What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
"Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin."
When the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.
"I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows."
Paul turns to the example of Abraham, to illustrate that justification is by faith rather than by works. Not only does the Torah state clearly, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as justice," but it was known that Abraham preceded Moses by centuries, and therefore did not observe the Mosaic law. If Paul's argument is so obvious that he may seem guilty of overkill, it was meant to counter a view that Abraham knew the entire Mosaic law in advance, obeyed it and so was blessed. Such seems to be the position of the sage, Ben Sirach, "Abraham, father of many peoples, observed the precepts of the Most High, and when tested, he was found loyal. Therefore, God promised him with an oath that in his descendants the nations would be blessed (Sir 44:19-21).
Paul disdains this view of Abraham as a Torah-observer and makes his case based on the Book of Genesis. First came God's choice and call (Gen 12), then Abraham's faith (Gen 15) and only later did he demand circumcision (Gen 17) and prove himself faithful in the test (Gen 22). If God's gift to Abraham, and like Abraham now to the gentiles, was so freely bestowed, then Paul and ourselves need no longer think of past sins. Nor will we be concerned about offenses against a law that is no longer binding on us.
Exuberance and liberty of spirit are praised in today's gospel. What was said in the dark we are to proclaim from rooftops. If our merciful God is concerned about sparrows, then "Fear nothing -- for you are more precious than a whole flock of sparrows." Justification by faith in this God liberates us more than from the law. It makes us free, confident and already part-way to heaven.
The image of God presented in today's gospel remarkable. The Creator is so involved with the details of creation that even the humble sparrow is not forgotten in God's sight. We tend to presume that when it comes to those in leadership positions, the more exalted they are, the less in touch they are with the details of people's lives. Jesus' way of speaking about God in today's gospel suggests that this does not apply to God. God is exalted above every human being, above all of creation, and, yet, God is involved with the details of that creation. As the gospel says, "not one sparrow is forgotten in God's sight."
Remarkably, God is interested in the details of our own lives too. As Jesus says in our gospel reading, "Every hair on your head has been counted; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows." Jesus is saying, if a sparrow is not forgotten in God's sight, how much more is that true of us. Jesus reveals a God who is not detached from us, but who wants to be involved with the details of our lives, with our ups and downs, our joys and sorrows, our successes and failures. If God is interested in the details of our lives, we can speak to God out of our experience. We can bring before him the details of our lives in prayer, knowing that he is deeply concerned about us. We can speak from the heart to God, as we would to our closest friend. God invites us to entrust our lives to him. [MH]