Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38.
The preparation for the Lord’s passion continues for those of Abraham’s covenant.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.
The Torah reading takes us to the second covenant tradition of the Lenten season, the covenant with Abraham. The prescribed reading is confined to the promise that Abraham (formerly Abram) and his wife Sarah (formerly Sarai) will be the parents of many offspring, nations, and kings. It connects new names for both Abraham and Sarah with this promise.
Who were the heirs of this promise to Abraham and Sarah?
In Israelite tradition, they were the twelve tribes of Jacob, who produced the kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon—in whom the promise may once have been seen as fulfilled. But the promise to Abraham, taken simply on its own terms, must also have included, for example, the Edomites, descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother and a grandson of Abraham, who also produced numerous kings (Genesis 36). King Herod the Great, in Roman times, was descended from Esau. (The Edomites were then called Idumeans.)
By confining the covenant promise to Sarah’s offspring, this reading omits other descendants of Abraham. It excludes those of Ishmael, father of the Arabian tribes, whose mother received her own promise in Genesis 16:10. It also it excludes those descendants of Abraham’s later wife Keturah, who included Midianites, Dedanites, and other southern neighbors of Israel (Genesis 25:1-6).
In the Abraham covenant, the families descended from Noah begin to be separated into the chosen and the non-chosen.
It is well to bear in mind, though the reading does not include it, that the sign of this covenant was circumcision. This cultural practice is rather rigorously required of Abraham and his descendants (including Ishmael) in verses 10-14. This sign would in time separate Judean people from most of their neighbors, including many non-Judean Christians in the churches founded by Paul (discussed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians).
So the vicissitudes of history made Abraham’s covenant a division among peoples instead of a blessing for all—at least as some read that covenant.
The Psalm reading is the concluding section of a marvelously complex piece.
This part of the psalm celebrates good news that has come to the nations, probably including the peoples outside Abraham’s covenant. (The earlier parts of the psalm will appear in the Lectionary as the Passion narrative approaches.)
In our reading, the speaker has been delivered from enemies and death, and now celebrates that deliverance in the grand assembly of those who fear the Lord. The grateful one brings generous thank offerings (sacrificial animals available as a feast for the many). Because of this person’s joy, the poor and God’s worshippers in general may feast (verses 25-26).
The speaker is not an ordinary, everyday worshipper—someone barely escaping pursuing bill-collectors. This is a world-class figure whose triumph is an occasion of international celebration and of renewal of faith on the part of the nations.
“All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
all the families of the nations
shall worship” because of this speaker’s salvation (verse 27, NRSV).
The concluding section (verses 29-31) has translation problems, but it seems clear that in some way, the triumph that has recently happened is very important to (1) past generations, that is, the dead “who sleep in the earth,” and (2) future generations, “a people yet unborn.” The deliverance of this speaker is an event for the ages (time backward and forward) as well as for the nations (peoples far and wide).
In the psalm as a whole, this salvation and its resulting gifts and celebrations for the nations is the final outcome of what began in great agony. These are the ecstatic words of thanksgiving from one who began by crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 1) – the last articulate utterance from the cross in Mark’s Passion narrative (Mark 15:34).
The Epistle reading is one of the more famous passages in Paul’s letters. It too is about the Abraham covenant and its heirs. Inheriting the promise to Abraham through faith is contrasted with inheriting it through law.
The decisive issue is whether people from the nations (“Gentiles”) who become believers have to observe Judean law to be fully accepted in Christ’s salvation.
Paul is treading a narrow plank. He must (1) allow full observance of the law as proper to native Judean believers, like himself, but somehow (2) assure that non-Judean believers are not assigned to a second-class citizenship among the saved.
To pull off this ecumenical act, he takes the position that all believers are heirs of Abraham, that their faith makes them descendants of the one whose faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (verse 22, NRSV). This justification granted to Abraham was “not for his sake alone, but for ours also” (verse 23). Those imitating Abraham’s faith are also heirs of his covenant.
In this passage, Paul emphasizes that Abraham’s great act of faith was to believe that he could have a son by Sarah after they were nearly a hundred years old. To believe this, and to plan his life on it (always the acid test of faith), was Abraham’s faith.
This was already a resurrection faith, Paul argues (verse 24), and those basing their lives on Jesus’ resurrection and lordship are imitators of Abraham’s faith!
The Gospel reading takes up Mark’s story of Jesus at its greatest turning point. Peter has just declared Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One, the Messiah (8:27-30). Peter is the first ordinary human to recognize what angels and demons have known all along, and Jesus warns the disciples sternly not to tell anyone else.
But immediately following this confession, Jesus began to teach the disciples, “The Human One [Son of Man] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead” (verse 31, CEB [Common English Bible]). This is the first introduction of the Passion, and it hangs in the background of all the action that follows.
The rest of the story is told as if the disciples do not hear what is said, particularly the part about rising from the dead. Peter hears the part about suffering and argues for a different course, which requires Jesus, with an eye on the other disciples, to put him down very firmly (“Get behind me, Satan!” verses 32-33). The true costs of what it will take for the Reign of God to begin among the chosen people have begun to be revealed.
And the costs of bringing in God’s Reign are not Jesus’ only; they are also those of his true followers. Those who want to follow him must bring along their crosses (verse 34). Those who want to save their lives—and who is not included in this?—will lose them.
That is a devastating barrier to entry! Those who will follow Jesus must give up their lives—or shall we temper it some and say, be prepared to lose their lives? The words here pronounced by Jesus anticipate later times when followers will be required to deny Jesus’ name or be put to shame (which means flogged, imprisoned, or executed, Mark 13:9-13).
Still, as for the speaker in Psalm 22, beyond the affliction there is hope for those who trust wholly in God, those who have Abraham’s kind of faith. Those who endure through this “adulterous and sinful generation” (verse 38, NRSV) will be justified by their faith. They will not be put to shame when the Human One returns to welcome the faithful heirs of Abraham’s covenant.
The Passion is part of the divine drama in which the exclusions of old covenants are cancelled. The new divine action includes those who have Abraham’s faith, not only his circumcision. The costs of this new inclusiveness begin with a cross—and they continue with many giving their lives for the sake of the one who died there.