|Christians often analyze today’s first reading through the lens of “justification by faith.” Protestants use language of the “Romans Road,” highlighting how Paul’s letter demonstrates how “righteousness comes through faith” rather than works. Catholics often ignore these texts in favor of the gospel, or point to counter-arguments such as the famous dictum of James 2:26, “faith without works is dead.” But this age-old “faith versus works” dispute risks overlooking one of the crucial messages of Romans 4:13-18: the way in which Paul reconceives Abraham as a “father of many nations.”
To be sure, “righteousness comes through faith.” But the “faith of Abraham” is used not to exclude unbelievers; rather it is used to include uncircumcised Gentiles into the Body of Christ. Faith opens the door to the outsider, expanding the church to be a community of all nations. Paul faces deep opposition to his universalizing project from the ethnic partisans of his day. Gentiles threaten these insiders’ understanding of what it means to be a “child of Abraham” or the “chosen ones” (to echo today’s Psalm 105). For them, Abraham is first and foremost the patriarch of the covenanted people of Israel, not the “father of many nations.”
In crucial ways, our world grapples with similar challenges to those faced by Paul and his opponents. Ethnic reconciliation was perhaps the greatest challenge facing Paul’s communities; it is also one of the greatest challenges facing our churches today. Resurgent nationalism tempts Christians to keep out the foreign “other”; consumerist attitudes tempt us to worship only with people who look, sound, and think like us. But that is not the “Romans Road.” Rather, Paul calls us to expand our vision of who constitutes our brothers and sisters. Following the witness of Abraham, our father in faith, as well as the Jesuit Martyrs of North America, may our local churches become churches of many nations.