Lectionary Commentaries for August 14, 2011
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

James Boyce

Boundaries and Faith

Reversals and contrasts mark Matthew’s wonderfully and intricately-woven story of a Canaanite woman’s faith.

Unique to Matthew’s narrative, Jesus in his preaching has challenged his hearers to learn the ways of God’s mercy (see 9:13 and 12:7). Now in a favorite Matthean motif (see 14:13 and elsewhere), Jesus “withdraws” and enters territory in which the boundaries of God’s mercy is tested. 

Under Matthew’s hand Mark’s parallel story (7:24–30) has been completely transformed into a story of remarkable faith in an unexpected place.  In Mark’s story both the culminating reference to the faith of the woman and the disciples, who play so significant a role in this story, are completely absent.  Here as characters and theme they join the central figures of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in an intense and weighty encounter.

Even the animals get into the story as the suggestive and provocative images and roles of sheep and dogs join these characters and permeate the tightly interlocking and contested dialog. One soon wonders just who in the end are meant to be the sheep and who the dogs in this story? And what of the “shepherd” who seems caught in the middle of this exchange? Largely lost in translations is the choral contest that Matthew has set up–with the woman on one side and the disciples (who do not even appear in Mark’s narrative) on the other. 

Identified as a foreigner, still this Canaanite woman has all the appropriate language of a true Israelite. She persistently cries out for God’s mercy (the Greek imperfect underscores the repetition, while in her kyrie eleison one is certainly meant to hear the worship language of the faithful). 

On the other side her pleas are matched by the shouts of the disciples, “get rid of her!” (in the original Greek their words are an alliterative and ironic echo of the woman’s cry: apolyson).  With dramatic effect the story sets before us a Jesus flanked by two competing choruses: on one side one lone creature crying “kyrie eleison,” and on the other a band of bullies shouting her down with their “apolyson.”

Checking IDs

So stretch your imaginations to entertain the scene. Gathered in one corner are those familiar disciples, for Matthew the true blue representatives of the faithful lost sheep of Israel,  now leaping into the fray like so many ravenous beasts, as it were self-styled guarantors of the holy tradition, on their guard lest the mercies of God be wasted on the unworthy. Like a gang of watchdogs at the door they are about the checking of IDs and keeping out the non-pedigreed riffraff.  On the other side of the gate stands this outsider, a woman no less, one lone representative of the dogs of religion, now become as it were a lost sheep plaintively pleading for the mercy of the master shepherd. No English translation can capture Matthew’s careful orchestration of the painful choral refrain. “Lord, have mercy,” the dog’s solo bleating cry. “Get rid of her,” the “lost-sheep chorus” barks back in reply.

And what of the master, the Messiah? Do our ears deceive us when this harbinger of good news now seems to join these “bouncers,” not only refusing to answer her pleas, but even seeming to join in with a few sharp licks of his own. As Matthew’s story makes clear, Jesus reply “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24) is addressed not to the woman but to his disciples. And when not to be put off by Jesus’ silence, she persists in her pleas for help, addressing him again as “Lord,” still Jesus seems to add to the rejection.

Now he addresses her directly with a comment about the injustice of throwing to the “dogs” what belongs to the children (15:26).  Not surprising that the resulting picture of Jesus and his response is so troubling that many interpreters have sought to soften or explain away the clear and direct language of the text.

Faith Stands its Ground

And here the stage is set for an astounding reversal. Surely here we meet the climactic focus of this story, that wondrously-strange and persistent faith that stands its ground against all opposition. This woman is not to be put off, and against all the signs of apparent hopelessness, doggedly stands her ground, persistently seeking the Lord’s help, even if it is only to be in those meager crumbs that might fall from the “master’s” table. And in the wonderful surprise that is the miracle of faith, she meets the gracious healing power of God’s Messiah.

Matthew’s Jesus has elsewhere chastised the “little faith” of these disciples (8:26; 14:31; 16:8), but here, in the only occurrence of this conjoined adjective in the whole New Testament, Jesus praises the “great faith” of this woman and commands that her plea be granted. No sooner are the words spoken than it is done. We are told that the woman’s daughter is healed instantly (in contrast Mark’s narrative delays the discovery until the woman returns home; 7:30).  As if in response to this “great faith,” in the verses that follow today’s lesson, Jesus breaks out in healings that amaze the crowds and call forth the praises of God (15:29-31).

And what of us who hear this story? Can it be that its subtle reversals and surprises intend to work some transformation in our lives as well? To open us up to see the wondrously extravagant reaches of God’s mercies? For surely this is the gospel’s call for all Jesus’ followers, constantly at risk as potential “unfaiths,” not to assume the role of greedy bouncers at the door checking IDs, but to take our places on our knees as ones who cling for mercy with that same persistent faith that turns us around and plants us shoulder to shoulder with this woman, side by side with all the outcasts, the wounded, the hungry, the lonely, the homeless.

It seems hardly accidental that this story is placed within a framework of Jesus’ Galilean ministry in Matthew that begins in 14:13-21 with the story of the feeding of the five thousand and is followed almost immediately by the story of the feeding of the four thousand (15:32-39). In these stories the compassionate mercy of God, the persistence of faith, and the gift of that bread which supplies our every need are all bound together. Elbow to elbow around the master’s table, as we receive even a meager morsel, a few crumbs, by God’s mercy they become for us the gift of finest wheat, a saving Word of hope and renewal and life.

The longer reading that includes verses 10-20 just preceding this story may be joined to this one by this common theme of bread and eating, but more likely should be linked around the themes of clean and unclean, and inside and outside. Much like the story of the Canaanite woman, Jesus’ parable raises questions about the understanding of where the boundaries of God’s mercies are to be located. Traditional ways of locating what is unclean or outside are called into question as Jesus calls for a new understanding and a new heart as the origin and center of God’s ways among us.

Like the story of the woman who as an outsider experiences God’s mercy and so challenges a too-narrow tradition that would want to restrict God’s mercies to a chosen few, so these sayings invite a reexamination of our hearts and call us to a new appraisal of the expansive reach of God’s mercies.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Ingrid Lilly

Imagine a trumpet bleating atop the highest peak to announce the gathering of all the peoples of the world.

This is not just any gathering, like a U2 concert, or an Inauguration, or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, but a great convention of the world for joyful worship of the Lord. 

Isaiah’s vision of salvation culminates in an international gathering of prayer. Prayer! What’s more, this gathering for prayer signals God’s deliverance! A radical deliverance, indeed. Even within a world of military zones, sectarianism, poverty, social injustice, and ideological fissure, Isaiah opens our eyes to a most unlikely international gathering: outsiders’ pilgrimage to prayer. 

Isaiah’s vision for the gathering of foreigners holds significance on several levels. First, it is politically bold. God is calling non-Israelites into his sacred house. Second, it tells a spiritual narrative. The pilgrimage does not come easily, rejection awaits. Third, the vision challenges strict notions of religiosity through the power of prayer. Isaiah was making progressive theological claims for his day. 

Historical Context: Gathering Israel, Gathering Foreign Nations

The historical context for Isaiah 56 sheds light on the idea of gathering. From 587-516 CE, the Israelites endured a Babylonian forced migration (exile) and were thus scattered throughout the neighboring nations. Distressed by the loss of homeland, Israel’s prophets encouraged the exiles with visions of a gathering and return. 

So for example, Isaiah 43:5-6 proclaims, “I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth.'” Isaiah, in particular, made that vision even more powerful by reminding the Israelites of their national story. In that story, God gave Hebrew slaves their own land after rescuing them from Egyptian oppression.  Isaiah invokes this old story of gathering Israel to bring hope to the exiled Israelites. A return to homeland involved hope that God would act on their behalf again. This is often called the “Second Exodus.” The exiles would be drawn out from the nations and gathered in their homeland.

By the time our passage was written, the prophet explains that the Second Exodus had already taken place. Isaiah 56 is usually dated to the post-exilic period, when some Israelites had already returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (516 BCE). Hence, for Isaiah, the great gathering of Israelites had come to pass. The Second Exodus from the nations had taken place. The national foundation story of the Exodus promised that Israel could rebuild its national life, once again. 

However, Isaiah 56 is not about a return of the Israelite exiles. Isaiah 56 promises that every person who calls on the name of the Lord will be gathered. The vision extends the promise to foreigners (as well as the eunuchs in verse 4 and the outcasts of Israel in verse 8). Israel’s great gathering invites outsiders to come in. Thus, all people “joined to the Lord” are now invited to God’s earthly house of worship. The scene is one of outsiders on a pilgrimage. 

A Political Gathering

Isaiah’s vision is all the more radical when considering the political status of these people “joined to the Lord.” Among those gathered, for example, there may have been Ammonites or Moabites; People from among Israel’s often enemy neighbors. Staying with this example, Israel fought against the Ammonites and Moabites and other such enemies during the period before the monarchy (e.g., Judges 11-12).

These sour relations continued to induce wars during the Davidic dynasty (e.g., 2 Kings 3). Israel’s prophets preached against these nations in the “oracles against foreign nations” (e.g., Ezekiel 25). Hence, the Hebrew Bible shows a clear history of antagonism and hatred between Israel and the “foreign nations.” 

Because of the antagonism, this is a politically charged gathering. It may be hard to appreciate this at first. Disney and Hollywood exert so much force over our imaginations, it is practically instinctual to picture something like the scene in the Lion King, when all the adorable and colorful animals converge for the lion’s birth. We mollify the gathering of the Animal Kingdom in order to romanticize zoological unity. 

By contrast, Isaiah’s gathering is politically unlikely. Imagine illegal immigrants, nations at odds, and refugees crossing strict military borders on pilgrimage towards prayer. Imagine a Western person having to cross into Iran or North Korea (typically unwelcoming of Westerners) heading towards a house of worship. There are border crossings going on in this vision. Border crossings that work against deep-seeded political and national identities. 

A Spiritual Pilgrimage

Second, Isaiah’s pilgrimage of outsiders suggests a spiritual narrative. The pilgrimage towards prayer is riddled with rejection and challenges. The plight of those gathered may be imagined from within the context of third Isaiah (chapters 56-66). In these chapters, we hear hints of their plaintive cry. So in Isaiah 63:16, outsiders express their sense of alienation, “you [Lord] are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our father; our Redeemer from of old is your name.” 

In the historical context, the post-exilic reconstruction was marked by disputes about foreigners. Indeed, foreigners were not well-received by these early Second Temple communities. Returning to our example from above, we hear that Moabites and Ammonites were singled out and removed from among the “people of Israel” (cf., Nehemiah 13:1-3). Third Isaiah may have been speaking about the seeds of this antagonism towards foreigners when he states, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:14). In other words, despite being joined to the Lord, the outsiders face social exclusion. 

Recognizing this plight, the experience of being excluded, helps to shape a spiritual narrative for our pilgrims. When the institutions and people in power withhold membership, the pilgrimage of outsiders requires courage, strength, character, perseverance, etc. Third Isaiah offers a bold vision of God’s work on pilgrims’ behalf. Se we hear encouragement such as, “prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way” (Isaiah 57:14). The obstructions on the pilgrimage require God’s power.

A Religious Vision

Isaiah’s vision of international gathering has profound implications for how we understand religion and religious identity. The common denominator of these people who are “joined to the Lord” is a house of worship and prayer. For anyone who has worked in ecumenism or with interfaith communities, decisions about a common house of worship or how to engage the divine with prayer are not simple. 

Indeed, Isaiah does not provide any detail about how this will work. These details are left to the imagination. However, the vision boldly claims that prayer can unite people of faith in God. Indeed, prayer is the hope to which God’s pilgrims travel. People united before God in prayer: this is the eschatological hope of the faithful.

Who are these pilgrims? Such a question only draws out our speculations. Global Christianity is alive and kicking. So are global monotheistic religions, which would include Judaism and Islam. Have other religions joined themselves to the Lord? To what extent does this passage push our boundaries about religious orthodoxy?

It certainly gestures towards the cultural richness involved in worshipping the Lord. However, it also opens up the question of religious identity and institutional affiliation. At least according to Isaiah 56, God’s deliverance of the world is revealed through the pilgrimage of outsiders. 

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15

Wil Gafney

The story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers is among the most tender in the scriptures.

His own brothers hated him, (Genesis 37:4), and kidnapped him, (Genesis 37:23). They had even planned to murder him, (Genesis 37: 18ff). They “settled” for selling him into slavery, (Genesis 37:28), a possible if not likely death sentence.

And now, in today’s lesson Joseph is in a position to get revenge on them. They need him. He does not need them. The famine that he Pharaoh has dreamed about has come to pass, (Genesis 41:17ff); Egypt has grain in abundance because of Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream and their mutual stewardship in preparation, (Genesis 41:49). Yet Joseph does not take revenge on his brothers. He provides for them and their families. He receives them as his brothers. He embraces and forgives them.

The lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph’s rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.

Joseph’s experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here but God” should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph’s perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.

The focus on Joseph, his perceptions and his experiences in the narrative is a reminder that biblical literature, like all literature, has its own perspectives and biases. The text is not interested in the wellbeing of any of Pharaoh’s other slaves and indeed has reported on Pharaoh’s idiosyncratic practices of imprisoning, freeing and executing them at will in Genesis 40:20-21.

Today’s lesson presents an opportunity to think about the claim that the God of the scriptures is the God of all and, the Israelite perspective in the scriptures that God is on their side and not that of the Egyptians or the Canaanites or any other peoples. While subsequent biblical writings will proclaim a God of universal fidelity and justice, this is not one of them.

Christian readers have been quick historically to identify ourselves with the Israelites, as a result many have never thought about the fate of the ordinary Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian and other peoples who are decimated at the margins of the Israelite scriptures. Yet Joseph himself stands as a bridge between cultures. He lives as an Egyptian with an Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah and an Egyptian wife, Asenath, (see Genesis 41:45). Their children Ephraim and Manasseh (and the tribes they represent) are half-Egyptian. His brothers Judah and Simeon also marry and have children with women from the surrounding communities, (see Genesis chapter 38 and 46:10). His grandfather Laban, Rachel’s father (who was also his great uncle as the brother of his grandmother Rebekah), was an Aramean, Genesis 25:20. And his great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah were from Chaldea which would later become Babylonia and in our time, Iraq.

Joseph’s complicated family history teaches us that Israelite identity was a cultural and religious one and not an ethnic or even national one in his time — and for some time to come. In Joseph’s story the Israelites and Egyptians are not pitted against one another. There will be enough food for all because of his stewardship. Indeed the later oppressive relationship between the Egyptians and the Israelites will develop because of the ascension of a Pharaoh who does not remember Joseph, who does not know anything about him or what he did for both of their peoples, (Exodus 1:8).

Remembering Joseph, telling his story, means remembering that some family relationships are deeply troubled, even violent. Remembering Joseph means reminding ourselves that even in the most deeply troubled family that has experienced unimaginable rupture, that forgiveness and healing are possible. Remembering Joseph and telling his story through this lessen provides an opportunity to reflect on our stewardship, generosity and relationships with others, neighbors and strangers. And lastly, today’s lesson with its focus on Joseph reminds us that our actions have consequences that we may not be able to foresee.

One of the unexpected legacies of Joseph and his administration in Egypt was that he who had been sold into slavery and been raised to power and privilege, developed and deployed the very institution of slavery under which his own people would suffer for four hundred years. As he represented his adopted land and people during the great famine, Joseph took everything the Egyptian people had in exchange for food: their money (Genesis 47:14), their livestock (Genesis 47:16), and their land (Genesis 47:20), but it was not enough. In Genesis 47:21, Joseph “enslaved the Egyptian people from one end of Egypt to the other.” Joseph may have been forgotten, but his wholesale commodification of people, their bodies and their labor was not.


Commentary on Psalm 67:1-7

Rolf Jacobson

A Liturgy of Blessing

As the twice-repeated refrain (verses 3, 5) indicates, Psalm 67 is a song meant for public worship.

We can imagine a worship leader or choir singing the body of the psalm, with the congregation or a larger choir intoning the refrain:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

The theme of the psalm is blessing. The psalm begins with a request for blessing. The words of the Aaronic benediction normally close worship services:”The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). Here, those words are slightly tweaked and are used to open the psalm: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” 

Blessing: God’s Gracious Activity 

The theological category of blessing is one of the most important in the Old Testament–a theme that is often underappreciated in protestant theology. The great theologian Claus Westermann contrasted two general aspects of God’s merciful action towards humanity: God’s saving activity and God’s blessing activity.1 For good reason, protestant Old Testament theology has strongly emphasized God’s saving activity–forgiving sin, rescuing from oppression, saving from death and the like. But the Old Testament consistently speaks of another sphere of God’s mercy: the blessing activity of God–fruitful harvests, fertility, health, prosperity, and the like. Psalm 67 majors in an area in which the church has often minored–the longing request for God’s blessing.

Like God’s saving activity, God’s blessing activity is available by grace alone. This is true in two senses. First, even though some blessing is made available through the law (and thus it may appear that blessing is conditional and comes as a result of works righteousness), the law itself is sheer gift–not something that was earned by Israel, but an unexpected, breathtaking, welcome gift of grace.

The law was bestowed as a gracious gift in order that life might thrive–as a sign that God has drawn near to the covenant people. As Moses says in Deuteronomy 4:7-8, “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”  

Second, God’s blessing is by grace alone because God blesses whom God chooses, when God chooses, for the reasons God chooses. God’s blessings are gracious, surprising, unexpected gifts. This is clear throughout the biblical narrative. One need think only of Sarah. God announces to Abraham in Genesis 17 that, “I will bless her and will surely give her a son by you” (verse 16). Abraham then laughs at God and counter-offers, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight” (verse 18). God does answer Abraham’s prayer and blesses Ishmael, too. But God goes Abraham one better and saves the most surprising blessing for Sarah. A free gift of grace. Or, one might think of Mary. The unsuspected maiden whom all generations now called, “Blessed.”

Blessing: Already and Still

In Psalm 67, the poet begins by asking for God’s blessing in verse 1 and requests God’s continued blessing in verse 7: “May God continue to bless us.” But the poet also stands in the people’s midst and announces God’s blessing: “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us” (verse 6). And this is often the role of the public, Christian leader: to ask the Lord to bless and even at the same time to remind God’s people of how much God has already done. 

In Psalm 67, the poet has the fruits of harvest in mind: “the earth has yielded its increase.” The bounty of nature is not a bad place to start–the image of trees bearing fruit, fields yielding grain, and pastures teeming with livestock communicate blessing even today, when so little of the population is in direct contact with farming. But other images can be added:  the beauty of nature, the birth of a new generation, the existence of good government and public servants, the love of parents and friends, good health and good medical care, music and joy. One could keep going. 

Why must the Christian leader remind people of God’s blessings? Because it is easy to forget. Recently, as I left a baseball stadium on an absolutely beautiful day, I heard one young man mumble to his friend, “What has God ever done for me?” The implication seemed to be both that God hadn’t done anything and that everything the young man had in life was the result of his own hard work. It is good–even necessary–for the Christian leader to stand in front of the assembly and remind us of all our blessings. And it necessary–even good–for the Christian leader to stand in front of God and ask for the Lord’s continued to blessings.  God has blessed us richly. And we rely on God’s continued blessings.

Blessing:  Foundation of God’s Mission

But the psalm has one more important lesson to teach about God’s blessing activity–God blesses for the sake of mission. Indeed, God’s blessing is the foundation of mission. Within the psalm, it is clear that the ultimate purpose of God’s blessing is mission: “that your way be known on earth, your saving power among all nations” (verse 2). So that the peoples and nations might praise God.

This emphasis in the psalm is also the basis of Israel’s identity. According to Genesis 12, the reason that God elected Israel in the first place was for the purpose of mission–that Israel would itself be a means of grace. God chose Abraham and Sarah and promised them descendants and also promised that “you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (verses 2b-3). 

The message is repeated in Exodus 19, when God renewed the covenant with the descendants of Abraham whom he had just rescued from Egypt. The Lord said, “you shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (verse 6). And what did the priest to do, other than be the channel of divine blessing? Israel was not chosen for its own sake, but was chosen for the sake of mission. And Israel was not blessed either because of who it was or for its own benefit. Israel was blessed so that all the families of the earth may be blessed through it.

When we pray with Psalm 67 that “God continue to bless us” or when we end the end of the worship service with the wish that “the Lord’s face shine upon you,” we do so for the sake of God’s mission. In order that through God’s people, all of the world might experience God’s saving help.

1See Westermann, Elements of Old Testament Theology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982).

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Matt Skinner

Getting down to brass tacks, Paul poses the question bluntly in Romans 11:1: “Has God rejected his people?”

I like his equally blunt answer: “Hell, no!”

I know, your Bible probably says something more polite, like “By no means!” or “Absolutely not!” The expression is mē genoito, an emphatic denial Paul utters nine other times in Romans after posing a ludicrous theological question (such as, in 9:14, “Is there injustice with God?”). Although Paul treats the questions as preposterous, still he makes us consider them, just for a moment, so he can show how crucial is their denial.

I believe–but haven’t been able to confirm–it was J. Christiaan Beker who took the liberty of translating Paul’s answer as “Hell, no!” I think “No freaking way!” also works, for our day and age.

But we need to know why the question is so important, if we are to know why the emphatic denial is utterly crucial, for Christians and Jews alike.

The Faithfulness of God

As I mentioned in the commentary for two weeks ago, regarding Romans 9:1-5, Paul will have no part in a theology that implies God will not keep promises. If God will not prove faithful to promises made throughout Israel’s history, Christians have no good reason to expect God will keep the ones made to us through Christ. The fidelity of God remains a bedrock of Paul’s theology, something he learned early as a Jew and had confirmed through his encounter with Christ.

Paul poses his key question (“Has God rejected his people?”) after having characterized the situation as similar to one described in Isaiah, where God waits patiently for a disobedient and unresponsive people.

Paul doesn’t develop much of an argument in response to the question. It’s pretty simple for him. God cannot have rejected the people “whom he foreknew” (11:2), simply because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). That’s how God rolls, as we say in our day and age.

As a result, Paul can confidently claim that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26) and will experience “full inclusion” (11:12) in God’s salvation. Don’t miss or undersell these important statements.

Admittedly, Paul’s road to toward these confident assertions is winding, raising serious questions about what exactly he means by “Israel” (9:6-9), inclusion (11:12, 17-24), and the notion of a God who hardens hearts (9:18; 11:25). Tensions weave their way through Romans 9-11, tensions between strong claims about God’s fidelity and less-than-satisfying arguments about the details of God’s master plan concerning Jews who have not embraced Jesus Christ. Paul cannot neatly reconcile the tensions; today’s preachers should avoid trying to do what Paul couldn’t.

(I should note that today’s gospel reading, from Matthew 15, includes its own share of tensions about Jews and gentiles. I recommend preachers avoid the temptation to collapse one passage too neatly into the other one. Best to preach on just one of these texts this Sunday.)

Living in the Tensions

The lectionary, perhaps attempting to protect people from the tough language of 11:25 and 11:28, does us no favors by omitting the first half of 11:25. There Paul counsels his readers against presuming they can figure out what God is up to, and he also calls the situation a “mystery.”

“Mystery” here does not mean “enigma.” It’s something that’s accessible or revealed only to those on the inside, with privileged access. It seems Paul is referring to something that makes no sense on the surface but will finally emerge with clarity in the end, when God’s purposes have been worked out.

This mystery involves the “disobedience” in which, Paul believed, some of his contemporary Jews dwelled–“some,” excepting those who were already in Christ. (On how Paul introduces this notion of “disobedience” in Romans 10:16, recall last week’s commentary on 10:5-15.) But in 11:30-32 Paul quickly expands the set of those who dwell in disobedience. As those who remember Romans 1-3 know, all people dwell in disobedience. As a result, the salvation of all is predicated on God’s mercy.

Paul’s main emphasis, once again, is on God. The conclusion of the “arguments” set forth in Romans 9-11 comes in 11:32. However God works, and for whatever reasons God works, God works so that God “may be merciful to all” (11:32).

All the handwringing in these chapters, therefore, isn’t just about figuring out “the status of the Jewish people”; it’s about reaffirming that God calls people–all people–out of wrath, judgment, and sins. God does this to prove God’s righteousness and loyalty (as we learned in Romans 3:21-26 ).

As I’ve said repeatedly about Romans 9-11 during this three-week run of lectionary readings, likewise again here we find a passage primarily about God’s faithfulness, less about the successes and failures of people’s faith. As Charles Cousar sagely said concerning these chapters: “Israel remains the object of God’s love and retains a place in God’s saving purposes. It is not because Israel has demonstrated or will demonstrate tenacious fidelity that it continues to be God’s chosen people, but because God has demonstrated and will demonstrate such fidelity.”1

It seems to me that Paul is making a move preachers should recognize well. Faced with difficult, unexplainable circumstances (in Paul’s case, the apparent “hardening” of his Jewish kinfolk), Paul stumbles around with a little theological speculation about God’s purposes but soon turns to something much more helpful: emphasizing a firmer foundation, something that makes more sense (in this case, God’s mercy). Anyone who has presided over the funeral of a child or helped a community through a natural disaster knows how this works. We can’t pretend to know all the answers, and we often make things worse by trying to explain things. But we can–we must!–trust that God will be merciful.

Why do we trust in this mercy? Because, finally, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

Mercy Wins

The last word in Paul’s argument–really, it’s the final word in the Greek sentence in 11:32–is “mercy.” (He uses the verb eleeō, “show mercy.”) In the end, God is merciful. We might not understand how everything will work out, but God will see to it. Faith rests on hopes like this.

Even though the flow of Romans 11 appears to give him several opportunities for making such a move, Paul stops short of explicitly saying that Christianity must be the means by which the Jewish people will experience their ultimate salvation. Many preachers will see wisdom in following Paul’s lead and refusing to offer simplistic explanations where Paul finds it better to leave the details up to God. The primary impetus of anyone’s salvation, in every case, is the mercy of God.

But we’re wise to reaffirm the theological bedrock on which Paul repeatedly refuses to compromise (in claims such as “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”). This bedrock, anchored in the faithfulness of God, should be the central movement of a sermon. There are plenty of other things that life throws our way to create dissonance with these claims, to make us doubt them. But we do ourselves no favors in trying to make theological sense of our circumstances and our future unless we have a God whose character rings true to statements like these.

What have we learned, then, over three weeks with Romans 9-11? The main point Paul returns to in his sometimes tortuous discussion is this: when it comes to accomplishing salvation, everything is in God’s hands–not in the hands of the church, nor in those of “Israel.”

We can learn a lot from the final movement of Paul’s discussion (in Romans 11:33-36):

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” [derived from Isaiah 40:13 LXX]. “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” [derived from Job 41:11]. For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.

Paul concludes, not with persuasion or theological argumentation, but with doxology. This is where our reflections on God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy, and God’s mysteries are supposed to take us.

Preachers would do well to add these verses to their readings, to remind us that humility and wonder should guide us when we consider salvation–ours or anyone else’s. Theological reflection, rightly undertaken, demands such a posture.

1Charles B. Cousar, The Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 115