The Readings: Numbers 11:1-23; Romans 1:16-25; Matthew 17:22-27
Reading Romans is challenging—also because it’s hard not to assume that Paul means what we mean by words shaped by 20 centuries of theology. And because translations always involve tradeoffs. Three examples:
First, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (v.16). When we hear ‘salvation’ we’re apt to think of the destiny of the individual soul after death. When a first-century Jew heard ‘salvation’ they were apt to think of liberation from the Roman Empire. When a first-century patriotic Roman heard ‘salvation’ they were apt to assume that that was the law and order and prosperity that Rome was bringing. And what Paul means by it?
Second, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (v.17, KJV). When we hear ‘righteousness’ we’re apt to think of an abstract standard of behavior, so probably bad news for everybody. In the Old Testament it’s about faithfulness to one’s responsibilities, e.g., God’s faithfulness to God’s responsibilities as defined in the covenants with Abraham and Moses. And when Israel is in trouble, God’s righteousness is good news:
To the sound of musicians at the watering places,
there they repeat the triumphs [literally ‘righteous acts’] of the LORD,
the triumphs [literally ‘righteous acts’] of his peasantry in Israel. (Jdg. 5:11 NRS)
So back in Rom 1:17 the New Jerusalem Bible uses ‘saving justice’ to translate dikaiosunē. Divine dikaiosunē, good news if I’m oppressed, less good news if I’m the oppressor. In Romans, what divine responsibilities define divine righteousness?
Third, re the same text. It’s easy to think of faith and faithfulness as two quite different things. But both words are possible translations of Greek pistis, and translations of v.17 make different choices. Perhaps we might expand the translation like this: “revealed from [God’s] faithfulness to [human] faith and faithfulness: as it is written, The just shall live by faith/faithfully.” When we encounter ‘faith’ or ‘faithfulness’ in the New Testament, we might wonder how the text would read if the other translation were used.
The Lectionary omits vv.26-27. On the one hand, regrettable: silencing troublesome voices is problematic (see Colin Kaepernick). On the other hand, entry into the arguments regarding their interpretation can too easily derail attention to Paul’s larger argument.