The Heart of Paul’s Gospel

Monday, June 25, 2012 — Week of Proper 7, Year Two

either The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (tr. fm. June 24)

or James Weldon Johnson, Poet, 1938

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 973)

Psalms 89:1-18 (morning) 89:19-52 (evening)

Numbers 16:1-19

Romans 3:21-31

Matthew 19:13-22

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Romans 3:28 is a fine summary of Paul’s teaching: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Paul knew something about “works prescribed by the law.” In his former life, he was successful. He zealously obeyed the law, and it brought him only anxiety. Am I doing right? What if I mess up? He became self-absorbed and filled with a kind of performance anxiety. It drove him crazy.

I had a friend who was smart enough to go through college and make all A’s. It was her motivation. She worked hard. She studied conscientiously. Toward her senior year, she became a bit compulsive about it. She didn’t join her friends if there was a big test coming up. She was taking an advanced course that semester that was very hard. She was so worried that she wouldn’t ace it that she became almost obsessed with learning everything so she would run any risk. She was competing with another student who also had all A’s. They were in this same class.

Eventually it got ugly when he got a B on something and she got an A. She was sure she was going to win a prestigious award that went to the person with the highest grades in their particular major. But her competition, the other (male) student’s father was a very powerful state legislator. Somehow, he ended up with an A and won the award at graduation. She’s sure she got bumped. I remember a conversation with her later. “I wish I had more fun at college. I studied too hard.”

It’s a good thing to study and to make A’s. (“Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”) But our “being,” our “justification” is not based on our grades. Our relationship as God’s beloved is a gift. We are accepted because God loves us. That’s that. God’s loving acceptance is God’s free unqualified gift to us. Grace is the word Paul uses. Accept that gift (faith) and you are in (justified). Jew or Gentile, doesn’t matter. Passing or failing doesn’t affect the offer.

So now you can relax. You don’t have to make all “A’s.”. Instead, you can relax and learn. Learn and grow for the sake of the learning and growing rather than for the grade.

Jesus makes the same point today. Riches can do the same thing to you that achieving does. Riches distract us. Possessions posses us. They also promote pride and self-glorification. Just like an “A-student” may easily think herself better than a “C-student” so a wealthy person so easily may think himself better than a poor person. It is impossible to enter into the kingdom of heaven so burdened with self-interest, self-importance. As impossible as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

You can’t earn or buy your way into God’s graces. You can only accept it humbly, like everybody else. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” It’s the heart of Paul’s gospel.

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