FROM A READING FOR FEB. 21, SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
'[The Lord] brought [Abraham] outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars....So shall your descendants be." And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness...' -- Gen 15:5-6

I heard that experts now believe there actually are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand on the seashore. That makes Yahweh's promise to Abram in Sunday's first reading (Genesis 15:5-12,17-18) more meaningful than it would have been in pre-telescope days.

Yet, for our Jewish/Christian faith, that's not the most important line in the passage.

In debating with conservative Christians who demanded that Gentile converts first become Jews before they accepted Christianity, Paul of Tarsus often zeroed in on the Genesis author's statement, "Abram put his faith in Yahweh, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness." "Righteous" is the adjective our sacred authors normally employ to show that someone is doing what God wants her or him to do. In the first century CE, most Jews -- including "Judaizing" Christians -- defined a righteous person as someone who faithfully kept the 613 Laws of Moses.

Paul argued that anyone who adhered to such a definition would have to deny that the first Jew, Abram, was a righteous person. He lived hundreds of years before the Law of Moses.

Gentiles and Jews
Gentile converts to Christianity, according to the Apostle, were to be judged on the righteousness of Abram, not of Moses. He insisted that they not be obligated to follow the 613 Sinai regulations, but only, like Abram, to have a faithful relationship with God. For Christians, that meant they develop a meaningful relationship with the risen Jesus in their midst.

In Paul's theology, Gentile Christians could accomplish that just as well as Jewish Christians. He had no problem with the latter adhering to the Mosaic Law, but insisted that Gentile Christians not be burdened with such regulations. From Paul's experience, Christian righteousness came from a relationship, not from obeying laws. Those who had made a covenant with Yahweh in which keeping the Law of Moses was part of their responsibilities should keep those laws, but no one should be forced to enter such a covenant in order to follow Jesus.

It's quite possible that when, in Sunday's Philippians (3:17-4:1) passage, Paul talks about those whose "God is their stomach," he's actually referring to Christians who had begun their path to righteousness by building a meaningful relationship with the risen Jesus, but over time had reverted to keeping the dietary regulations of the Mosaic Law.

It's much easier to keep laws than to build a relationship. Laws normally don't change one's personality; only relationships can do that.

What happened?
That insight seems to be behind the Gospel narratives of Jesus' transfiguration (Luke 9:28b-36). The event appears to be a "biblical myth:" a way to describe an insight of faith. Something happened, but not exactly as our sacred authors symbolically describe it.

In this situation, something happened to Jesus' disciples during His earthly ministry which led them to understand Jesus in a deeper way than others. Their eyes saw something others missed.

They were convinced, for instance, that this itinerant preacher was the culmination of biblical faith. (The biblical name for the Bible is the "Law and the Prophets." That's why our evangelists have Jesus mythically stand between Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet.)

Yet we must never forget that those for whom Paul and Luke wrote considered themselves to be other Christs. Both authors were helping their readers reflect on how their relationship with the risen Jesus was also transfiguring them.

I suppose we'll one day get to heaven if we just follow the proper laws, but we'll only be transformed in this life if we form righteous relationships.