(Lent 2A Romans 4:1-5, 13-17)
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, NRSV)
Every week I listen to the NPR Religion podcast, and yesterday I heard a piece about the way Mike Huckabee, who is both a preacher and a politician, uses Biblical references in his speeches. The correspondent interviewed people walking by in Washington, DC, to ask if they recognized the images Huckabee employed.
The general Biblical illiteracy of the responders saddened me. Because Huckabee refers to loaves and fishes, but not Jesus, or to a smooth stone being better than armor, rather than to David and Goliath, he speaks in a code that the average person, even the average CHURCHED person, may not understand. Churchgoers thought the first story referred to Moses and the second was a message about peace. Sheesh.
So I wonder, when we read Paul, are we not too quick to impose upon this letter written by a particular person to a particular group of people too much of our own ignorance of his context?
Without going to the reference sources, and going only on what I remember of my learning from seminary (now half a dozen years gone by), I would say he is reassuring a group of Roman Christians that being Jewish is not the be-all and end-all, that following the Hebrew Law gets the appreciation it deserves, but believing in God without knowing all about the Law is really what matters, as far as Paul is concerned.
And over 1900 years we have twisted and turned Paul's words into all sorts of pretzels, because we do not know to whom he wrote, and frankly we do not care, because we have become accustomed to reading the Bible in our own context, without reference to whence it came.