Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Paul continues to draw upon the whole of scripture, the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms to show that his kindred by race have heard the gospel but remain unbelieving: “But I ask, have they never heard?

August 17, 2008

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

Paul continues to draw upon the whole of scripture, the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms to show that his kindred by race have heard the gospel but remain unbelieving: “But I ask, have they never heard?

Indeed they have; for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world'” (10:18 citing Ps 19:4).

Not only have they heard, but they have understood as Paul refers back to Moses in the Law: “Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry'” (10:19 citing Deut 32:21). And another text from the Prophets: “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me'” (10:20 citing Isa 65:1).

The anguish of Paul comes forth in a final citation from Isaiah: “But of Israel he (God) says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people'” (10:21 citing Isa 65:2).

Paul has drawn upon these texts to show that God has not withheld his promises to all people on earth, to those who continue to disbelieve, to those who have understood, to a disobedient and contrary people, and even to those who didn’t ask for God. In light of God’s purpose of salvation, Paul asks the rhetorical question: “Has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1a). Paul knows the reality of God’s promise and word of revelation as “an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” (11:1b). Paul, the former persecutor and called by God to proclaim the gospel of his Son, knows that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (11:2a).

In the verses that follow, leading up to the continuation of our text in Ro 11:29, Paul brings forth several citations from scripture to show that God has not rejected Israel then and now. In Elijah’s time God preserved a remnant that did not bow down to Baal (11:2b-4): “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5).

Paul continues to draw upon the whole of scripture, the TANAK, the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (11:8-10 citing Deut 29:4; Isa 29:10; Ps 69:22-23; Ps 35:8), which give witness to Israel’s hardness. And so Paul asks the question that leads to yet another stage of the argument from scripture: “Have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means!” (11:11a). Paul’s response is to show that “through their (Israel’s) stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (11:11b).

God’s purpose with Israel is an inclusive reality for all people: “Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their (Israel’s) full inclusion mean!” (11:12). Paul has been called by God to a servant ministry of the gospel to the Gentiles that will eventually make Israel jealous, “and thus save some of them” (11:14).

The analogy of the olive tree with its branches of both Jews and Gentiles expresses the providence of God’s salvation. The natural branches (Israel) have been broken off, and the wild shoots (Gentiles) have been grafted in. However, the warning that Paul must bring to the Gentiles is, “Do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (11:20-21). Yet even now, Paul bears witness that “God has the power to graft them (Israel) in again” (11:23).

The mystery of God’s saving grace is that “a hardening has come upon Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (11:25). In this hope “all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (11:26 citing Isa 59:20-21). And another word of promise from Isaiah: “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins” (11:27 citing Isa 27:9). Paul sees the one whom Isaiah calls “the Deliverer” fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

God’s covenantal promise with Israel stands from of old, “as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:28-29). Paul expresses that the Gentiles are likewise enemies of God: “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their (Israel’s) disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you (Gentiles), they too may now receive mercy” (11:30-31).

Paul has worked his way through countless scriptures to unravel the mystery of God’s election for the salvation of all people, Jew and Gentile. As he comes to the conclusion of his argument from scripture concerning the providence of God, Paul rests the mystery of election and salvation in the only way possible–a doxology of praise to God.

There is nothing in all creation that can fathom “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (11:33). God is beyond human ability to know his ways. God is God. There is nothing in all creation that can call the potter into question concerning his judgments and ways.

Paul follows with three rhetorical questions which uphold his doxological words of praise: “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” (11:34-35). Paul’s questions proclaim the reality that indeed God is God in his dealings with Jew and Gentile alike.

The final words of these three remarkable chapters in Romans bring this section of the letter to a resounding conclusion that rings throughout the ages: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (11:36).

What could be more central to the faith of all people in Paul’s time and in our time than to proclaim the richness of these words? They are words of God’s covenantal faithfulness in spite of our willful and self-centered ways. God will not give up on us. His promise of life is centered in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the Deliverer from sin, death, and the power of the devil for Jew and Gentile alike.