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October 2, 2005
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Most of the scriptures assigned for today deal with the Jewish law. The first is the story of the giving of the most influential part of that law: the Ten Commandments. The second celebrates the law and the wonder of the life that is shaped by it. The third presents Paul’s conviction that, great though the law may be, it is superseded by Christ. We will consider the fourth below.
Christianity in general has come into being as a religious tradition distinct from Judaism because of the victory of Paul’s teaching that, at least for Gentiles, Christ superseded the law. Almost all Christians believe that they need not obey the Jewish law as a whole. Nevertheless, Christians have developed their own complex legal systems in ways that would have appalled Paul. And they have usually exempted the Ten Commandments from the dismissal of Jewish law. This, too, has no basis in Paul.
Especially when the Matthew passage is introduced, the passages for today could be used to contrast Christianity and Judaism and to claim that Christianity has superseded Judaism. Alternately, they could be used to present a form of Christianity that is little different from mainstream Judaism. I will propose a third option, based on my reading of Paul.
Paul never thought of himself as anything other than a Jew. He was calling for renewal and reform of Judaism in light of the Christ event. This reform would shift the center of Judaism from obedience to law to participation in the faithfulness of Jesus. Such faithfulness was open to Gentiles without separate attention to the Jewish law or to any other form of law. The law from which Gentile believers were free included the Ten Commandments. Indeed, Paul’s one developed illustration of the limitations of the law was a discussion of the command in the Ten Commandments not to covet. ( Rom. 7: 7-13)
Neither here nor anywhere else does Paul question the excellence of the Jewish law. In the Philippians passage he claims to have been blameless in relation to the law. In the Romans passage cited above he wrote that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, just, and good.” Nowhere does he distinguish the ethical commandments from the liturgical or dietary ones. He never mentions the highly simplified legal requirements proposed at the Council of Jerusalem. For him the issue is law as such, and he discusses only laws of which he fully approves.
The purpose of law is to make those who obey it righteous. The problem for Paul is that it does not succeed in doing so. Obedience to law is a matter of the flesh or of human action under human control. And human action under human control, Paul is convinced, does not achieve righteousness even when guided by excellent rules of behavior. It arouses guilt that stifles spontaneity without evoking the righteousness it seeks. True righteousness comes in our relation to Jesus whom Paul calls Messiah or Christ.
If this is so, then for Christians much depends on how we understand this relationship. In the text of the New Revised Standard Version the conventional idea is maintained: the relationship is one of faith. The key verse reads: “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” This suggests that if we hold the right beliefs about Jesus, or trust Jesus for our salvation, that God will impute to us the righteousness we cannot attain on our own. It is this single requirement of faith that Paul is then understood to juxtapose to the requirement of obedience to law.
There are reasons, however, throughout Paul’s writings and in this passage as well, to doubt that this is the way Paul actually thought. We will consider only the evidence in this passage. Twice Paul emphasizes the importance of “knowing” Christ. This does not mean having information about him. “Knowing” refers to acquaintance rather than information and a very intimate acquaintance at that. Through this knowing Paul wants to “gain Christ and be found in him.” Again he writes: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death . . .”
The tone here accents the intimacy of the relationship in a way the English word “faith” does not. It is better described as a participation in Christ. (See also Romans 6:1-8 for strong participatory language.) It is this participation in Christ that replaces obedience to law for Paul.
How then do we understand what the NRSV continues to translate as “faith in Christ,” through which comes a righteousness that is not our own? A first step in clarifying this is to turn to the technical note provided below. Here we learn that the Greek phrase can also be read as “through the faith of Christ.” This suggests an answer to the question why Paul says that the righteousness he receives through his relation to Christ is “not of my own.” The “faith” in question is that of Jesus not an act of believing on Paul’s part.
Still, this raises new questions. Is Jesus’ faith a matter of what Jesus believed or of how he trusted God? The main reason for translating this phrase as “faith in Christ” has been that a focus on Jesus’ beliefs and trust seemed odd. It is much less odd, however, if we go back to the Greek. The Greek word is pistis, and this means not only “faith” but also “faithfulness.” Jesus was faithful to God even to death. He died for the sake of people in general, not just good people or his friends. This was a faithfulness that, Paul thought, embodied true righteousness. The passage makes more sense when we read it as speaking of a righteousness that comes through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus, the righteousness of God based on faithfulness. Our faithfulness is not our achievement but a participation in the faithfulness of Jesus, which is true righteousness. For Paul, “knowing” Christ Jesus meant participating in his faithfulness, which involved participation in his suffering and death and expecting to participate also in his resurrection.
This understanding of the passage is more fully supported by the translation of David Lull. This month Chalice Press is publishing the commentary, Romans, that we wrote together, and in which we explained more fully the justification for the interpretation I am offering here. Lull translates verses 9 and 10 in a quite literal way as follows: “that is, that I may be found in him, not by having as my righteousness one that comes from the law, but rather one that comes through Christ’s faithfulness, the righteousness from God based on the faithfulness of Christ, so that I may begin to know Christ–both the power of the resurrection of Christ and participation in his sufferings, by taking on the same form as his death”.
The purpose of obedience to the law is to attain righteousness. But Paul believed that this method does not attain its end. He was convinced that if we truly “know” Christ Jesus we will participate in his righteousness. That does succeed. This did not in any way mean that one would cease to be a Jew. On the contrary, this is the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and expectation. God’s covenant with Abraham was based on Abraham’s faith, not his obedience to law. It was for the sake of all nations, not just the Jews. Thus Paul envisioned a Judaism into which the Gentiles could be engrafted.
Paul’s vision was not realized. Instead, the dominant patterns of Judaism were little changed, and Gentile Christianity became a religious tradition quite separate from Judaism. This Gentile Christianity employed Paul’s thought to belittle the Jewish law, but developed its own legalisms. Often it treated believing the right thing about Jesus as if that were more important than how one lived. It had little sense of participation in Jesus’ life and death.
The Matthew passage presents us with serious problems. Jesus may well have spoken of the fate of prophets sent to his people by God. This fate was typically rejection by most of the people, resulting, often, in persecution and even death. Jesus’ point would be that most people, including the virtuous, resist God’s message when it calls for repentance, that is, action that breaks with entrenched habits and customs and perceived self-interest.
That point is as appropriate for the Christian context today as it was for the Jewish context of Jesus’ time. We could point to refusal to pay attention to those who warned of the dangers to New Orleans , or much more generally to those prophets who have long been warning us about how our current lifestyle is changing the weather patterns of the planet in dangerous ways. Those who warn us about the harmful consequences of our actions are no more welcomed today by Christians than the Hebrew prophets were welcomed in their day.
However, in the present form the story is an allegory in which Jesus functioned as the son sent by the father and killed by the tenants! It is highly unlikely that in this form the allegory is from Jesus. In this form the story can do and has done great harm.
When presented in this way, the story condemns the Jewish leaders, or even the Jews as a whole, to a miserable death and sets up the new Gentile church in their place as God’s chosen people. This is remote, indeed, from any intention that either Jesus or Paul could have entertained. If one preaches on this text, one must preach against it as much as from it. It belongs to the corpus of anti-Jewish writings that have had such horrible consequences in Christian history.
Even if we stick close to Paul’s own vision of a route to righteousness that is more promising than obedience to law and try to bring that alive, we should also give attention to Psalm 19. That Psalm expresses an authentic Jewish relation to the law. It is not the relation that Paul envisaged and criticized. It is a relation of love. The law of the Lord is more to be desired that gold or honey. It is out of this deep feeling that the law is studied and obeyed. This relation to law does not generate guilt but rather frees one from it. This is not legalism.
This does not mean that Paul’s alternative to legalism should not be preached. The legalism he criticized in Judaism is alive and well in Christian churches. Almost everywhere in Christian history we find new systems of laws, and rarely are they studied and obeyed out of love. They do have for millions of Christians just those negative consequences Paul identified. Paul’s alternative road to righteousness deserves our closest attention and appreciative appropriation.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.