While the Revised Common Lectionary follows its own esoteric pattern, the end of the season of the Epiphany seems an appropriate time to remember the conditions under which Jesus’ messengers were sent out with the news that the kingdom of God has now been revealed. Scholars are divided over whether Jesus ever actually made any rules about sandals, staff, food, or money. The rules differ among Mark, Matthew, and Luke. They were likely made up by various groups who attempted to live the same way they thought Jesus and his followers had originally lived: as itinerant beggars.
The Elves pair this portion of Matthew with Romans 5:1-8. As pointed out before, the traditional interpretation of this pairing is that the persecution Matthew’s Jesus is warning about is to be welcomed with the forbearance of martyrs. After all, Paul says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (NRSV). Suffering is redemptive, tradition tells us. The more Jesus suffered, the more love was poured out for the salvation of sinners. It is a short dogmatic leap to substitutionary atonement, and the worst excesses of religious abuse, from Proverbs 13:24 to the Inquisition.
Petty sin is not the subject here. The restoration of God’s Covenant for distributive justice-compassion is the subject. Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ mission came 40 to 50 years after Paul’s letter to his friends in Rome, which lays out the argument against the corrupting seduction of power codified in the law, and for the liberation from that corruption for all who agree to the covenant. Matthew is attempting to show the practicalities once that theory is understood.
In the background, like a watermark, is the apocalypticism of the times. Paul was convinced that Jesus was the Son of Adam that God ordained to return from God’s dwelling place in the heavens and restore God’s covenant. We must ignore the pre-modern triple-decker mythology and realize the breakthrough: Paul extended the covenant to the entire world, not simply to the original Hebrew tribes.
Romans 5 is a continuation of Paul’s argument that God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of nations has been extended to everyone because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The SV translation puts it this way (The Authentic Letters of Paul, pp. 221-222:
What the law actually produces is [God’s] just indignation; but where the law is not involved, the question of [the nations’] violation of the law does not arise. Romans 4:15.
What that means is that the consequence for violations of Jewish law – any injustice done to widows, orphans, or aliens – is God’s rightful anger. But for people who do not follow Jewish law, this point is moot. In his earlier letter to the Galatians (3:15ff), Paul argues that God’s original promise to Abraham was not enforced by law. It was a promise. The law came much later. And the promise is extended to all who have confidence in God to keep that promise. In Romans, Paul once again argues that Jesus was given up to death as a result of the codification of injustice into the systems of the civilized world. Jesus was raised into the presence of God so that everyone, whether Jew or non-Jew, could participate in God’s realm.
That’s why becoming heirs results from putting confidence in and relying upon God, so that the promise is entirely a matter of [God’s] free gift and is guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants, not only to those who claim to be heirs by virtue of covenant law, but to those who share Abraham’s confidence and reliance upon God . . . he was fully convinced that God could do what God had promised.
This translation is revolutionary. The NRSV says “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace . . .” When “faith” means “belief,” and “grace” means “forgiveness,” or at best, unconditional love, the radicality of Paul’s insight is lost. “Belief” is not a requirement. Confidence and reliance upon God is what matters.
That’s why God counted Abraham’s confidence in God to be right. That “God counted” was not written in scripture only for Abraham’s benefit, but for ours also. We are destined to be counted right who put our confidence in the one who raised Jesus our lord from among the dead, who was given up to death because of our wayward offenses and raised so that we could be counted right in the sight of God. Romans 4:16-25 [emphasis added].
This is not about “belief” that something would or did happen, and most certainly is not about “belief” in a resuscitated corpse. Now we are ready for 5:1-8:
So then, since we have been counted as right in the sight of God on the basis of putting our unconditional confidence in God, we are at peace with God through our lord, Jesus, God’s Anointed. . . . We also boast about hardships because we know that hardship produces fortitude and fortitude shows character, and character reinforces hope. This hope will not embarrass us because our hearts have been filled with the love of God through the gift of God’s presence and power. But what shows God’s own love for us is that God’s Anointed died on our behalf even while we were not measuring up to what God expects of us.
The gift of God’s presence and power allows hope for a world transformed from retributive pay-back to radical fairness. God was willing to send his Messiah to save us from the injustice of normal human systems even though we were trapped in those systems ourselves – perhaps because we were trapped in those systems. In return, post-modern minds will want to liberate“God” from a similar trap: by means, for example, of Crossan’s metaphor of a kenotic god whose presence is justice and life and whose absence is injustice and death (In Search of Paul, p. 288).
Forty years after Paul wrote to the Jesus followers in Rome, Matthew’s Jesus is hinting at a level of activism far beyond sitting with your bowl at the city gates; and he is not deluded about what that activism means. “I’m sending you out like a sheep to a pack of wolves. Therefore, you must be as sly as a snake and as simple as a dove. And beware of people, for they will turn you over to the council and in the synagogues they will scourge you. And you will be hauled up before governors and even kings on my account so you can make your case to them and to the nations . . .” Matthew is describing his own time, which was not so different from Jesus’ and Paul’s time.
These are more than activist beggars. They are subversive revolutionaries, who camp out in state capitols and refuse to leave town squares until grievances are addressed, and distributive justice is established.