may well be dwelling, too, on Jesus’s faithful trust in God; and only then on our own consequent trust in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (Romans 4.24).

Such is the faith that brings membership of the new covenant, “the covenant not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3.6). But how could there have been anything wrong with the old covenant, offered by God to his own people? Perhaps the old covenant encouraged the Jews to seek “their own justification” by their own merits, and so to establish a claim upon God (Romans 10.30-32). But this does not seem true to any Judaism of Paul’s time.

Perhaps, then, the solution came before the problem in Paul’s thought: it was only in the light of the new covenant that the old covenant seemed deficient; for the exalted Jesus who had been cursed under the Law (Galatians 3.13) must have transcended the Law.

Paul had been a Pharisee, “blameless as to justification under the Law” (Philippians 3.6). The Pharisees sought to maintain, in their daily lives, wherever in the Holy Land they lived, the level of ritual purity demanded for those entering the Temple; for the Holy Land was itself God’s Temple. Jesus clearly ignored the regulations that mattered deeply to the Pharisees. The woman with a haemorrhage touched Jesus, and so made him ritually impure (Leviticus 15.19, 25); he was unconcerned.

Table-fellowship was hedged about with such regulations. The Mishnah records that those who sought to live in heightened purity should not eat at the table of others who did not, nor invite such others — without further conditions — to eat at their table. Far more Jews would have avoided eating with those regarded as patently sinful. The Talmud lists some intrinsically immoral trades, among them: usury, tax-collection, and (through the concessions, bought from the Romans, for farming indirect revenue) tax-farming. But Jesus ate freely “with tax-farmers and sinners” (Matthew 9.11) — such as the Matthew he called (Matthew 9.9).

No wonder the Pharisees were offended. Jesus could sensibly point out that a doctor needed to have contact with his patients (Matthew 9.12). But only once in the Gospels — in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10) — is salvation linked with repentance and restitution. It is not clear how Jesus is healing sinners, if he generally leaves them after a good meal simply as he found them before it. Perhaps Jesus took a longer-term view of repentance than his opponents; he may hardly, then, have spoken of it openly at all.

But such an argument still assumes we should read each Gospel as a series of isolated stories; and so misses the Gospels’ point. Every story has been placed by its evangelist to serve the Gospel’s aim as a whole.

Jesus accepts readers, at the Gospels’ start, who might think they are beyond the pale of God’s mercy. Luke invites such readers, by the end of the journey to Jerusalem, to respond as Zacchaeus responded. The reader now hears what Zacchaeus heard: “Today salvation has come to this house. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

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