The Common Good
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Pray and Act

In Galatians 2:15-21 Paul offers a classic statement about an alternative life that is lived out of God’s limitless generosity for which we use the term “grace.” The other readings may be taken as commentary on this contrast between a graced life and a life propelled and measured by self-securing.

The psalm voices a prayer for God’s attentive protection against “boastful evil-doers” (5:5) who are “blood-thirsty and deceitful” (5:6) and counted as “my enemies” (5:8). As usual, the psalm provides no particulars about the social crisis reflected in the prayer. If we look for a set of particulars that fit this prayer, the narrative of 1 Kings 21 provides such a case. We may imagine Naboth, owner of a small plot of land that the king covets, as the petitioner in the psalm. And King Ahab, with his co-conspirator Jezebel, qualifies as “blood-thirsty and deceitful” evil-doers who are clearly adversaries of Naboth in their quest for his land that eventually requires his life. Naboth himself does not pray in the narrative. But the subsequent intervention of Elijah the prophet indicates just such an advocacy for “your righteousness” in the face of usurpatious wickedness (Psalm 5:8). Thus the narrative of Naboth and the generic voice of the psalm give flesh to Paul’s defining categories.

In the Luke’s gospel, moreover, the “woman of the city who as a sinner” (7:37) acts with uncommon generosity toward Jesus, while the host Pharisee stands, with the self-securing, under Paul’s indictment. The contrast is clear and complete: “You gave me no water for my feet … you gave me no kiss … you did not anoint my head with oil” (7:44-45). She is forgiven while the host receives nothing from Jesus. All of these texts witness to the summons put before us by the gospel, a choice between self-securing that brings death or reliance upon God’s generosity. The psalmist prays and the woman performs. Both prayer and performance belong properly to the new life offered in God’s goodness.

Walter Brueggemann was a Sojourners contributing editor and professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, when this article appeared.