|Abraham Journeying to Canaan Gustave Dore|
This week’s Old Testament lesson is remarkably short – just four sentences. It records God’s call to Abram to leave his home country and set off on a journey – who knows where – solely on the strength of God’s promise that his descendants would become “a great nation”. God’s promise could hardly have been more spectacularly fulfilled. Abraham (as he is later renamed) must have had many contemporaries about whom we now know nothing, in their own day leaders just like him, but leaving no discernible trace on the world they once inhabited. If -- as Paul insists – we include Christians amongst Abraham’s descendants, then the ‘great nation’ that grew from his obedience to God’s call numbers, in our day and age alone, well over two billion human beings.
|St Paul Jusepe di Ribera (1637)|
“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God”, Paul writes in this week’s Epistle. Abraham could rightly take pride in the fact that he had the strength of mind and will to set out into the unknown. Its ultimate significance, however, does not flow from this strength of character, but from the power and purposes of the God in whom he put his faith. Paul’s fundamental insight is that while God and Abraham enter into a mutual relationship from which the redemption of the world ultimately springs, this does not make them co-workers equally entitled to share the credit. The outcome of Abraham’s historic decision “depends on faith”, not on ingenuity or hard work, “in order that the promise may rest on grace”.
The Gospel passage highlights one crucial aspect of this insight – the necessity of God’s initiative. At the heart of human sinfulness lies hubris, or spiritual pride, the belief (despite all the evidence) that we can be the instruments of our own salvation -- that sufficient good will, political organization, scientific knowledge, technological ingenuity and time will enable us, eventually, to solve the age old problems of evil, suffering, destruction and death. On the contrary, Jesus tells us, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven”. We need divine initiative -- or we are lost. And the good news on this score is this: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”.