Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

God is acting decisively and with purpose

A Widening Circle, photo
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August 20, 2023

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

I believe it was New Testament Scholar Pamela Eisenbaum, who described the problem of early Christianity as “Too few Jews, too many gentiles, and no end in sight.”¹

The apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in the early 60s CE, earlier than there was something distinct from Judaism that could be called, “Christianity.” Still, the problem he addresses in Romans 9-11 is something like the one Eisenbaum names: gentiles are embracing Jesus as the God of Israel’s anointed one, raised from the dead, while Paul’s “kindred according to the flesh” (9:3) are failing to do so in the numbers Paul had expected and hoped. Two questions arise: “Why?” and “What next?” The lectionary’s brief reading from Romans 11 offers a snippet of Paul’s answers to both of these questions.²


Paul proposes and rejects a few explanations for why Israel as a whole is not recognizing Jesus as God’s messiah and welcoming the righteousness of faith.  These have to do with God’s action: 

  1. Has the word of God failed? (see also 9:6)
  2. “Is there injustice on God’s part?” (9:14).
  3. “Has God rejected his people?” (11:1)

Paul spurns all of these explanations for why Israel has not embraced Jesus. God has not failed God’s people, or turned away from them, or played favorites with the gentiles. God’s relationship with Israel, including God’s election of them as God’s own people, remains in place. In the words of this section, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). Whatever explains Israel’s response to Jesus, neither the explanation nor the result can be that God has rejected God’s people. 

Notice in Paul’s extended argument how many verbs point to the action of God. God is at work in the events Paul is trying to comprehend, acting decisively and with purpose. What is that purpose? God means to be merciful to all (see also 11:32). 

Paul’s argument on the way to this conclusion is filled with twists and turns. In short, he reasons that God has a larger purpose that is being served by Israel’s hesitation. Paul does not blame Israel for its rejection of Jesus. Paul assigns responsibility for that to God. Twice, he speaks of a hardening having come upon Israel (see also 11:7; 25), and he connects the action of God to this hardening: “God gave them a sluggish spirit …” (11:8) and “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32). Both times, Paul is quick to acknowledge that this action of God is mysterious. The apostle is working hard to make sense of something that may currently make sense only in the mind of God. Still, Paul perseveres. 

What next? 

In a part of the argument lacking from the Revised Common Lectionary, Paul states God’s end game beautifully. “Now if their [Israel’s] stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! … For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead!” (11:12, 15). The God who is redeeming all creation (see also Romans 8:19) through Christ will by no means leave Israel behind. In fact, the present circumstances are having the effect of an even wider reach for God’s mercy and Christ’s risen life.

“I am speaking to you Gentiles”

The other part of the argument left out of the lectionary gets at why 21st century Christians, who are overwhelmingly not of Jewish origin, should hear this scripture as addressed to them. In Romans 11, Paul offers one reason explicitly, and implies a second one. 

First, there is always the prospect that “the chosen” will become self-impressed. The Old Testament prophets warned God’s people about this temptation. In Romans 11, Paul says to gentile believers that they (we) should not boast at having been grafted into God’s own people. The human tendency to accept a gift and then claim superiority for oneself on the basis of the giver’s generosity is to be rejected. Anytime Christians feel just a little superior to others, we have forgotten that our status as children of God is a sheer gift, as is any capacity we have to live out that identity in love for God and neighbor. “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks elsewhere (1 Corinthians 4:7). “And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” The proper responses to God’s gifts are gratitude and humility. 

The second reason for contemporary preachers and their congregations to care about Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 is the way that it rejects understandable–and therefore idolatrous–constructions of God. We believe that God makes God’s self and purposes known, certainly. But in the face of the question Paul struggles with in these chapters, and other questions concerning the providence of God, we also do well to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord.” Paul himself, in the verses that end chapter 11 (and could be easily appended to the lectionary reading), exclaims, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” 

I am not arguing here for an easy retreat to the realm of “mystery” when theological thinking gets hard for the preacher or people. God is worthy of our best reading, thinking, preaching, and hearing. I am arguing that the wideness of God’s mercy, and the things God can redeem along the way to showing that mercy to all, are beyond our comprehension. This is true both when we conclude, “God could not love me,” and when we conclude, “God could not love that neighbor of mine.” Thanks be to God!


  1. I recall this vivid description from Peter Jennings, et al. directors, The Search for Paul (Koch Vision 2004), but given the difficulty of obtaining the DVD, I cannot confirm the source or the speaker.
  2. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “When in Romans … Consider Abraham,” 47-74 in When in Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), provides excellent company in a close reading of Romans 9-11. Gaventa observes, “the primary question Paul raises about Israel is a question about God” and further, “for Paul in Romans, Israel belongs to God as God’s creation. Israel is always and only God’s creation. And Israel will remain God’s creation, even in the eschaton” (page 49; emphasis in original).