Abraham responded to God’s promise with complete faith, but not all can accept such a divine challenge.
The Lectionary readings for the second Sunday in Lent each year direct our thoughts to Abraham, the father of faith for the monotheistic religions. (Translations are from The New Jerusalem Bible.)
The reading from the Torah presents the beginning of the Abraham story. God summons him to make a new start, after the various failures and losses of blessing in the generations after Adam and then after Noah. This call and promise to Abraham is the beginning of the story of Israel; it will be the sole motivation for God’s actions in all the rest of the sacred histories. This promise has no prior motivation; it is the divine initiative out of the blue — it is the 100 per cent act of grace. All subsequent movements of God into the destinies of the selected peoples take place because of this one unqualified divine start. The fulfillments of these promises are strewn out over the histories of Joshua, David, Nehemiah, the Rabbis, and the Apostles.
In the context of Lent, the emphasis here is on the new departure, the break with an old and degenerate world. The preceding chapter of Genesis has introduced Abraham’s father Terah and his extended family, all of whom live in the ancient city of Ur, in the south of modern Iraq. From there, after Abraham and his brothers are married, Terah starts everyone on a migration. They are going “to go to the land of Canaan. But on arrival in Haran [a city in the north of Iraq], they settled there” (Genesis 11:31). Terah and the rest of the family made only half of the journey.
It is Abraham who is called to complete the move, to go all the way from ancient Ur to the promised land of Canaan. “Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country I will show you” (verse 1). The promise is that there Abraham will be blessed and will be a blessing to “all clans on earth” (verse 3).
The new story of faith begins when we hear that Abraham did as he was told, that he went (verse 4).
The Psalm reading is a dialogue of faith and assurance appropriate to those descendants of Abraham who continued his journey of faith.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains; where is my help to come from?” (verse 1, NJB). Canaan, the promised land, is a land of mountains. This opening question, like a call to worship, is answered by an extended assurance of God’s presence and help. “[H]e neither sleeps nor slumbers, the guardian of Israel” (verse 4). The care will persist to the journey’s end. “Yahweh guards you from all harm, … Yahweh guards your comings and goings, henceforth and for ever” (verse 8).
This is an assurance that guides the steps of a pilgrim of the promise!
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
The Epistle reading is two portions of Paul’s fullest discussion of the faith of Abraham.
The emphasis here is that Abraham’s faith preceded the law. Abraham is viewed as one who based his life on God’s promise. “Abraham put his faith in God and this was reckoned to him as uprightness” (verse 3, quoting Genesis 15:6). In Paul’s language, “uprightness” (“righteousness” in the NRSV) is the condition of being OK with God, of being on the right journey or even at the right destination. How did Abraham reach that state? By trusting God’s promise rather than by carrying out the requirements of the law, is Paul’s answer. “For the promise to Abraham and his descendants that he should inherit the world [!] was not through the Law, but through the uprightness of faith” (verse 13).
Paul affirms that Abraham is a model for his descendants as to how to get “right” with God. The priority is not to prove oneself worthy, by doing the works of the law, but to entrust oneself wholly to God, go forward wholly in that faith, and let God direct one to the land of promise with the challenges and trials along the way. The faith to make a new start that leaves behind the old securities — the old bonds, and bondages — is what sets one right with God. That is to live by faith; that is to be a true descendant of Abraham, whether one also has the Law or not.
In this year of the Lectionary cycle, the Gospel readings for Lent are mostly taken from the Gospel According to John. John’s Gospel does not have a year of its own in the three-year cycle, but the Lectionary turns to it at certain high points of the year. Lent in Year A is one of those times, and we will hear Gospel readings from John from now until Palm Sunday.
This Sunday’s reading is Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, the Jewish leader and Pharisee who, like Abraham’s father Terah, starts on the journey but can’t go all the way.
The paragraph just before our story sets the stage for Nicodemus’ approach. “During [Jesus’] stay in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he did, but Jesus knew all people and did not trust himself to them…” (John 2:23-24). That is, Jesus knew that signs and wonders were not an adequate basis for real faith. (Paul wrote, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the nations…” I Corinthians 1:22.)
Nicodemus expresses this traditional Jewish position in his opening words. “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him” (verse 2).
Before Nicodemus can go any farther — before he can ask the question he came in the night to ask — Jesus makes a provocative statement. “In all truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (verse 3). Footnotes in the New Jerusalem Bible (Regular edition, with full notes) and the NRSV (translators’ note b) show that the last phrase of this statement, “from above,” has a double meaning. The basic meaning of the Greek word anōthen is “from above,” but it also has the derived meaning “again,” as in our expression “take it from the top,” meaning do it over again. Capitalizing on such a double meaning is a deliberate teaching device often used in this Gospel.
Nicodemus takes the meaning “again,” and says, How can a grown man reenter the womb and be born again? Jesus’ reply repeats his original declaration with only a couple of changes. “In all truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit” (verse 5). The message is that there must be a rebirth. The birth is “again,” but it is also “from above,” that is, it is a rebirth through baptism — a rebirth in the water of the sacrament and in the new being of the Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus remains puzzled through the rest of Jesus’ talk about this rebirth in the Spirit, and finally says, “How is that possible?” (verse 9). To which Jesus replies, “You are the Teacher of Israel, and you do not know these things!” If this is the extent of the Pharisee teacher’s resources, someone is in trouble!
Nicodemus appears again later in John’s Gospel: at 7:45-52, where he speaks somewhat in Jesus’ favor to his fellow Pharisees, and in 19:39-40, where he joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. Always Nicodemus is almost there. In the right place — though maybe at night instead of in the light of day — on hand for the right question, but not completing a life commitment.
The Nicodemus story in John speaks of “the kingdom of God” (verses 3 and 5). This is the only place in John that that expression is used. Later in this story and in the rest of the Gospel, Jesus speaks instead of “eternal life” (for the first time at 3:15, and many times after). There is a story told in the other three Gospels about a Jewish leader who comes to Jesus and asks about — not the kingdom of God, but — eternal life. “He was setting out on a journey when a man ran up, knelt before him and put this question to him, ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mark 10:17, NJB). The man in this story is often called “the rich young ruler.” He is rich in Mark 10:22, young in Matthew 19:20, and a ruler in Luke 18:18.
This story is the only place in Mark that the phrase “eternal life” is used — instead of “the kingdom of God,” as it is everywhere else in Mark. And this rich leader is like Nicodemus in only going part of the way. He has obeyed all the commandments, and asks “what more?” After Jesus tells him to sell his goods and give to the poor, “his face fell at these words and he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth” (Mark 10:22, NJB). He could not make the complete commitment. In this case because of his riches, in Nicodemus’ case apparently because of the ties of his fixed tradition.
Nicodemus, that other keeper of the commandments and seeker after “what more,” could not break away from his old country, he could not give his whole soul to be reborn. He hung around to the end, assisting with the dead body, but he stands as one who did not make it beyond the half-way station, toward that new and eternal life.