Commentary on Romans 9:1-5
People these days ask God to damn lots of things.1
I have, too; but I’ve never had the nerve to include myself on the list. Paul did, offering to surrender his own salvation in Christ if it could make a difference.
For whose sake did Paul volunteer to be “accursed and cut off from Christ”? For “Israelites,” as he calls them: for the Jewish people, for Paul’s own people. Yet he anachronistically calls them “Israelites” in 9:4, rooting their identity in more than a vague notion of ethnicity, kinship, or nationality. He’s speaking about people with a long, deep legacy: one established by God and intertwined with the life and history of God.
We must note, then, that Paul’s concerns about his people stem from more than casual curiosity or compassionate piety. These concerns arise out of theological questions–questions about God, God’s intentions, and God’s reliability. Does God’s history (past promises) matter for God’s future (pledges about what lies ahead)?
When Paul offers to be made anathema, his motivations extend beyond the fact that he loves his people so dearly. Paul also has an unyielding commitment to an understanding of God’s utter faithfulness. That’s what Romans 9-11 is ultimately about, as Paul attempts to make sense of a confounding situation. Even though circumstances could have led him to conclude otherwise, Paul still insists God remains faithful to promises.
Is that a theological foundation we too should consider utterly nonnegotiable? Yes, because if it’s not true then we’re about as good as damned ourselves.
Romans 9-11: The big picture
Unique within Paul’s writings, Romans 9-11 is provoked by the question of what the gospel means for Jewish people who do not embrace Jesus as Christ. When we read Paul’s ruminations on this issue, we need to consider a few things, including:
- As Paul wrote Romans, between the years 55-58, it was becoming more and more apparent that the Christian gospel would not receive a positive response from the majority of Jews who heard it. These do not appear to be circumstances the church had anticipated, and so they begged for answers.
- This situation caused great anguish to Paul and other Christians. There is no smugness or sense of “good riddance” in his words as he considers the issue in these chapters.
- Paul did not write Romans 9-11 as a “Christian” passing judgment on “Judaism,” as much as he wrote as a Jew trying, like the prophets of old, to make theological sense of the dynamics of disobedience and restoration among Abraham’s descendants.
- The question driving this section of Romans is “What’s God doing?” It’s not “What’s wrong with these unbelievers?” The situation threatened to ignite a theological crisis in Paul’s day, if it could be supposed that the gospel meant the expiration of God’s promises to those God had already chosen.
This is not a tangential issue for Paul. If you recall last week’s lection from Romans, Paul has just finished making strong claims about God’s reliability: “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28), and nothing in creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God” (8:39).
We would have good reason to doubt these grand claims, if it’s the case that God has given up on the Jewish people.
And so Paul devotes three chapters to probing the mysteries of where things stand with “Israel.” These are important passages for all Christians to consider, because they contend with crucial questions about God’s character.
They are also, of course, crucial passages to consider for the sake of Jewish-Christian understanding. Although for the most part in Romans 9-11 Paul stops short of offering confident explanations of God’s intentions, he does propose that maybe God means to make Jews jealous by blessing gentiles through the gospel, presumably to provoke their eventual repentance (Romans 10:11; 11:11-14). I think the last 1,950 years have not given much evidence to support this claim; indeed, they have revealed it as offensive. I suggest we distance ourselves from such an idea. I like to think Paul would try a different explanation if he knew what we know today. Whether you’re of the same mind as me on this or not, I hope we agree that working with these texts demands great care and sensitivity.2
The lectionary bypasses most of the parts of Romans 9-11 capable of creating the greatest controversy, so that’s a slight relief. The good thing about the lectionary’s assignments for this week and the next two is that they guide preachers to focus their attention on the main points of these chapters: claims about God and how God has promised to act.
“To them belong…”
Our passage does not take us far into Paul’s argument as much as it reveals his anguish (as I’ve discussed) and the basis for seeing this as an essential issue for all Christians to consider.
Again, Paul is not talking about a “chosen people” as an abstract concept. He means the flesh-and-blood people who, throughout history, have possessed and continue to possess God’s favor. (The translation rightly reads “To them belong…” and not “To them belonged…”)
Why do Jews possess this favor? Because God gave it to them. The “Israelites” are who they are because of God’s gift, God’s free choice.
What do they possess? Paul says they possess a number of things–all of which receive attention elsewhere in Romans, as well. They possess God’s “adoption,” making them children in God’s family. God has shared “glory” with them and made “covenants” by which to bless them. They received and possess God’s “law,” God’s own words (torah : “instruction”) for holiness and justice. They “worship” or serve the one true God, who made concrete “promises” with them via their “patriarchs.”
Remember, too: Jesus didn’t just come in the flesh. He came in Jewish flesh. God became incarnate as a Jew, as a covenantal heir in the long lineage of a people who have known God’s presence and contended with God through thick and thin.
How a (mostly) gentile church could have neglected all this and provided a safe harbor for anti-Semitic ideology and action for so many generations is perhaps our greatest failing.
Paul might say, “To hell with any notion of Christianity that has become estranged from its connection to the people of ancient Israel and their modern offspring.”
The church and the people of Israel: Both established by God’s grace
The lectionary’s three weeks on Romans 9-11 do not allow sufficient time to plumb these chapters’ depths, but enough to begin the essential work of reconnecting us to our religious ancestry. Paul asks big questions that must be at the foundation of any theological claim emanating from the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Again, what makes Paul so impassioned that he talks about his own possible damnation? Not only does he love the people of God, but he will not have a part in any religious understanding that paints God as unfaithful to promises God has made.
As subsequent parts of Romans 9-11 will explain, God must honor all those prerogatives God has lavished upon the Jewish people, as named in 9:4-5. If not, then how will gentile Christians be able to trust that God won’t cancel promises made to us?
I usually discourage working with multiple biblical texts in a single sermon, but this week I’m making an exception. The so-called alternate first reading in the lectionary tells the wonderful story of Jacob wrestling God, prevailing, and then receiving the name “Israel” (“The One Who Strives with God”). Jacob’s hip-smacking opponent tells him, in explaining the name, “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).
God and Israel have quite a history together, as rocky as any passionate relationship. But it’s a relationship established by divine promises–promises made, iterated, and reiterated throughout scripture.
Later in Romans (in a passage skipped by the lectionary), Paul will use the image of grafting to describe gentile Christians. They, as “wild olive shoots” have been grafted “to share the rich root” of a cultivated olive tree (11:17). Prodded along by that image of the Jewish people’s rich theological heritage, sermons can both instruct about God’s history with Israel and proclaim the identity Christ forges for us. Knowing Israel’s theological history and the benefits it confers, as epitomized in Jacob’s story, is essential. The history demonstrates God’s longstanding graciousness. It becomes a history in which Christians share, a history (and future) defined by God.
Throughout Romans 9-11, Paul never says that the existence of the church does away with Israel. Christians need to grasp, then, the dangers inherent in talking about the church as a new Israel. The church shares the root, a root of God’s gracious faithfulness. We do not appropriate Israel’s rich heritage of adoption, covenants, and promises. We participate in it, in a derivative but nevertheless real way, through Christ.
- Commentary first published on this site on July 31, 2011.
- In her excellent book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), Amy-Jill Levine offers this advice to Christian preachers who want to make positive strides in Jewish-Christian relations: “At Vanderbilt [Divinity School], I have been known to bring my son to my class. I introduce him to my students, and then I say: ‘When you speak of Jews, picture this kid in the front pew. Don’t say anything that will hurt this child, and don’t say anything that will cause a member of your congregation to hurt this child.’ I grant that the move is theatrical and manipulative; it’s also remarkably effective” (page 226).