4 March 2012
Second Sunday in Lent
Lent 2B (RCL)
Paul holds up Abraham as an example of faith. Abraham “believed” God’s promise to him, despite evidence to the contrary, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. That’s the way we usually interpret this passage from the letter to the Romans. What we “believe” saves us, makes us righteous. I find a fundamental flaw in this way of thinking. Faith, in Greek, didn’t mean what you thought about something, what you “believed”, what opinion you had. It had more to do with trust, than belief. Already, in the first sentence of this reading we have a problem. Richmond Lattimore (a scholar of classical Greek) translates this sentence, “For the promise to Abraham, or his seed, that he should be the inheritor of the world, was not on account of the law, but of the righteousness of his faith.” One troubling little word is not there in the Greek: “his.” Dieter Georgi would translate it this way, “on account of the righteousness that comes from God’s faithfulness.” Big difference.
The Greek supports both translations — maybe that’s Paul’s point. But in the passage we read from Genesis, and which Paul quotes (you shall be the ancestor of many nations), notice that Abraham says not a word. God speaks to Abraham, and the only thing Abraham does is bow his face to the ground. None of the promise is predicated on Abraham’s response, one way or the other. This is God’s doing. If faith is something I do, an opinion I hold, then the promise depends on me.
Paul’s main argument here is that the promises extend to both Jews and Greeks, the heirs of Abraham both according to the law (or convention) and according to faith. We are not told, in the passage that we read from Genesis, that Abraham believed God’s promise or not, simply that he bowed to the ground. God will do this.
The passage from Mark’s Gospel comes just after Peter has confessed Jesus the Christ. Jesus then says that the son of man must suffer many things. Peter objects. This will not happen. Jesus essentially asks Peter, “Are you with me in this thing all the way through?” Paul tells us that Abraham considered himself as good as dead, and was aware of the dead state of Sarah’s womb, but trusted God, because God is the one who brings the dead to life, and calls into existence the things that are not. There is a parallel here in Paul’s mind with the resurrection of Christ.
Faith is as much about loyalty as about belief. Abraham will walk with God through whatever God has in mind. Jesus wants Peter to go wherever this journey takes them. It may not look promising, but, asks Jesus, “Are you all in?” We choose where to place our loyalties. If we are only interested in placing our loyalties where they do us the most good, we will lose our souls in the process. If we place our loyalties with God, with the Gospel and one another, no matter what, we will find life in the end.