This is the third and final Sunday in which we’re dealing with portions of a three chapter section of the epistle to the Romans, in which we watch as Paul wrestles through what he understood to be a crucial matter in the life of the early church. To recap, Paul is utterly convicted that Jesus is the Christ—the long awaited messiah of Israel—and that he is messiah for all peoples, all nations. Yet he is troubled, because so very few of his own Jewish kinspeople are prepared to see things in this way. Equally troubling, he’s aware that there is a growing tendency in some quarters of the church to say that Israel has had its chance, and because it has not risen to embrace Jesus as messiah, it has been effectively excluded and replaced by the church as a sort of new Israel. Passionate as he is about his ministry to the gentiles, Paul simply cannot make that move. Somehow Israel is still a crucial part of the whole story, and he needs to find a way—a theology—to say that.
- To listen to the sermon, click play
I’m afraid that the architects of the lectionary have done Paul no justice in their selection of texts, and so again I’ve expanded the reading in order to give us a more full version of his thought. In the lectionary version, the reading starts with the opening verse and a half of Romans 11, which asks, “has God rejected his people?” “By no means!” Paul immediately responds, but then the reading jumps to verses 29 to 32, which offer a rather truncated summary of his perspective. I had us read extra verses on both sides of this truncated summary, but even then it is a bit hard to get at what he’s trying to express.
In his commentary on this chapter, this is how Frank Crouch summarizes what we missed:
In those omitted verses, Paul starts with his own genealogy; winds through Elijah and Baal, the Exodus, prophets, and psalms. Then he turns onto a road with an overlook view of Israel’s stumbling and how that opened a door for Gentiles. That road merges into an extended metaphor of an olive tree with one root supporting both natural [Jewish] and grafted [Gentile] branches. He ends his journey with a warning to Gentile Christians not to think that because God granted them salvation, God, therefore, has cut Jewish people out of salvation.
There’s an insistence in Paul’s argument that says that even though it might be hard to see, God has clearly not thrown in the towel on Israel. So, he writes, “[do] not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters.” Don’t imagine you can see or know everything, in other words, because this is what Paul quite bluntly calls a “mystery.” “As regards the gospel,” he writes, the Jewish people “are enemies of God”—now that’s strong language—“enemies of God for your sake.” What in heaven’s name does Paul mean by that? Well, the full and radical inclusion of the Gentiles was scandalously unthinkable to many devout Jews; in fact, the very idea of a crucified messiah was what he calls in 1st Corinthians a “stumbling block to the Jews;” a kind of a heresy, really. And yet as they back away in a sort of revulsion, Gentiles from around the Mediterranean begin to flood in and embrace this great good news of a merciful, forgiving, redeeming Lord for all.
Yet Paul doesn’t stop there. “Enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” The gifts, the calling, the choosing of that people are irrevocable, even if right now, in the Rome to which Paul wrote his letter or in Corinth or Philippi or Ephesus or Colossae, it would appear that Judaism and the Christian movement would never find any common way, the promise remains. As Paul Achtemeier comments,
[B]ecause God can use even rebellion and disobedience in his plan of mercy on all, we may have utter confidence in that God, however his plan may seem to be going awry. Nothing, not even the rejection of his own Son by his own people could affect God’s purposes of grace. If God’s ways are past finding out, his mercy is past any impeding.
God’s mercy is past any impeding… and isn’t that a heck of a proclamation? Yes it most certainly is, which is why Paul positively rhapsodizes his way to the end of this section; “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgements and how inscrutable God’s ways!” No one can know the mind of God; no one can tell God to whom mercy and love are to be shown.
“For from and through and to God are all things. To God be the glory for ever. Amen.”
I think there’s some rhapsodizing to be done over Achtemeier’s comment that in Paul’s view, “God can use even rebellion and disobedience in the plan of mercy.” That says to me that alongside of those things, God is quite able to use our failings, our struggles and doubts and wounds and vulnerabilities, and to use them rather handily, thank you very much. Think of the parable of the prodigal. What is it that lands the younger son back in the arms of his father? That moment of realization that he has made an utter mess of things. And what keeps the older brother sulking in the garden? His self-righteous conviction that he has been oh so well behaved.
I think it fascinating that on the same night that we hear Paul rhapsodizing about the wideness of God’s mercy the lectionary also has us read the gospel story of the nervy Canaanite woman. It is hard not to feel a bit of discomfort over Jesus’ initial response to her plea for her spirit-sick daughter. He says nothing. Nothing. And then when the disciples give him a bit of a push, he tells them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now I think that if Paul were to comment on that statement, he’d say, yes, that is the shape and order of Christ’s earthly ministry. The expansion of the gospel to include all people happens in the light of Pentecost. But really Lord? You’re not even going to speak to her?
She, however, is undaunted. Like a mother bear protecting her cubs, she’s prepared to do whatever it takes. And so “she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me,’” to which he very coldly answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Oh, that’s got to sting. But again, she’s undaunted—and quick witted as well—as she comes right back at him, saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And it is like a switch is flicked: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
So yes, Jesus’ ministry was all about the lost sheep of Israel, but as N.T. Wright comments, “as with so much of what happens in Jesus’ public career, the future keeps breaking in to the present—even, as here, seeming to catch Jesus himself by surprise!” The future that Paul is living in, in which people like that Canaanite woman are fully included, has broken in to Jesus’ ministry, and the hinge on which that has turned is a determined mother desperately seeking healing for her child. That’s powerful. I think that it is fair to say that this story marks a kind of a birth moment for the radical inclusivity of grace that Paul proclaims, and I think it is equally fair to say that it really does surprise Jesus; perhaps even that it expands and deepens his insight into the depths of what the Father has called him to incarnate in the world.
And just what is that? God’s mercy is past any impeding. Full stop.