We don't own Abraham
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 7th: Psalm 128; Isaiah 65:17-25; and Romans 4:6-13. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
I get what Paul is saying in today’s passage from Romans, but I can also understand why it would be offensive (and at times even dangerous) to our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith. Abraham is the first of the three Patriarchs. He is where the Jewish people begin their genealogy. This can be seen in the ancestor-list of Jesus in Luke and Matthew. Luke’s Gospel is written for a cosmopolitan Gentile audience. When this Evangelist traces the history of Jesus’ family tree, he takes it from Jesus all the way back to the putative first human, Adam. (Luke 3:37) Luke’s purpose in this contrivance is to convince his readers that Jesus belongs to all people, His ministry is as universal as Adam’s ancestry.
On the other hand, Matthew does not trace backwards from Jesus to Adam. Rather, Matthew begins intentionally with Abraham and moves forward through the generations that culminate in Jesus. The starting point is a given. It is Abraham. Matthew is writing for a Jewish-Christian community. He sees no need to reach back to the universal ancestor, Adam, like Luke did. Matthew and his readers are concerned with how Jesus ties in with Abraham, the father of the Jews. It need not go any deeper into the past.
Abraham is the honoured, revered progenitor of the Jewish people. And it is Abraham who institutes the defining practice of circumcision among the Jews. To trace your lineage from Abraham and to practice circumcision marked a person as being Jewish, as belonging to the people of God.
In today’s selection from Romans, Paul coopts Abraham into the Christian fold. He goes out of his way to argue that Abraham’s faith preceded the practice of circumcision, saying, “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe …” Paul is separating Abraham’s example of faithfulness from the act of circumcision. In this way, Abraham is no longer limited to being the father of Israel. Abraham is now “the ancestor of all who believe.”
In a positive, constructive sense, this message has merit. Christians follow in a line of faith in God that Abraham personified. However, in a negative and destructive sense, this argument can be manipulated to bolster the replacement argument, that Christians have replaced the Jewish people as the people of God. Rather than a continuance of Abraham’s faithfulness, Christians have monopolized it. In the extreme, this has led to the justification of many irreligious acts against the Jewish people by Christians, and we need to be aware that antisemitism is on the rise again in our nation.
Abraham is acknowledged for his faith in the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His faithfulness serves as an example in all these religions. We should try to understand Paul’s efforts as advocating for a faith like Abraham’s among Christians, but not by denigrating the faith of others. Jesus goes to the cross as the perfect witness against hatred and violence – period. What an insult to His suffering to turn something as beautiful as the faithfulness of Abraham into weapon to be used against others who honour Abraham. Christianity stands tall without needing to bring others down.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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