First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 9

William Loader

Pentecost 9: 14 August  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

This is the third time we dip into Paul's struggle with the objection that his gospel entails betraying his heritage and his nation. We take it up again at the point where he asks whether God has abandoned Israel (11:1). His answer is a resounding: no. But at first his answer is somewhat limited: he is an Israelite (11:1). He means: he has not been abandoned. Jews like himself who have responded to the gospel are a remnant of Israel who have listened to God. He goes on in 11:2b, beyond our passage, to cite the example of Elijah, who felt depressed because everyone had forsaken God (11:2b-3). This was not, in fact, so in Elijah's time, as Paul points out (11:4). In his day there are Jews like himself who have responded and are a remnant in the same way.

That, however, is only a partial answer. What irks his opponents - and apparently also unsettles Paul - is the notion that all the rest could be thought of as abandoned. We see hints of this already in his words in 11:2a: "God has not abandoned his people whom he foreknew". The words, "whom he foreknew", allude to God's choice of Israel. That is a major issue. Paul is not so much thinking legally as ethically. How can God choose people and then write them off? His answer about a remnant is not an adequate answer and he knows it. Nor really is his next argument in 11:11-24, which suggests God has been controlling what had happened, deliberately causing Israel to reject Christ, that is, hardening them, so that the gospel would go to the Gentiles. Paul is scraping the bottom of the barrel. It also gives him a chance to caution Gentiles in Rome not to become arrogant and for that he employs the image of the root stock and the graft. Paul's understanding of God leads him to try such explanations.

But ultimately what drives Paul's thought is less his theism and the need to rationalise events to show God is in control - after the holocaust that has become very problematic - but rather his notion of God as compassionate. It reminds us of Hosea 11: how can God give up Israel? There the image of the caring parent is used. Here, Paul reaches the climax of his struggle with the issue by asserting hope. He has no idea how - it is "a mystery" - but he insists: all Israel will be saved (11:25-26). It is a great pity that we skip these verses. Paul finds it hard to believe that God could ever write Israel off and he knows the answer is not really to say: well, Christian Jews only will be saved.

We see here an understanding of God that senses the incoherence between speaking of love and grace in the present and speaking of permanent rejection (and punishment) in the future. Christians have mostly lived with this incoherence and it helps explain the incoherence of much that Christians have done throughout history: espousing love and espousing hate simultaneously, even making it the basis for evangelism through threat and for atonement through seeing Jesus' death as the buying off of God's unrelenting hate (or rejection) by having it imposed only on Jesus. These are crude notions which have the effect of legitimising hate. Paul prises open new possibilities by suggesting God continues to be characterised by grace even into the future and so cannot abandon Israel, any more than a good parent would abandon a child.

Our passage (11:28-32) brings these thoughts in summary. God's gifts (gifts of grace) and God's choice in love of a people must remain valid (11:29); not on legal grounds but on the grounds of God's being. God's compassion always has the last word according to Paul (11:30-31). Even when he embraces a belief in God as somehow in control of the fact that all disobey, the end game is love (11:32). What a wonderful vision: God wants to have compassion towards all people - and will! How appropriate then that he lifts us beyond reasoned reflection to doxology in 11:33-36, which, alas, fall outside our passage. In the end - in and through all there is God! And God, in the end, is the God of compassion!

Gospel  Pentecost 9: 14 August Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28

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