Thursday of week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Rom 3:21-29

In this beautiful passage we come to the very heart of Paul’s letter. Here, as in the letter to the Galatians, Paul discusses how a person “becomes right” or is “justified” in God’s eyes.  Salvation comes through faith in Christ. In order to understand what Paul is saying we need to remember the context in which he spoke.  In some of the Christian communities there were Jewish Christians who were agitating for the return of the Mosaic Law as the basis for a life in and with God.  They were urging that every Christian, including Gentiles, be circumcised.  Paul, himself a circumcised Jew and formerly a Pharisee, is totally opposed to this movement.

He begins by conceding that “God’s saving justice” was formerly made known through the Law and the Prophets, in other words, through the whole Jewish tradition of the Old Testament.  But now, with the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s “saving justice” is to be seen in a completely new light and no longer dependent on the Law.  That “saving justice” is now given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe in him as Lord and Saviour sent by the Father.  ‘Justice’ or ‘righteousness’ here refers to God’s inherent goodness and infinite loved extended to every single human being.  We are ‘just’ when we are totally in harmony with God’s justice.

Formerly, the Jews regarded themselves as on a different level before God because of the Law but now “no distinction is made: all have sinned and lack God’s glory”.  All lack God’s “glory” in the Old Testament sense, that is to say, God as present to human beings and communicating himself to them more and more, a process that can reach its climax only in the messianic era.

Then comes the key sentence in the passage: “All [Jews and Gentiles alike] are justified by the free gift of his grace through being set free in Christ Jesus.” So much theological blood has been spilt over this one sentence!   For our purposes we will try to keep it simple.  The key words are ‘justified’ and ‘grace’ and ‘set free’.

For ‘justified’ others like to translate ‘made righteous’.  In either case, we are speaking of being put in a state of total harmony with God, the opposite of the alienation that comes from sin.

And this happens by the “free gift of God’s grace“.*  The Greek word translated as ‘grace’ is charis (caris).  Basically, the word means something which is given free and unearned or unmerited and this is the meaning which predominates in the New Testament.  Paul uses the word to describe the way God saves us through Jesus – it is a work of spontaneous love to which none of us has any claim.  It is interesting that John uses the word agape (‘agaph) in the same sense.  Agape is the love that pours out from God on to all his creation and it is the love that we are called on to pass on to others.  “Love consists in this: not that we have loved God but that he has loved us and has sent this Son as an offering for our sin” (1 John 4:10) – exactly the same as Paul is saying to the Romans.

It was, then, an act of ‘grace’, an act of love emanating totally and only from God, for Jesus to come on earth, to suffer and die, for his Father to give him up as a gift to us.  “He did not spare his own Son.”  And with the gift of Jesus’ redemptive act come all other divine favours:  our being justified and saved, ‘put right’ with God, the harmony of the ‘original blessing’ once more fully restored and then, with all this, the right to inherit life without end.

The only condition on our part is our surrendering to him in total faith and trust, without having to perform the works of the Law.  Salvation, then, is total gift and there is nothing we can do of our own which will ‘earn’ it.  God is never, ever in our debt.  (We see this in the scene of the two men praying in the Temple.  The tax collector is bowed humbly at the back begging God’s forgiveness for his many sins;  the Pharisee stands up in front and tells God how good he has been in his keeping of the Law with the implication that God is obliged to reward him accordingly.  It was the tax collector who went away ‘justified’, cf. Luke 18:9-14.)

So Paul says: “God appointed Christ as a sacrifice for reconciliation, through faith, by shedding his blood, and so showed his justness [that is, his total union with the Father]; first for the past, when sins went unpunished because he held his hand.”  On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the ‘throne of mercy’ was sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificed goat.  But now the blood of Christ has done what the ancient ritual could only symbolise – purification from sin.

For many past sins, God “held his hand”, that is, he declined to attach guilt but this only makes sense if total forgiveness and reconciliation were to follow and the complete destruction of man’s sin by justification through the saving death of Christ.

And the same applies “now again for the present age” to show how God is just and makes just everyone who has faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

“What then” asks Paul, “becomes of our boasts?  There is no room for them.”  He is clearly addressing those Jews in the community who are going back to the observance of the Law as the way to God.  The word Paul uses here expresses the attitude of one who boasts of his own achievements, relies on them, and claims to accomplish his supernatural destiny by his own strength.  This attitude is ruled out, since one does not win God’s acquittal by superior strength, one receives it as a gift.  The act of faith excludes self-sufficiency because in it human beings explicitly attest their radical insufficiency.

He asks: “On what principle are these people operating – that only actions count?”  “No!” says Paul, faith in Christ is what counts.   And he repeats what he has already said: “A person is justified by faith and not by doing what the Law tells him to do.”  And that ‘person’ is any person.  “Do you think God is the God only of the Jews, and not of the Gentiles too?  Most certainly of Gentiles too.”  There were those who believed that only the Jews were God’s Chosen People and that salvation for the Gentiles was out of the question.  (Remember the story of Jonah we had recently?)

Summing up, then, it is the ‘law’ of faith, that total giving and surrendering of the self to God in Christ, that saves and not the Law of works.  Salvation is not based on self-initiated acts but by entering into an intimate relationship with a God who reaches out in love (agape) to me and calls me to share his life.  That reaching out in spontaneous love is called here ‘grace’.  My good works are not the down payment by which I ‘buy’ salvation; rather they are the sign of God’s love working in and through me.

(In the scene where the ‘sinful’ woman comes into the house of Simon the Pharisee and pours precious ointment over Jesus’ feet and kisses him passionately, Jesus says, in reply to the scandalised Simon,  “She loves much because her sins have been forgiven.”  Jesus does not say, “Her sins have been forgiven because she loves much.” cf. Luke 7:36-50)

It was around some of these ideas that Martin Luther built his theology which caused him to “protest” and separate from the Church.

There are two extremes we have to avoid.  One is the idea that we “get to heaven” simply by the good works we do, by “keeping the Commandments” so that God owes us salvation, like a worker earns his wages.  This idea, which was proposed by a gentleman called Pelagius, was rejected centuries ago by the Church and came to be known as the “Pelagian heresy”.   Subconsciously, it seems to be still around.

The other extreme is one hears from some non-Catholic Christians which gives the impression that all one needs is to “call on the name of Jesus” and one will be saved.  Good works become totally irrelevant.  But good works are not at all irrelevant.  While good works cannot be totally initiated by us, still good works are the sign of God’s grace-love at work in us. “Faith without good works is dead” as the Letter of James tells us.

God does not love me because I am good; I am good because I allow God’s love to work in and through me.  It is by my faith and openness to Jesus that this becomes possible.  One would have to have serious doubts about Christians who claim to have “faith in Christ” but show nothing of the Gospel spirit in their behaviour.

The more extreme form of “justification by faith” tends to see no goodness at all possible in our behaviour.  We are irrevocably sinful and it is only the blood of Christ “covering over our sins” which makes access to God possible.  The Christian becomes a kind of two-tier person: on top there is this calling on Christ as Saviour but below there is a person irrevocably steeped in sin.

This really was Luther’s solution to his own very scrupulous conscience, overwhelmed and riddled with guilt.  He felt that God could never forgive his sins.  The only answer was for Jesus the Redeemer to turn a blind eye to them.  The person is saved in spite of his sinfulness.  The Catholic position would be that, while faith is essential to win God’s grace, real interior transformation can and does take place.

The former position has lead to a Christian life which makes little accommodation for what we would call an “interior” life.  Classical Protestantism speaks little of spirituality; it has dropped what we call the “religious life” of the monk, friar, nun.  It does not include schools of prayer and contemplation; or the making of retreats.  It rules out the presence of saints and so, many Protestant churches indeed do not recognise saints.  Yet experience makes it difficult to believe that there are not people whose lives are deeply penetrated by the Spirit of Christ, the people we know as saints, canonised or not.  In spite of what some Protestants profess, they often put to shame many of us Catholics by the love and care they show for the poor and the needy.

Another area where some forms of  extreme Protestantism seem to be absent is in concern for the bringing about of the Kingdom on earth, the struggle for justice, freedom and peace.  The focus seems rather on personal salvation and the leading of others to a similar concern.  Everyone who is not calling on Christ in faith is irrevocably lost.  We cannot accept such an interpretation of Paul.

With this there will also be the exclusion of what Karl Rahner called the “anonymous Christian” or what could be called the “Kingdom person”, that is, someone who, though not aware of the Christian message, leads a life which reflects the deepest attitudes of truth, love, justice, community sharing, the dignity and equality of every individual – the values for which Jesus lived and died.  Examples of such people would be Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama among many others.

However, it is gratifying to know that in recent times Catholics and Lutherans (as well as other Protestant groups) have come together in dialogue and, freed from the polemics of an earlier time, have learnt that there is really not so much disagreement over the understanding of Paul’s words.  Many sister churches, too, have been taking back some of the features of the Roman church which they realise were a loss to their living of the Christian life.

On our part, we Catholics are getting a richer concept of faith which, in the past, was often identified with the intellectual acceptance of the Church’s doctrines and an obsession with orthodoxy as the test of a “good” Catholic.  We are becoming more aware that faith as trust and surrender to a loving Christ is so important.


* The Jerusalem Bible has a long note on the understanding of ‘grace’ in the Scriptures.  It is appended at the end of this week’s readings.

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