One of the many stains on Christian history is the ongoing presence of anti-Judaism. I use this term instead of anti-Semitism because this term has racial connotations that are modern in origin. Over the years I’ve become increasingly sensitized to the legacy of anti-Jewish views in the church. We can argue whether this is rooted in the New Testament itself or its interpretation through the ages, the fact is, it continues to be present in our churches, even in scholarly efforts. The readings from Romans 9-11 allow us to reflect on this legacy. That is especially true of this reading from Romans 11, which, in my mind, makes clear that Christianity has not replaced Judaism and that God’s covenant with Judaism continues unabated. Therefore, we must repent of this legacy and seek to do everything we can to change the way we relate to the Jewish community.
In the reading from Romans 9
, which we examined earlier, Paul expressed his anguish that his Jewish siblings had not embraced the message of Jesus. Even as he preached the Gospel to Gentiles, he hoped that Jews would join him. That reading can give us the impression that God had dissolved the covenant with Israel, but in today’s reading, we discover that this is a wrong impression. Paul might have wished that all Jews took up the cause of Jesus, as he had, but in the end, he must admit that God has not rejected God’s people Israel. This, Romans 11 is an important witness to God’s commitment to the covenant made first with Abraham and later with Moses.
The lectionary provides us with two excerpts from Romans 11. The first excerpt encompasses the opening verses of the chapter. Paul asks a rhetorical question: “has God rejected his people?” He answers that question in the negative by noting his own relationship to Judaism. God hasn’t rejected him, so God hasn’t rejected Israel. He lays claim to the covenant promise as an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, and more specifically as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. In other words, he has done his genealogical work. He lays claim to this heritage. So, whatever happened on the road to Damascus, Paul didn’t convert from Judaism to Christianity (Christianity didn’t exist yet as a separate entity). He was a Jew both before and after that encounter with Jesus. If Paul was already intent on converting Gentiles to his vision of God, then what changed out there on the road to Damascus was his understanding of the path Gentiles would take in experiencing salvation. While Paul sees himself tasked with preaching to Gentiles, no doubt he was hoping that both Jews and Gentiles would be found in this newly emerging Jesus community. The issue isn’t whether the Torah has value. The question is whether adherence to aspects of Torah, such as circumcision was necessary for Gentile believers.
When we read Paul’s letters, we discover his dilemma. He wanted to reach Gentiles and draw them into the new community. He seems to have understood that circumcision may have impeded full conversion. So, he set it aside, though not everyone in the community agreed. Thus, in his attempts to defend himself he gave the impression that he had rejected Judaism. While there are mixed messages in his letters, Paul makes it clear in this passage that he was not rejecting his Jewish heritage. Perhaps the problem isn’t with Paul but in the way his later interpreters have read him?
As we drop down to the second part of the reading, verses 29-32, the message that Paul brings is that God’s covenant promises are irrevocable. It can’t be any clearer. That’s a message we need to hold tightly to. We should step back one verse, though to get a true sense of what Paul is doing here. In verse 28 he writes: As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; . . . .” This word comes after Paul has already declared in verse 26 that all Israel will be saved. So, what does Paul mean here? Sarah Heaner Lancaster puts her finger on the issue at hand, pointing out that Israel can be God’s enemy and God’s beloved at the same time, because in “refusing to acknowledge the way God is working in Jesus Christ, Israel does not give honor to God, and so they are ‘enemies’ of God.” But, because, as we read in verse 29, God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable, “God honors the covenant with the patriarchs. The chosen people have always been and always will be beloved. Although God used their refusal for the sake of the Gentiles, God will not forsake Israel” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 198
]. It may seem rather complicated, but God will be faithful to the covenant, even if the rejection of Jesus by a majority of Jews spurred on Paul’s mission, God will stay true to the covenant.
The good news is that Gentiles get to share in the salvation of God. We also (speaking as a Gentile) have been included in the covenant people through Jesus. So, even if we stray or become disobedient, God is merciful and gracious. That might not always sit well with us, any more than it sat well with Paul’s opponents. But that is the way of God who has been revealed to us in and through Jesus.
The lectionary reading ends with verse 32, but as Sarah Heaner Lancaster points out, the verses that follow contain a hymn that celebrates the difference between our ways and God’s ways. Thus, “the grandness of God exceeds anything that we may know, and we are not in a position to understand the mind of God or the ways God achieves God’s purposes. The richness of God is the genuine mystery” [Lancaster, Romans, pp. 199-200
]. So, I close with that hymn: