Lectionary Commentaries for August 16, 2020
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Mitzi J. Smith

When Jesus entered Tyre and Sidon, an indigenous Canaanite woman formed a one-woman welcoming committee.1

Jesus is no stranger to Tyre and Sidon; he compared that region to Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where the inhabitants did not respond positively to Jesus’ miracles.

Thus Matthew’s readers might anticipate Jesus doing powerful deeds in Tyre and Sidon and a positive response (Matthew 11:20-24). The Canaanite woman’s greeting is part of a pattern; we find her words on the lips of others who approach Jesus with pressing needs: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22; see also 9:27 and 20:30).

The Matthean Jesus is the son of David from the beginning of the narrative as revealed in the genealogy (Matthew 1:1, 16). Perhaps with her initial words, the woman is claiming an ancestral relationship to Jesus. Three women in Jesus’ genealogy are Canaanite women: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth (Matthew 1:3, 5). The anonymous woman’s foremothers are Jesus’ kinfolk.

The words “Have mercy” demonstrate the Canaanite woman’s knowledge of his power and willingness to show mercy on all who approach him (see Matthew 14:13-21). The title “lord” by which she addresses Jesus acknowledges him as a man in relation to her as a woman and demonstrates respect for Jesus as a Rabbi. The phrase “on me” reveals her as the object the mercy she seeks, her request is a personal one; what impacts child, affects mother.

And finally the title, “Son of David” is perhaps her way of acknowledging him as her kin, as royalty, and as the Jewish Messiah (anointed one). The Canaanite woman strategically, clearly and succinctly confronts and informs Jesus of her problem: “my daughter is tormented by a demon” (verse 22). She does not directly request healing for her child, she desires mercy, which she presumes would take the form of an exorcism.

After all, the rumor was that people were simply bringing their sick and possessed to Jesus, and he healed them even when they touched the fringe of his garments (Matthew 14:34-36; 9:20-21). She does not bring her daughter to Jesus, it appears. But she expects something to happen at the intersection of her intercession and Jesus’ mercy.

In the previous episode (Matthew 15:10-20) Jesus had taught the crowds — including some Pharisees — and his disciples that a person is defiled not by what she puts in her stomach but by that which originates in her heart and is manifested in her life (for example, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, deception).

The preceding narrative implies that one’s race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or class does not defile a person; hence, the reader might be surprised by both Jesus’ silence and his response to the Canaanite woman. Initially, Jesus fails to acknowledge the Canaanite woman and her request for mercy.

Anyone with a pressing need knows how horrible it feels to have a dire or significant request for help or information met with dead silence (15:23a). Women’s words are too often met with silence or are interrupted or disrespected, by men and sometimes by other women. Those times in my life when I asked for information or help and received nothing but silence, I would have preferred a curt: “H*ll, no.”

No one immediately responds to the Canaanite woman or gives the impression that they will respond. The disciples urge Jesus to send her away because, it appears, they are annoyed by her continued shouting, her refusal to take silence for an answer (Matthew 15:23b; see Acts 16:16-18).

Too often we cannot or refuse to empathize with people whose experience is different from our own. If the oppression, injustice, or pain is not happening in our house and neighborhood or does not impact our race, gender, class, or sexuality, then we dismiss it as unwelcomed, unjustified noise. Jesus’ response to the apostles’ urging to send the Canaanite woman away seems to affirm their desire to dismiss her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24, NRSV). The fact that her people’s blood runs through his veins and that his people’s blood runs through her veins does not move Jesus! If our common humanity, our relatedness, does not move us, what will?

The Canaanite woman persists. Like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Oprah Winfrey, Senator Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Kamala Harris, the Canaanite woman persisted.

But so many anonymous women like the Canaanite woman have persisted as lone minority voices among a majority of authoritative and powerful men. She persisted! She didn’t go away; she won’t be dismissed. She draws closer and kneels, and in the vernacular of a determined woman she cries, “Master, help me,” (Matthew 15:25). Her plea for help is met with the language of cultural difference and distance: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26).

It appears that in antiquity, Greeks and other Gentiles had a more familiar relationship with household pets, particularly with dogs, than did the average Jewish person. The ancient Greeks may have been more likely to have dogs as endeared household pets that they fed from under the table than would have been the case in many Jewish households.2

This cultural difference might explain the woman’s response: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” (Matthew 15:27). The Canaanite woman’s cultural context differs from Jesus’; they allow their pets to be fed while the children eat. One can feed the children and feed the pets too!

In the end, Matthew’s Jesus responds by commending the woman for her faith. (In Mark’s version, Jesus commends the Syrophoenician woman for her word or logos with no mention of faith; see Mark 7:24-30.) Matthew strategically calls what this woman does as act of faith. Yet Jesus does not perform an exorcism; he simply says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” He does not say let it be done as you believed but as you will. The woman’s will to power manifested by her persistence identified as faith led to her daughter’s healing.

Interestingly, the all-knowing narrator notifies the reader that the woman’s daughter was healed instantly (Matthew 15:28b); Jesus does not. Perhaps faith engenders persistence or maybe persistence feeds faith. Either way, persistence and faith make a powerful pair.

Significantly, Matthew inserted a summary of Jesus’ healing activities immediately after Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman and despite mentioning specific ailments twice; exorcism is omitted (15:29-31). Never underestimate the power of a persistent woman and the God in whom she believes.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 20, 2017.
  2. Francis D. Lazenby, “Greek and Roman Household Pets,” The Classical Journal 44 (1949): 245–52.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

J. Blake Couey

Isaiah 56:1-8 radically expands the boundaries for being included among God’s people.

Written at a late stage in the development of the book of Isaiah, the text synthesizes claims in the book about human action and divine action. And reflecting ongoing disagreement about how the post-exilic Jewish community should define itself, it invites us to consider the lines we draw that exclude or include persons in our communities.

Human action and divine action

The Hebrew word tsedeq/tsedaqah, which is normally translated “righteousness,” appears twice in Isaiah 56:1. The first time, it refers to proper human behavior: “do what is right.” The second time, it refers to divine liberation “my deliverance (will) be revealed.” The Hebrew word can mean both, because its range of meaning includes the state of being right and the result of right action. It’s difficult to capture these nuances with a single word in other languages, so NRSV and other recent Bible translations don’t reproduce the repetition in the verse.

Such play on multiple meanings of a word is common in poetry, but it’s especially interesting here because of where the verse occurs in Isaiah. These two connotations of tsedeq/tsedaqah roughly correspond to how the term is used respectively in the first two major divisions of the book, Isaiah 1-39 (“First Isaiah”) and Isaiah 40-55 (“Second Isaiah”). In First Isaiah, it frequently refers to proper treatment of others, which is God’s fundamental expectation for humans (for example, Isaiah 1:26; 33:15), especially the Davidic ruler (9:6; 16:5). With this meaning, it’s often paired with the word “justice” (Hebrew mishpat), just like it is in the first half of Isaiah 56:1. Unfortunately, Israel and Judah fail to meet God’s demands: “He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (5:7). This failure ultimately leads to the demise of the two kingdoms. In Second Isaiah, by contrast, tsedeq/tsedaqah typically refers to God’s promised deliverance of the Judean exiles in Babylon. As in the second half of Isaiah 56:1, it’s frequently paired with “salvation” (Hebrew yeshu’ah or teshu’ah; see 45:8; 46:13; 51:5-6, 8).

Isaiah 56:1 marks the beginning of the final major division of Isaiah (chapters 56-66, “Third Isaiah”), and it ties together the earlier divisions by combining the two uses of this important word.1 In the chapters that follow, it appears with both meanings (human behavior: Isaiah 58:2; 59:4, 14; 64:4; divine liberation: 59:17; 62:1; 63:1). In this way, the book of Isaiah makes an important theological claim about the relationship between human and divine action. On the one hand, God acts for good in the world even when humans fail to do what’s right. God delivers the exiles from Babylon despite their moral shortcomings. On the other hand, the expectation for divine action should motivate efforts to establish a more righteous social order. The imminence of “my salvation” encourages and empowers God’s people to “maintain justice and do what is right.

Radical inclusion

As Judean exiles began returning to Jerusalem in the late fifth century BCE, the boundaries of the worshipping community had to be renegotiated, especially after the rebuilding of the temple. Some voices argued for defining the community narrowly among ethnic lines (see Ezra 9:1-3; Nehemiah 13:1-3, 23-27; Ezekiel 44:6-7). From a later Christian perspective, these arguments might seem misguided, but we shouldn’t criticize them too quickly. The post-exilic Jewish community was small and vulnerable. Strict enforcement of boundaries might aid communal survival. And let’s not forget that, even today, Sunday mornings remain “the most segregated hour of the week” for most American Christians, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Isaiah 56:3-8 offer a more expansive vision of the makeup of God’s people. (Although the lectionary jumps from verse 1 to verses 6-8, the intervening verses are necessary for understanding the passage as a whole.) Two classes of people who were previously excluded from the community are now welcomed into it: foreigners and eunuchs. These verses are likely a direct response to Deuteronomy 23:1-6, which denied access to “the assembly of the LORD” to Ammonites, Moabites, and men with damaged genitals. Nehemiah 13:1-3 appeals specifically to these laws as warrant for the continued exclusion of ethnic non-Jews from the post-exilic community.

Isaiah’s inclusion of these marginalized groups isn’t just a token nod to diversity. Their envisioned participation in the worshiping community is full and robust. Not only are eunuchs allowed into the temple, but God offers them permanent memorials there to compensate for their lack of descendants to carry on their names (Isaiah 56:5). And God doesn’t wait for devout foreigners to find their way to the temple (the “if you build it, they will come” approach). Rather, God “will bring (them) to my holy mountain.” Their prayers and sacrifices will be accepted, and their worship will be “joyful” (verse 7). In the final verse of the passage, God promises to continue bringing new people into the community (verse 8). Historically, this reflects the reality that exiled Judeans returned in waves over multiple centuries. Theologically, it reflects the persistent trajectory across scripture to expand the boundaries of God’s people in ever more inclusive ways.

This week’s New Testament readings offer rich points of contact with Isaiah 56. In Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus encounters a deeply faithful foreign woman, who forces him to rethink his own narrow conceptions of the boundaries of God’s people. And in Romans 11:1-2a and 29-32, Paul insists that including Gentiles among God’s people doesn’t mean God has rejected Jews. This is an important caution for Christians to remember, given the persistence of supercessionism—the problematic belief that Christianity has replaced Judaism—and dramatic recent increases in anti-Semitic hate crimes. Widening the scope of our welcome must always serve God’s intention to “be merciful to all” (Romans 11:32).


  1. See Rolf Rendtorff, “Isaiah 56:1 as a Key to the Formation of the Book of Isaiah,” in Rendtorff, Canon and Theology: Overtures to an Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 181-89.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 45:1-15

Roger Nam

“And he wept so loudly” (Genesis 45:2).

Joseph had done plenty of crying in preceding chapters (Genesis 42:24; 43:30), but this is not a normal cry. It is a weeping wail of epic scope. Joseph had risen from foreigner to a position of leadership over all of the Egyptian empire. Yet for a moment, he could not control himself. He sent away everyone so nobody would see. And yet, the weeping was so loud that it could be heard from those he sent away.

What was the emotion behind the weeping? Was it sadness? Was it joy? Was it just catharsis? Was it just plain mysterious?

Perhaps our own last crying bout can help us think through Genesis 45:1. I’m not referring to a few tears sliding down the cheek, but rather an ugly cry of biblical proportions. Perhaps that can help position you to interpret this text. Wailing is something we usually do not plan like a haircut or an oil change, but something that just comes out. Like Joseph, we cannot control it.

The loss of control for Joseph is a bit surprising in the context of how the book of Genesis has documented the life of Joseph since Genesis 37. Joseph is a brash youngest child and his lack of filter had severe consequences in his life. But through it all, he consistently displays immense control in scenes with enormous pressure, whether in prison, or under sexual seduction, or in the presence of Pharaoh. So the beginning of Genesis 45 provides a surprising shift, as “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He had reunited with his brothers, yet kept his identity secret. The reasons for the secrecy are uncertain. But when Joseph finally loses control, it immediately leads to a display of God’s greater control.

For most of the Joseph narrative, God is surprisingly absent. This is unique among the patriarchal accounts of Genesis 12-50. Abraham directly encounters God on multiple occasions, and God speaks promises. God also appears to Isaac and gives direct commands. God interacts with Jacob and even engages in a direct struggle with him that lasts throughout the night. But unlike the other patriarchs, Joseph has no such direct experience with God. Throughout Joseph’s improbable journey from his childhood in Canaan, to indentured servitude, to prison, then royal authority, God is comparatively muted.

But despite the lack of theophany or direct divine action, Genesis 45 shows that God does not need these tools to display God’s full sovereignty. The longer narrative is set in a period of prolonged famine. Because a famine typically occurs through natural means, whether lack of rain or pestilence, it is often a tool for displaying divine control over the earth. Within the Joseph narrative, famine is the way to humble the powerful Egyptian nation, while promoting the lowly foreigner, who first predicted the famine through divine revelation.

Within this setting, Joseph is able to articulate the divine sovereignty in his life. And this sovereignty is so much more powerful than any human action. God sent Joseph (verses 5, 7) and Joseph forgoes blame against the brothers to subsume it under the bigger will of God with the declaration, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (verse 8). God is the one who promoted Joseph to power (verse 9).

This recognition of God’s sovereignty seems to have a profound impact on Joseph. In Genesis 42:8, the brothers are unable to physically recognize Joseph. The interactions have reversed power structures. Back in Canaan, Joseph spoke like a youngest child with lack of restraint and youthful arrogance, while the brothers spoke with condescension. But now with Joseph unrecognizable, he speaks in authority and the brothers speak from their position of lower status. Joseph makes accusations and the brothers plead for defense. This change in authority is reinforced in Joseph’s ability to wield both languages as they communicate through an interpreter for Joseph to mask his identity (Genesis 42:23).

But this crying spell marks a transformation. Joseph moves from the position of authority into a dialogue of generosity. The subtle nods of resentment in previous chapters have disappeared. Joseph is eager to forgive and restore the family, not just for his generation, but for a dysfunction that permeated the earlier generations of Jacob/Esau and Isaac/Ishmael. I re-read the generous spirit behind Joseph’s words in Genesis 45:4-13 and compare it with some of his other words as a younger man. Joseph can fully recognize God’s sovereignty in those past events. And that recognition transforms Joseph.

There is no explicit theophany during the life of Joseph, but Joseph has realized that God was active and present in all these spaces:

  • down in the pit while awaiting sale
  • in a foreign household as a servant
  • in a foreign prison
  • before the royal court of Pharaoh

In all of these spaces, the divine encounter was just as profound as any of the theophanies in Genesis. Perhaps knowledge that God was with him all those times and all those years brought some of that weeping. Was it sadness? Was it joy? Was it just catharsis? Was it just plain mysterious? Like a good preacher, I hope your answer to all these questions is yes. But more than that, I think the weeping was a manifestation of a profound transformation of Joseph. We should look for those moments in our lives.


Commentary on Psalm 67:1-7

Rolf Jacobson

As the twice-repeated refrain (verses 3, 5) indicates, Psalm 67 is a song meant for public worship.1

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.2 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.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 14, 2011.
  2. See Westermann, Elements of Old Testament Theology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982).

Second Reading

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

Elizabeth Shively

A cursory reading of Romans might lead one to think that chapters 9-11 are a tangent or insertion unrelated to the rest of the letter.1

A more careful reading, however, leads to a different conclusion. At the beginning of the letter, Paul states that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). Although the gospel of salvation is “to the Jew first,” it becomes apparent that a majority has not believed.

Paul’s explanation of the gospel through the first half of the letter culminates in chapter 8 with the assurance of God’s irrevocable promises to his people: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (verse 28). Does Paul include Israel among those who are “called”? Does Israel receive this assurance?

Or, is God in the business of revoking promises? Some of Paul’s audience might wonder how firm is the foundation upon which they stand. Others might find a reason to boast, thinking that they as Gentiles have replaced Israel in God’s plan. For these reasons, Paul must make a case that God’s promises to Israel remain intact.

Romans 11:1-2a and 29-32 frame chapter 11. In verses 29-32, Paul reaffirms the point with which he starts: God has not rejected his people because God’s promises are irrevocable.

The question in verse 1 arises from the subject matter at the end of chapter 10. Paul has establishes that Israel cannot plead ignorance because the good news has been preached to them through the prophets and the writings (10:14-21). Israel has not understood the message it has received and has been disobedient. This leads to the question in 11:1, “Has God rejected his people?” The logical force is, “God has not rejected his people, has he?” Paul answers himself, “By no means!”

Paul does two things to buttress his answer. First, he gives himself as a proof of God’s faithfulness. He lists his credentials as an Israelite in verse 1b and concludes that, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (verse 2). Paul’s point is that if he has believed, God has not rejected his people. His statement alludes to a line in 1 Samuel 12:22.

In that context, Israel has asked for a king, signalling that they have forsaken God. Samuel prays for them and assures them that that, “the Lord will not forsake his people.” This recalls Paul’s earlier argument in 3:1-6, particularly, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” (verses 3-4a).

Second, Paul grounds his answer with a story about Elijah (11:2b-6; see 1 Kings 19:1-18). King Ahab has killed God’s prophets. Elijah escapes, dejected because he is the only one remaining who has refused to worship Baal. But God promises Elijah to preserve a remnant of 7,000 Israelites who refuse idolatry. Here is a pattern for the way God shows faithfulness to Israel by preserving a remnant by grace.

These verses are part of a larger section in which Paul addresses Gentiles (verse 13). He has told his Gentile audience not to boast over Jews who have been cut off from the metaphorical olive tree because of unbelief, because they too may find themselves in the same position (verses 13-24). No one has a ground for boasting, because all stand before God on the basis of grace.

Most immediately, the section in which our text fits begins with verse 25, in which Paul warns his audience not to be wise in their own eyes. God’s dealing in the work of salvation is a “mystery,” because Israel’s unbelief somehow plays a role in God’s plan to redeem Gentiles (verses 25b-27).

Paul’s argument in chapter 11 comes to a head in verses 28-32. A disparity exists in that Israel has the status of enemy with regard to the gospel because of unbelief; but beloved with regard to election “for the sake of their forefathers,” that is, because of the promises of God (verse 28; see 9:1-6). The next verse gives the basis for their beloved status: “for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”

Paul solves this disparity by envisioning Israel’s disobedience as both purposeful and temporary. It is purposeful as part of God’s plan for the salvation of Gentiles (verse 30). It is temporary because it ends when faced with widespread Gentile belief (verse 31). God uses unlikely circumstances to build the church: Gentiles believe when many in Israel turn away; then many in Israel believe when provoked by Gentile belief. In Paul’s estimation, God accomplishes salvation of “all Israel” through the reciprocal movements of Jews and Gentiles.

These reciprocal movements look ahead to practical themes of later chapters. God works among Jews and Gentiles in salvation such that no one may boast, be arrogant (11:7) or wise in their own conceits (11:25). Then, as Jews and Gentiles live out their faith with one another, no one may think more highly of himself than he ought to, but must use his gifts humbly in a body with many members (12:3-8). No one may pass judgment on another or cause another to stumble, but must live to please his neighbour rather than himself (14:1-15:7).

Ultimately, these reciprocal movements look to God, because Paul ends in worship (11:33-36). He envisions all God’s people together worshipping God in view of God’s faithfulness and mercy. In fact, the whole letter moves in this direction: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (15:6).

Perhaps there are ways we can reflect such reciprocal movements as we consider the “other” in our understanding of salvation, practical living, and worship.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 17, 2014.