Genesis 12.1-9 or
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
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
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.