First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 8

William Loader

Pentecost 8: 3 August  Romans 9:1-5

If we forget Paul's situation, it is easy to think that Romans 1-8 is the main substance of his letter to the Romans. After that it peters out. Such an assumption rightly notes the climax which Romans 8 brings: we can face the future with confidence. We look to the transformation of all people and the whole universe. Yet Paul's concerns cannot be divided up in that way. He has been under attack not only for setting the Law aside, but also for betraying his own people. How can he reduce Jew and Gentile to the same level as he does in Romans 2 and 3 without calling Israel's special place into question? This is behind the questions he poses to himself there: has the Jew no advantage? (3:1; 3:9).

Romans 9 is simply continuing his response. It is deeply personal because such accusations strike at the heart of what he considers precious. In our passage he declares himself. Far from now not caring for his own people any longer, he cares very deeply. 9:1 is fully taken up with trying to assure the Romans of his genuineness. Then in 9:2 he goes on to declare his deep personal involvement. He grieves for his people. 9:3 goes even further: he would be willing to be cursed if only it brought about their salvation. That is dramatic.

In 9:4-5 he focuses on their identity by listing all their blessings. He had begun to spell out such advantages in 3:2, even beginning what sounded like it would be a list by saying "first", but then never going further than that. Here he goes further. Here we finally get the list. As people of Israel they are God's adopted children. This assumes a special relationship, not shared in this way by others. The glory doubtless includes the benefits of experiencing God's glory. Covenants form an important part of the Genesis story. Paul is thinking particularly of those relating to Israel, such as the covenant with Abraham. The blessings also include the Law and (temple) worship which much of the Law regulates. The promises may include the covenant promises, but more than likely refer to the prophets. The focus then falls on "the fathers", especially the patriarchs, especially Moses and possibly David.

The special nature of Israel is marked not least by the fact that Jesus the Christ (Messiah) was one of them through physical descent. The passage ends with some ambiguity. Does it declare God forever blessed as a closing acclamation? Or is it making a claim that Jesus is God forever blessed? I think the former best fits Paul's pattern of thought elsewhere.

These are important assertions. Paul has neither abandoned his people nor does he espouse the view that they are just like any other people. He really does think they have had a special role. He really does value that. Christ's coming has not altered that fact. He would understand why we have a so-called Old Testament which we treasure. There is something special there (which does not mean we must disparage all other traditions). Paul has not swung into anti-semitism or changed into neutral as far as Israel is concerned.

It is interesting to observe what is happening here. Partly it is a rhetorical ploy on Paul's part to reassure and blunt the criticisms. One might imagine, however, that those listening to his letter might respond all the more vigorously: then why on earth are you teaching what you teach? On Paul's part it is, however, much more than a rhetorical ploy. Paul engages the issue and he takes other people seriously and wants people to know it. He is not one for short-cuts which could simply dismiss Israel. It belongs to his gospel to take people seriously. That includes Israel, even though many of its adherents are giving him a hard time.

There follows a series of arguments in which Paul tries to explain himself and his gospel and its implications for thinking about Israel. They are tortuous and uneven. Running through them is the assertion that Israel can get it wrong and for the most part has got it wrong about Jesus as it did about the prophets. God has been involved in the twists and turns of history. Paul seems shakiest in seeming to attribute Israel's failure to God's scheming. Sometimes it sounds like a common rationalisation of failure and disappointment. But Paul never surrenders the goodness (righteousness of God). It keeps reasserting itself, so that finally he almost gives up the explanations and simply asserts a mystery: God will never abandon Israel. How can you abandon your own? How can a parent give up on a child? Nor will God and nor does Paul. Paul's understanding of God is his ultimate answer - even when he is at a loss to know how it will all work out. He refuses to entertain the notion that God will write Israel off. That is very radical and Christians soon abandoned such daring. Thoroughgoing love is too hard to contemplate for so many - even today. We need people to write off - do we really?

Gospel  Pentecost 8: 3 August Matthew 14:13-21

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