The editors of a local newspaper seem quite convinced that an economy of words is the key to composing attention-grabbing headlines. Their headlines are often attention-grabbing, but probably not in the way they intend. Last year, a headline said, “Bridge Held Up by Red Tape.” One had to read the entire article to determine whether a bridge construction project was being delayed by bureaucratic dawdling or the structure of a bridge was being held together by adhesive tape. In Florida, either event is completely plausible. Another headline said, “Man Eating Piranha Sold as Pet.” Only the body of the article revealed whether the pet was an exotic fish or a man with exotic appetites.
The Letter to the Romans is a formal introduction of the type that was common in the ancient world. Evidently, Paul’s reputation was known to the Christians in Rome, but he was not. He wrote to the church in Rome in order to secure their logistical support for a missionary journey that he was planning to make to the Roman Province of Gaul. There is no surviving documentation of Paul’s missionary journey to Gaul, but it is certainly possible that he completed at least one such trip; approximately ten years elapsed between the writing of the letter and Paul’s martyrdom.
The Letter to the Romans provides us with a somewhat organized statement of faith from a man whose thought and writing were usually more spontaneous than organized. Despite the forethought that Paul put into this letter, there are parts of it that look like the ambiguous headlines above. Paul loved to use an economy of words, a practice that leads to inevitable ambiguity. Our second reading today contains a good example of Paul’s use of ambiguous language.
Paul wrote, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1) If the believers in Rome understood this statement in the way that Paul intended, they might be in a small minority. Over the centuries of Christian history, multiple divergent interpretations have been given to this brief statement. There have been endless arguments about what it means to be justified, what faith means, and what kind of peace with God one can expect on the basis of justification and faith (whatever those words might mean). Some have said that being justified through faith means bargaining for clemency with God; others have said that it requires placating God’s anger by means of endlessly repeated devotional practices. More recently, popular religious sentiment has suggested that being justified by faith is the result of a privatized relationship with one’s imagined version of a personal God.
These theological disagreements mentioned above are made all the more confusing by the fact that Paul uses the word “justified” in so many different contexts. In today’s reading, Paul uses the word to explain that believers are “made blameless” (this, and the following words in quotation marks are the various meanings that Paul give to “justified”) through faith in God. In Chapter Three of the Letter to the Romans, Paul uses the same word to describe God’s “admirable” act of raising Jesus from the dead. (Rom, 3:21-26) Throughout the letter, Paul presents his understanding of the process which brought about our salvation. He said that Jesus remained faithful to God’s will despite suffering the shameful fate of a criminal. Jesus’ loyalty to God was reciprocated by God’s granting an “honorable” fate to Jesus in the Resurrection. By “vindicating” Jesus, the “righteous” man who was wrongly condemned, God demonstrated God’s own “righteousness” to the world. As a consequence, those who put their trust in Jesus as revealer of God’s “righteousness” are made “blameless” in the act of trusting that Jesus is the Savior sent by God.
At this point, you might be struggling to make sense of justification through faith in the same way that I struggled to make sense of a recent headline. The first page of the Sports section proclaimed, “Complaints About Referees Growing Ugly.” As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, who’s to say whether the referees or the complainers are ugly? Happily, we can have a great deal more certainty with regard to Paul’s intended meaning in today’s second reading.
What Paul thought he was writing in today’s selection from the Letter to the Romans was this: We know that God is righteous and trustworthy. Anyone who needs proof of God’s reliability has only to look at the favor shown to Jesus who was raised from the dead by God’s power. We, too, have been shown this same favor. When we trust in God in the same way that Jesus trusted in God, we can be assured of the same favor that God showed him. It is by means of such trust that God makes us blameless in his sight.
The following statements in this section of the letter now begin to make more sense. Paul wrote that endurance leads to proven character and proven character is a sign of unshakeable hope in God’s promise of righteousness. Even in Paul’s time, some of the baptized equivocated about God’s trustworthiness and, therefore, were separated from God. It is perseverance in fulfilling our baptismal vows to the Blessed Trinity that brings God’s approval for our lives and grants us lasting righteousness.
If Paul had expended a little extra effort to make himself understood, he might have written, “One can expect the same loyalty from God that one gives to God.” It’s a little more verbose than the headline “Lack of Brains Hinders Research,” but it makes more sense.