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