Friday of Week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Romans 4:1-8

Paul continues his theme about the gratuitousness of God’s love and salvation for us.  He uses Abraham as an example. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, the great patriarch of the Jewish nation, the true example of a “justified” person, but he also preceded the introduction of the Mosaic Law and knew nothing of such a law.  As much of what Paul is saying is directed to his fellow Jews, his choice of Abraham, the ancestor of all God’s people, is not without significance.

Could Abraham have been “justified by works” by God merely on the basis of what he had achieved in his lifetime?  Actually, Jewish tradition, preoccupied with Abraham’s loyalty and his fortitude under trial, had made him the outstanding example of justification by works. The Jews believed his greatness was in what he achieved.  Paul agrees that Abraham certainly could have grounds for making that claim.  However, he asserts that this justification and these works have their source in Abraham’s faith.

And Paul believes that he has Scripture on his side.  He quotes from Genesis (15:6): 

Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

There is no mention here of him doing anything.  He was rewarded purely for his trusting faith in God.  Abraham had kept no law (it did not yet exist), rendered no service and performed no regular ritual that earned credit to his account before God.  It was his belief in God, who had made promises to him, which was credited to him as righteousness.

There are three ways in which the quotation can be understood:

  1. Because of his faith, Abraham was regarded as an upright man, though in reality he was not.
  2. Because of his faith, God had conferred on him an uprightness that was not his when he came to believe (but may have come later).
  3. In God’s eyes faith and uprightness are so interdependent that they are really inseparable.

Only the last of these three would seem to be consistent with Paul’s teaching.  A person who has totally surrendered to Jesus and his Way in faith and trust is going to be a good and loving person, or at least, moving inevitably in that direction.

The story of Abraham gives several examples of this faith and trust.  He was first asked to leave his homeland and go to a distant land where his descendants would live, and he did so.  Although his wife was well beyond the age for childbearing, God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the skies or the grains of sand on the seashore.  Abraham put his trust in the Lord’s word and he did indeed have a son, Isaac.

Then, sometime later, God – incredibly – asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the only legitimate heir who could give him descendants, and Abraham proceeded to do the Lord’s bidding but, once his faith was proved, God stopped him at the last minute.

When a man works, says Paul, his wages are not a gift; they are his due:

But to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

The man does nothing, not because he is lazy but because he knows only God can produce results.  On the other hand, as we have said, the person full of faith will, by that very act, also be full of good works.

Paul finishes by quoting words of David (Psalm 32:1-2) applied to “those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works”:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

It is as if God no longer sees or does not want to see the bad that we have done, and removes from us all guilt.  But that does not mean we can just sit back and relax. “Why worry?  I just have to say ‘I believe in the Lord Jesus’ and God covers over all my sins.”  No, on my part, I need to open my heart to that loving compassion of God that has been revealed by the pouring out of Jesus’ blood on the cross.  That has to have an effect on my behaviour.

I have to say a big and unconditional ‘Yes’ to Jesus’ invitation actively to follow him, even though it will happen only with his help all the way.  It will mean saying an equally big ‘No’ to many things which I know are in conflict with the Way of Jesus.

It is important to remember, too, that the root of the sin is not in the action, but rather in one’s relationship with God.  Once I am fully reconciled with Jesus by throwing myself at his feet in faith and sorrow, he takes me back in exactly the same way that the father of the Prodigal Son took his wayward son back. All is forgotten; healing has taken place.  The relationship is fully restored even though the effects of my act may still endure.  God only sees me as I am here and now.  And I respond to him in faith – now.

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