LENT is a time for new challenges and new beginnings. Christians see the change in Abram and Sarai’s names as just such a new beginning for them both, for the nation which will come from them, and, ultimately, for Christianity, too. We follow Paul’s complex exegesis, which relies on an etymology of Abraham as “father of many nations”.
Paul takes a fresh approach to salvation history, looking back beyond the giving of the law, and basing salvation in a relationship of mutual regard rather than in 613 commandments, or mitzvot (a traditional numbering of the Mosaic law) — or, as we might say, in the wood rather than the trees, or the metanarrative (the overarching theme) rather than the detail.
Paul has already made the point that Abraham was made righteous (4.1-8) by faith, and that he was made righteous before he was circumcised (Romans 4.9-12). Some early Jewish exegetes argued that Abraham was righteous either because he already kept the law before it was revealed to Moses (Genesis 26.5) or on the grounds of his obedience in being ready to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22.9-10). The word for being “made righteous” can also be translated as “justified”. This latter is a compound of the Latin words for “justice” and “making”. “Justification by faith” (“by faith alone”, according to Luther) later became a cornerstone of the Reformation.
This linguistic forest risks obscuring the single tree. If Paul is right, then “righteousness” is not to be found in behaviour (what we do), or in belief (what we think), but in something that God does to (and with, and in, and for, and through) us. In other words, it’s the passive (“was made righteous”) that counts.
Perhaps it’s a “theological passive”, a way of saying “God made us righteous.” Unfortunately, the passive that completes Paul’s argument, dikaiothentes, is held over to the start of Romans 5, which won’t be read at a Sunday principal service for another two weeks. We also have to bear in mind that “faith”, for Paul, is not propositional, a checklist of correct opinions: it is a state of being, much closer in feel to our word “trust”.
It can be hard to make sense of all this. Modern translations tend to say that Abraham was “made righteous”. That emphasises the inner, spiritual, ethical dimensions of right behaviour towards God, whereas “justification”, in colloquial English, sounds like making excuses, and in formal language sounds legalistic.
The division between outward observance and inner disposition is one of the most fundamental in Christianity (and, no doubt, in other faiths, too). On the one hand, interior disposition is worthless without corresponding behaviour (James 2.18); on the other, outward observance without the right motivation of the heart is criticised repeatedly by Jesus (Matthew 23.23, 27) and by the prophets.
Like many puzzles in Christian faith (the existence of evil; theodicy), this one — our “righteousness” or “justification” — turns out to be a tension that we have to live with. The puzzle itself is God’s gift to us, the only way for Christians to avoid the twin extremes of arrogance and despair.
We have another puzzle to tackle with this Gospel. Unless the eternal Christ is peeping out for a moment from behind the human Jesus, how does the taking up of a cross make any sense at this point in Jesus’s ministry? Sceptical commentators dismiss it as retrojection. Making Jesus aware of what will befall him before it happens helps to reduce the stigma of a shameful death. Centuries of art and worship have gradually anaesthetised that acute pain. But, when the NT was being written, it was a slave’s death, a sharp and fresh embarrassment.
The Lord’s command to take up a cross is a response to Peter’s rebuke of him for speaking openly of his death. It must have been a horrible shock for Peter, after he had offered words that were meant to reassure Jesus (“Don’t be silly — of course you’re going to be successful”), to hear himself addressed as Satan, “the Adversary”.
The warning that Jesus then delivers comes fully into focus only in Mark 14.66-72. Being ashamed of openly following Jesus, even when “we believe and trust in him,” may be understandable in a society intolerant of religious belief and ignorant of religious praxis. But it is still a challenge that Christians must confront, not wish away.