Proper 4A

Last revised: June 17, 2020
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PROPER 4 (May 29 – June 4) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 9
RCL: Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19; Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28 [29-31]; Matthew 7:21-29
RoCa: Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32; Romans 3:21-25a, 28; Matthew 7:21-27

Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32


1. Charles Mabee, “Text as Peacemaker: Deuteronomic Innovations in Violence Detoxification,” in Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, ed. by Willard M. Swartley, 70-84.

Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28 [29-31]

Exegetical Notes

1. Vs 22: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” What is significant for me is that this is another instance in which wording from St. Paul is translated as “faith in Jesus Christ,” a good Protestant rendering that emphasizes our having faith in Christ. But the most reliable writings of Paul never use the most common Greek word for “in,” which is en. Eph 1:15 and Col 1:4 use the preposition en for “faith in Christ,” but the Pauline authorship is contested. Most often in the uncontested letters of Paul, he uses a genitive construction pisteos Christou (e.g., Romans 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16, 3:22; Phil 3:9), which can be translated either as “faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ.” The former is the more typical way to translate a genitive construction, but the latter is the way that all modern translators choose to translate this particular one. A similarly structured genitive construction is used by Paul with regards to Abraham in Romans 4:16 and to the gospel in Phil 1:27, and the translators switch back to the usual way: “faith of Abraham” and “faith of the gospel.” (It wouldn’t make sense to say “faith in Abraham”!) See my comments on the significance of this exegetical note below.

2. Among those who corroborate this reading is N. T. Wright in the New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 10):

This righteousness, this world-righting covenant faithfulness, has been revealed “through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.” Though the phrase could mean “through faith in Jesus the Messiah,” the entire argument of the section strongly suggests that it is Jesus’ own pistis that is spoken of and that the word here means “faithfulness,” not “faith” (see the NRSV note and the secondary literature referred to in the Overview). This is not to say that Jesus himself was “justified by faith.” Nor does Paul envisage him, as does Hebrews, as the “pioneer” of Christian faith, the first one to believe in the way that Christians now believe (Heb 12:1-3). Nor is his “faith” a kind of meritorious work, an “active obedience” to be then accredited to those who belong to him. To be sure, Paul would have agreed that Jesus believed in the one he called Abba, Father, and that this faith sustained him in total obedience; but this is not the point he is making here. The point here is that Jesus has offered to God, at last, the faithfulness Israel had denied (3:2-3).A further reason why pistis ‘Iesou Christou here is likely to refer to Jesus’ own faithfulness is that, if taken instead to refer to the faith Christians have “in” Jesus, the next phrase (“for all who believe”) becomes almost entirely redundant, adding only the (admittedly important) “all.” The train of thought is clearer if we read it as “through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who believe.” This then corresponds closely to the reading suggested above for 1:17: from God’s faithfulness to answering human faith. (It is also very close to Gal 3:22, where similar discussions have taken place.) [p. 470]


1. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). In recent years I have come to see this theme as the Gospel itself, primarily from Ephesians 2 which proclaims the Gospel of grace as God creating one new humanity in place of the two (2:15). For more on this, see the Opening Comments for Proper 6A (Proper 4A is encountered only when Year A sees the earliest dates for Easter). Here we continue with a general overview of McLaren’s important reading of Romans; he writes:

[Paul] is the guy simultaneously defending the right of the gentile Christians to be different and struggling to keep Jews and Gentiles working together as one community.

So, the more I read and reread Romans and tried to make sense of its message, the more I became convinced that Paul never intended his letter to be an exposition on the gospel. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would soon fulfill that exposition role quite well. Instead, Romans aimed to address a more immediate, practical question in the early Christian movement less than twenty-five years after Jesus’s death and resurrection: How could Jews and Gentiles in all their untamed diversity come and remain together as peers in the kingdom of God without having first- and second-class Christians, on the one hand, and, on the other, without being homogenized like a McDonald’s franchise with the same menu, same pricing, same bathroom soap?

When we “Romans Protestants” want to prove that Romans is an exposition of the gospel, we often quote these words from the letter’s introduction: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (1:16). But in so doing, we leave out the last nine words of the sentence: “to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.” Those words, it turns out, aren’t filler: they’re the point. (pp. 143-144)

Ch. 15, “Jesus and the Kingdom of God,” thus makes a unified reading of Romans under this theme, in seven “moves”:

  • First Move: Reduce Jew and Gentile to the same level of need (Rom. 1:18-3:20).
  • Second Move: Announce a new way forward for all, Jew and Gentile: the way of faith (Rom. 3:21-4:25).
  • Third Move: Unite all in a common story, with four illustrations: Adam, baptism, slavery, and remarriage (Rom. 5:1-7:6).
  • Fourth Move: Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory, illustrated by two stories: the Story of Me and the Story of We (Rom. 7:7-8:39).
  • Fifth Move: Address Jewish and gentile problems, showing God as God of all (Rom. 9:1-11:36).
  • Sixth Move: Engage all in a common life and mission (Rom. 12:1-13:14).
  • Seventh Move: Call everyone to unity in the kingdom of God (Rom. 14:1-16:27).

Today’s passage begins the Second Move, where McLaren writes:

Having convicted both Jews and Gentiles equally as sinners, Paul now points both Jews and Gentiles toward the way out: not a new doctrine, not a new religion, and not trying harder at the old religion either, but faith. Religious laws and practices are inherently exclusive; you’re either circumcised or not, and either you keep kosher or you don’t. But faith — having reverent confidence or dependence on God — is an option available to everyone. So, Paul concludes, God is the God of the Jews and the God of the Gentiles, and God has chosen, freely, through grace, to put everyone who believes in the same two categories: guilty sinners (in move one) and liberated/justified by grace through faith (in move two). (pp. 148-49)

2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 118, as an example of God’s forgiving love revealed to us the resurrection; p. 126, 135, in elaborating the Pauline witness and the transformation of God’s wrath; p. 155, in elaborating the Pauline understanding of desire; p. 181, in commenting on the universality of sin.

3. James Alison, Knowing Jesus, pp. 80-84, 89-93; a brilliant section, which I’ve excerpted, on “justification by faith.” My comments below relate to “justification by faith” by placing emphasis on Christ’s faith as what justifies us, rather than our modern emphasis on the faith of each individual’s faith in Jesus being the primary ticket to justification. This section by Alison on “justification by faith” lends another Girardian angle on this crucial matter by emphasizing the collective nature of justification over the usual individualistic approach. In Jesus Christ, we experience the grace of renewed belonging in community because our justification is no longer over-against anyone else.

4. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #3.

5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 80-81.

6. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (see my review on the page). This is now the definitive book that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. Campbell has four chapters, roughly 135 pages (601-735), covering Romans 3:21-31, as the heart of his argument that it is time for heirs of the Reformation to give up their Justification theology. Chapter 17, “The Deliverance of God, and Its Rhetorical Implications,” argues that dikaiosyne in Paul means liberation, deliverance, rather than a forensic imputation of rightness or justification. Paul’s Gospel is about creation being delivered from the powers of sin and death, through an unconditionally gracious rescue operation by God’s faithful Messiah — instead of an imputation of “justified” graciously stamped on a “totally depraved” humanity. The latter Justification theology either devolves into a conditional grace based on the faith of the believer, instead of being based on the fidelity of the Messiah to his rescue mission, or it ends up wandering down the Calvinist path of double predestination, conditioned on God’s election of some but not others. (Luther seemingly chose the path of mysticism, refusing to go down the path of double predestination due to the mystery of God’s grace. Campbell instead chooses the Luther who centers his theology on a God who delivers the ungodly [Rom 4:5; 5:6] — in other words, all of humanity — as the Luther of unconditional grace. The other Luther reads Romans 1-3 in a flawed way that wanders down the path of conditional grace — short of double predestination.) Either way, the primary interpretations of Justification theology mean a conditional grace instead of the unconditional grace that the Reformation thought it stood for.

7. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”

8. There is extensive commentary on this passage, including an alternate translation, on the page for Reformation Day. Also, see “My Core Convictions,” Part IV.2.

Reflections and Questions

1. I believe that translating pisteos Christou only in its objective form (“faith in Christ”) is a mistranslation of Paul which has led to a new works righteousness of Protestantism, based on the work of our believing: my act of believing becomes the only work that counts for salvation. On the contrary, I think that Paul is saying in this passage that righteousness comes from neither what we do or what we believe (which is, after all, still something we do). Righteousness comes solely through Jesus Christ, both from what he did and from the relationship with God which he faithfully lived out. I think that Paul’s short-hand way of saying this is pisteos Hiesou Christou, “the faith of Jesus Christ.” When we translate this phrase as “faith in Christ” it too easily becomes a matter of our being saved by virtue of what we believe. When we translate it as “the faith of Christ” the emphasis more properly remains on Christ, instead of on us. What saves us is Christ’s faith, which is commuted to us through the Holy Spirit so that his faith might live in us. It is his faith living in us that saves us and makes a new creation. Christ’s faith living in us definitively affects both our doing and believing.

2. Mimetic theory accounts for this difference in interpretations through its Trinitarian pattern of relationships. Modern, romantic theories of relations see only the subject-object split. Personal states of being (desire), such as beliefs, are thus simply a matter of each person’s control in relationship to the object. We either believe in Christ, for example, or we don’t. Strictly personal choice.

Mimetic theory, on the other hand, sees personal states of being, such as desire or belief, in terms of the triangle of relationships between the triad of: subject — model/rival — object. We come by states of being such as belief via the Other. So the question is not simply a matter of choosing between beliefs; it also involves being in relationship with the right model of belief. For St. Paul this meant faith in Christ, i.e., being in relationship with the right model for one’s whole life, for one’s very being. The genitive construction pisteos Christou can thus be interpreted, under the light of mimetic theory, in both the objective and subjective modes at the same time. Christ can be both our model for faith and the object of our faith. With the dualistic interpretation of subject-object, the depth of relationship is lost, and it simply becomes a matter of my believing (subject) in Christ (object). I no longer fit Christ’s faith into the web of relationships as the essential key to my being able to come to faith in Christ in the first place.

This is what has happened, I think, to the Christian faith, especially in its Protestant variety (ironic, then, that this passage is a centerpiece for Reformation Day). It has lost its depth and breadth and become, like everything in the modern world, simply a matter of personal choice. My believing in Christ becomes its own form of works righteousness, something I must do to earn righteousness from God. Mimetic theory can provide the corrective to our understanding of faith, I think, just as its has done with desire. (Isn’t faith ultimately a desire?)

Link here to a sermon, entitled “Saved by the Faith of Jesus Christ,” that makes use of these insights, both the exegetical insight into anchoring faith in the faith of Christ, and Alison’s into the collective nature of faith.

Matthew 7:21-29


1. Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, The “Anthropological Reading” for the page on Proper 4A begins with a mystery quote that you’ll find very interesting. It leads into a discussion of the crisis facing American Christianity, of which Hardin says:

The crisis of American Christianity can be seen most clearly in that the ‘ethic’ proposed in the Sermon on the Mount is perceived by most to be either an ideal or an interim ethic; it is lofty but not practical. Well, it worked for Jesus and so it will work for those who are willing to hear and apply what he has said. So when we read in commentaries that ‘this otherworldly ethic’ must be compromised we can be certain that the commentator has not understood the crisis that Jesus’ life of love and forgiveness provokes in a culture of madness and violence.The Sermon on the Mount is not a possibility among possibilities, nor is it to be construed as a high value to be sought. Rather, the Sermon on the Mount is the pre-eminent text that calls us out of our cultural formation into another kind of life, another kind of living and relating, and it is only possible when we do so in faith and trust that the Abba who cares for the creation (6:25-34) is also the Abba to whom we pray (6:9-14).

2. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 156.

3. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 166.

4. Richard B. Hays, “Violence in Defense of Justice,” ch. 14 of The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins, 1996). This is not a Girardian resource, but I’ve benefitted from this chapter a great deal in reflecting on the call of nonviolent response to violence. This chapter does a close reading of the Sermon on the Mount in arguing that the New Testament does not allow for violence in any situations, not even in defense of justice.

This argument only works if there is ultimately an eschatological background. Hays cites the image of building one’s house on a rock in supporting such an eschatological background:

New Creation. None of the New Testament’s witness makes any sense unless the nonviolent, enemy-loving community is to be vindicated by the resurrection of the dead. Death does not have the final word; in the resurrection of Jesus the power of God has triumphed over the power of violence and prefigured the redemption of all creation. The church lives in the present time as a sign of the new order that God has promised. All of the New Testament texts dealing with violence must therefore be read in this eschatological perspective. For example, even though Matthew 5:38-48 contains no explicit reference to eschatology, its directives must be read through the lens of the image of new creation. Otherwise, “Turn the other cheek” becomes a mundane proverb for how to cope with conflict. But this is ridiculous: if the world is always to go on as it does now, if the logic that ultimately governs the world is the immanent logic of the rulers of this age, then the meek are the losers and their cheek-turning only invites more senseless abuse. As a mundane proverb, “Turn the other cheek” is simply bad advice. Such action makes sense only if the God and Father of Jesus Christ actually is the ultimate judge of the world and if his will for his people is definitively revealed in Jesus. To use Matthew’s own language, turning the other cheek makes sense if and only if it really is true that the meek will inherit the earth, if and only if it really is true that those who act on Jesus’ words have built their house on a rock so that it will stand in the day of judgment. Turning the other cheek makes sense if and only if all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus.Or, to take another example, Paul’s counsel that we should bless our persecutors, eschew vengeance, and give food and drink to our enemies makes sense if and only if it really is true that “the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom. 13:12) — the day when all creation will he set free from bondage (Rom. 8:18-25). To put this in theological shorthand, the New Testament’s ethical teaching must always be situated within the context of eschatological hope. If we fail to read the New Testament texts on violence through the lens of new creation, we will fall into one of two opposing errors: either we will fall into a foolish utopianism that expects an evil world to receive our nice gestures with friendly smiles, or we will despair of the possibility of living under the “unrealistic” standards exemplified by Jesus. But if we do read the texts through the lens of new creation, we will see that the church is called to stand as God’s sign of promise in a dark world. Once we see that, our way, however difficult, will be clear. (pp. 338-339)

In a similar vein, he says:

Let it be said clearly, however, that the reasons for choosing Jesus’ way of peacemaking are not prudential. In calculable terms, this way is sheer folly. Why do we choose the way of nonviolent love of enemies? If our reasons for that choice are shaped by the New Testament, we are motivated not by the sheer horror of war, not by the desire for saving our own skins and the skins of our children (if we are trying to save our skins, pacifism is a very poor strategy), not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, not by the naive hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing nonviolence are shaped by the New Testament witness, we act in simple obedience to the God who willed that his own Son should give himself up to death on a cross. We make this choice in the hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. That is the life of discipleship to which the New Testament repeatedly calls us. When the church as a community is faithful to that calling, it prefigures the peaceable kingdom of God in a world wracked by violence. (p. 343)

5. See Epiphany 4A for more resources on the Sermon on the Mount.

6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 2, 2002 (Woodside Village Church); and sermon from June 1, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).

Reflections and Questions

1. Matthew’s emphasis on acting according to Christ’s teaching seems to contradict Paul’s emphasis on faith over works. As a Lutheran, I feel that the Luther’s understanding of faith was inadequate to reconcile the two. It’s a bigger problem than simply saying that a faith response produces the fruit of good works, as if it is a sequential matter: faith then good works, not the other way around. If faith is understood as a collective experience poured out on the church through the Holy Spirit, ala Alison’s understanding in the essay excerpted above, then good works are all part and parcel of living in the faith of Christ.

2. If faith is an individualistic matter, then aren’t the anabaptists right about infant baptism? Infant baptism only makes sense if faith is a collective experience of the Holy Spirit being poured out through word and sacrament in the church. An individual’s experience of faith is never disconnected from the ecclesial transmission of faith.

3. There is also the aspect of faith which is rooted in an understanding of the cross as the double revelation concerning violence: the anthropological revelation of sacred violence as the foundation for human culture, and the theological revelation of God’s absolutely nonviolent response to our problem of violence. When we talk about the “faith of Jesus Christ,” I think we are very much talking about Christ’s faith in God’s nonviolent solution to our violence, the faith which took him to the cross. This revelation is still resonating with me after my dream encounter with the John 20:19-31 text of Easter 2A. Thomas’ doubt had to do with the marks of Jesus death, i.e., with the fact that he was shamefully executed. (See the sermonDreaming of Peace.”) How could that be God’s answer to save God’s people from oppressive violence? It is the faith of the Sermon on the Mount, as eloquently expressed by Richard Hays.

4. The greater problem for me, then, is that, since the time of Constantine, the expression of Christ’s faith in God’s nonviolent response to violence has been carried on by a minority. In our day, it is the anabaptists, who de-emphasize the sacraments, who have been the most faithful to clinging to faith in nonviolence. And the church traditions which most fervently emphasize the sacraments do not otherwise show much faith in nonviolence. This is a greater problem to me than Matthew’s supposed emphasis on good works vs. Paul’s emphasis on faith. When faith is experienced in the context of the Sermon on the Mount’s faith in a nonviolent response to violence, then I think Paul and Matthew can be easily reconciled. In several weeks, we will read Paul’s anchoring of the whole matter of faith in God’s love for us even while we were still enemies. Romans 5:8 is of the same mind as the Sermon on the Mount. More difficult to reconcile is the modern majority position in the church that still continues to put faith in responses of sacred violence to violence — e.g., Just War theory. We are justified by God’s grace so that, among other things, we no longer need to justify war under any circumstances.


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