The Obedience of Faith?

What struck me in this week's lectionary readings wasn't the gospel -- the Luke reading for Advent 4B is a bit trite for me, by itself. And as a good Lutheran should, I enjoyed watching God keep the balance in the relationship with David in the Old Testament reading -- even gifts we would give to God, God grants, and not always to us. The hubris of giving what we want, to God -- God gives us, instead, what God wants. And the psalm was a nice reflection on that.

But what struck me most this week belongs instead to that snippet of the very end of Paul's address to the Romans, through which I heard two different Christmas chancel dramas. "The obedience of faith" -- a phrase that encompasses Romans from 1:5 to 16:26. Whether or not Paul wrote this massive single-sentence doxology that appears as our epistolary reading this week, or meant it to appear in this place if he did, the manuscript tradition seems to find it a fitting coda. And the more I listened to the tableaus of Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the more I saw in them that "obedience of faith".

But is that what's really going on in our proper texts for this week? The more I look, the less sure I am. But it's certainly a way to cast fresh light on Luke 1.

So let's start by figuring out what the "obedience of faith" means. What is ὑπακοὴ πίστεως? How do we take the genitive? "Faithful obedience"? In the popular-but-incorrect sense used of 1:5, that Paul's mission is to command or create obedience to the faith? μὴ γένοιτο -- surely not! So is faith a means of obedience? The content or material of obedience? Does obedience in some wise belong to faith?

Perhaps -- but we are asking the wrong question to understand how obedience belongs to faith.

So ignore the genitive for the moment, and let's ask instead about "obedience". It's not a bad Latin translation of ὑπακοή, in terms of its etymology. Obedience is made from the preposition ob and the verb audio, just as ὑπακοή is made from the preposition ὑπό and the verb ἀκούω. And if audientia is the act of hearing, oboedientia is what comes after hearing, in this case literally "on account of hearing". And for the Latin, it means "to yield compliance" -- which is about what we expect from the word "obey" in English.

But "compliance" isn't the meaning of the Greek! First, ob is not a precise match for ὑπό, "under" -- it's a better representation of πρός, "towards," or ἐπί, "upon". Second, the sense of the combination is quite different. For the Hellene, ἀκοή is still the sense or act of hearing, and ὑπακοή is still what happens next. But what happens after hearing is answering! It is, to be sure, a positive response, a confirmation of what we heard -- but a response in conversation, not to a command. And of course it takes a genitive object, just as the act of hearing does. We never hear all of what we're responding to, nor do we respond to all of what we hear. There's always some remainder.

So, ὑπακοὴ πίστεως: the response of faith. The faithful or trusting response. Fidelity of response. The response that is to trust. Which requires that what we've heard be trustworthy. We do not hang our trust on something that doesn't ring true. So it is also the response to faithfulness, to the one who proves faithful and whose word is trustworthy.

Which brings me back to "the Christmas story" -- no, not the movie. The answers there are all negative. "You'll shoot your eye out, kid." No; I mean the melange of Luke and Matthew that has become the staple of chancel dramas this time of year. And in it, I've been hearing a lot of things that don't seem trustworthy on their face. The more theological rationale creeps in, the more I don't understand the obedience of Mary and Joseph, in this story. In the genesis story of Christian existence. In a story patterned on the rationales of atonement theory. In a story where the permission of this insultingly intrusive pregnancy has no payoff for the actors -- because it relies on "taking one for the team". The good of the many relies on the shameful endangering of one teenage girl in the affront to her troth pledged to Joseph. What in that inspires a response of trust? For that matter, why do I credit such a story as trustworthy? Because the payoff is for me? Doesn't pass the sniff test. I wouldn't do it -- give me motivation. The salvation of the world, of humanity, of faceless masses doesn't cut it. She did it for me? Cow cookies. I don't exist. Give me the conversation in which this trusting response makes sense!

So let's look at Luke, who purports to give us those conversations. The incredible gets what it deserves in Luke 1. Zechariah goes in to work, and his lot gets chosen. So he goes in to make the incense offering, and what never happens -- happens. A messenger of the Lord, in the sanctuary of the Temple, by the appointed altar for the offering, to speak to him. To deliver the incredible answer to an impossible prayer. Not only are you and Elizabeth going to have a son, but he's going to be a Nazirite, take after Elijah, and be the correction of your entire nation. Really? And so Zechariah asks for proof. And what proof is he given? The name of the messenger, the Strength of God, who stands before the Lord -- and the inability to speak for about 9 months.

So far, no trusting obedience. Incredulity at the incredible, and "proof" that's a bit smitey. So far, hearing is not believing. But why should Zechariah have trusted? Not because of the words, surely. Hearing isn't about the words alone. We do not so much hear the words, as the one who speaks them. And Luke seems to get this. The answer to Zechariah's doubt is not your usual discourse on how you will know the event that the prophet has announced. This is no prophet, to be treated doubtfully. This is Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God -- so apparently, when you hear an angel tell you something, you'd better listen.

Ah, but surely Mary gives better than Zechariah -- surely she is our example of faithful response. But no; Mary receives the angelic greeting, and is "entirely agitated and wholly puzzled as to what kind of greeting this would be." And if you heard the reasonably ambiguous greeting, "Hello, recipient: your master is with you," you might be disturbed about the implications, too. "Favored one" doesn't quite cut it here. This is a greeting from a messenger of one superior to you, who wishes to bestow a "gift" on you. An obligation. You become the recipient. Oh, and the clarification is so much better: "Don't be afraid, Mary -- you have risen in status before God." Says exactly what the first thing did, if a bit clearer.

So what's the boon, m'lord? "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will surname him Joshua." A superlative offspring, destined to be king over Israel and Judah. The Davidic messiah, read between the lines. And Mary says, "Ahem -- virgo intacta here. How, exactly, do you plan on me getting pregnant?" "Oh, God takes care of that bit. To assure that the child will be known as the son of God, and holy, all that, you know. But don't worry, your cousin Elizabeth also has a highly unlikely offspring. You two should chat." "Well then. I appear to be God's maidservant; may it happen to me as you have said." And then she ran to Elizabeth and Zechariah's house and stayed there for a few months, presumably without Joseph.

And thereafter we have two composed hymns, the first from Mary, and the second from Zechariah. And the Mary-Elizabeth dialogue seems dubbed over what actually was said between them -- Luke doesn't exactly write convincing girl-talk. But we can at least guess that Elizabeth wanted a child -- Mary and Joseph hadn't gotten around to trying. However incredulous Zechariah remained after his angelic visitation, it was still the answer to prayer, and it matched their intentions. His wife's pregnancy remained a cause for joy. His son and the angelic purpose that he'd spent nine months mulling over and getting used to are a source for fatherly pride. Elizabeth's pregnancy is confirmation of the trustworthiness of the message and the goodwill of the God who has graced them with an answer to prayer.

Joseph, on the other hand -- Joseph is an NPC in this game. He is not an agent; he follows the demand of the story with minimal characterization. Heck, even Elizabeth gets lines! She's kind of essential to the process of producing John, what with her inarticulate husband. Elizabeth is a supporting actress -- Joseph is scenery. Only nominally necessary to the production. No wonder we intrude with Matthew's account of Joseph!

This all puts me in a bit of a bind. You see, I want to save the story. I want there to be a trusting response, the one we assume there is because Luke writes it. But really, the story of the "obedience of faith" is last year's story, from Matthew. Odd, that Matthew should be more like Acts than Luke is, in terms of divine micromanagement. Luke is interested in getting us to these two men, to the beginning of Mark, with the sort of Hellenistically acceptable through-composition of the story that requires divine intervention and origins appropriate to their characters. He isn't interested in the sort of "quis et unde" questions that Matthew answers with a travelogue and associated political intrigues. Luke erects a framework that gets us to the two men, and builds a story that confesses the faith of the audience in those two men through hymnody, and then he leaves the gantry scaffolding behind and follows their trajectories.

I wish I could see Luke 1 in terms of the obedience of faith -- but the only way I have of doing that is in terms of the faithful response of his audience and his community to the story. And that is liturgically to sing doxology with Mary and Zechariah. In no other way can I find Luke ringing true -- until his real characters arrive on the scene. I do not trust him, or his Gabriel, any more than Zechariah or Mary do. I continue to doubt right along with them this year -- until it happens. Until that faithfulness of God's comes along. So I will sing with Zechariah of the answer to prayer, of the God who is trustworthy and faithful.

And then I will rejoice at Mark's storytelling of this one who is the trustworthy and faithful messiah, and be thankful that there's a whole year of Mark ahead before we have to deal with Luke's narrative in its entirety.


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