August 11, 2014
Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Years ago the well-known theologian F.F. Bruce published a book titled The Hard Sayings of Jesus. That title prompted a friend of mine to comment, “Hard sayings? I didn’t know there were any easy ones!”
But, of course, it is true that some of what Jesus had to say was easier to puzzle out than some other things. But Jesus was most certainly prone to uttering some powerfully surprising things, and perhaps nowhere more so than right here in Matthew 15. Preachers and theologians can get into swift trouble when it comes to parsing Jesus’ encounter with this Canaanite woman. The whole incident is only eight verses long, but it takes far more space even to begin addressing the issues raised here.
In recent times various scholarly articles have been published that have suggested that this is a rare (and, for some, a wonderful) story that clearly depicts how a woman actually became Jesus’ teacher. Jesus had been carrying around in his head some incomplete assumptions about who should, or should not, receive his ministry. So this lowly Canaanite woman challenged Jesus, called him on the carpet, and then, amazingly enough, Jesus changed his mind.
In many churches, such a claim could be a bit blood-warming and the cause of considerable theological nervousness. Was Jesus capable of really learning something new? Or did being divine make Jesus immune to any real learning? When Jesus was in Kindergarten, did he only pretend to learn his ABCs for the sake of his teacher (when really he already knew every language in the world)? Could he ever really have been startled or surprised? We’ve all had those times when we’ve been so lost in thought that when suddenly the phone rings or someone taps you on the shoulder, you about jump out of your skin! Could that ever happen to Jesus? Or did he always know ahead of time when someone was going to knock on the front door or quietly come up from behind?
These are sticky questions. And, of course, we should admit that it’s one thing to wonder about whether Jesus really did learn math when he was in school, and it’s one thing to ponder whether or not a loud noise could ever make him jump. But it is quite another matter to wonder whether Jesus could have learned a new thing related to something as vital as the very scope of his own ministry. Yet Matthew 15 foists this issue before us.
Verse 21 tells us that Jesus, for some unexplained reason, wandered into the area of Tyre and Sidon. To most of Matthew’s original readers, that was the equivalent of saying that Jesus had now entered Paganland. He was outside of any recognizably religious area and had entered a kind of spiritual slum, a veritable ghetto of unbelief. This was the kind of place “good” folks did not visit. The disciples were probably nervous being there. To their provincial minds, trotting around Tyre and Sidon made them feel similar to how most of us would feel if we found ourselves in a dark alley in the inner-city around 2am on a Friday night: namely, they were quite uneasy!
And it didn’t take long before their worst fears are realized. Suddenly a crazy woman (a crazy Canaanite woman) runs up, screaming at the top of her lungs about her demon-possessed daughter. Unwittingly, she probably played right into every stereotype the disciples harbored. She was shrill, overly direct, presumptuous, and her family had a problem with a demon. “Well, don’t they all!” Peter no doubt thought to himself.
Jesus himself said zip, which probably made the disciples assume he was thinking the same thing they were: how can we get out of this highly uncomfortable situation?! Since Jesus’ silence gave the disciples an opening, they say to Jesus, “Let’s ditch this woman now! Her screaming is driving us crazy.” And Jesus then says, either just to himself or to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
In the ears of the disciples, that was the equivalent of Jesus’ saying, “I agree! Let’s get rid of her because when it comes to our ministry, this woman doesn’t count.” We don’t know whether or not she heard Jesus say that. Even if she did, it did not deter her in the least. Instead she assumes a posture of worship (the Greek verb for “kneeling” used in verse 25 is the typical word in the Bible for worship), and she then again begs Jesus to help her.
And that’s when Jesus says it. In the previous chapter Jesus fed bread to 5,000 people. Immediately following this story he will do something similar, feeding bread to 4,000 people. Jesus is the bread of life. His ministry is a kind of extended heavenly feeding. This woman is asking for a place at the table, but Jesus, chillingly, relegates her to the floor of life. “It’s not right to toss perfectly good bread meant to feed children to dogs.”
Jesus calls her a dog. It’s a kind of slur, an epithet, and the disciples no doubt approved.
The woman does not protest her spiritual canine status but instead actually plays on the image once again to press her point. “OK, so I’m a dog, but even they get crumbs and leftovers from the master’s table, don’t they!?” Jesus then expresses what appears to be surprise. “Woman, you have great faith! You’re right, and so your request is granted.” And it was. The daughter was released from her demon at that very moment, Matthew says.
However, that is all Matthew says. Tantalizingly enough, there is no follow-up of any kind here. There is no commentary from Matthew, no subsequent discussion between Jesus and the disciples as to why Jesus gave in after all, no hint as to why Jesus acted the way he did. At first Jesus pretended like he didn’t even see the woman. In fact, this is the only time in all the gospels when Jesus ignored someone’s cry. Then he claimed this woman was outside the scope of his concern. Finally, Jesus went further still by saying that the reason she was outside the scope of his ministry was because she was a lowlife, a dog.
But despite all that, Jesus in the end approves of this same woman. But we have no clue as to the whys and wherefores of any of it! Was Jesus at first merely toying with her (and the disciples), purposely playing into prejudices as a prelude to undermining those same prejudices? Or did Jesus really think at first that it was God’s will that he limit himself to Israel? Both options raise questions.
Is it possible that this encounter did help Jesus to widen his own perspective (as some commentators and preachers suggest)? And was Jesus, as God’s only Son, capable of ever harboring attitudes that were not just erroneous but actually sinful? It is very important to make some distinctions here.
It is no sin to make an honest mistake, no sin to get startled, and no sin to be unaware of something. So if Jesus really did think at some point that he was supposed to limit himself to Israel, that was no sin. Maybe part of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human was that he had the genuine ability to learn, that he willingly allowed limitations to be placed on his own knowledge even as, for the time he was on this earth, he allowed himself to be limited to being in just one place at a time (instead of being everywhere at once as is normally the case with God).
We know for sure that by becoming human, God’s Son introduced possibilities into his existence that had not been there before, chief among which was the possibility of suffering and, finally, even of dying. Jesus shared our sinful situation without himself being sinful. That was true in terms of his vulnerability to suffering, and perhaps it was true also in terms of his ability to learn through experience the same as we all do in life.
(As an aside: Isn’t it odd that almost no one in the church struggles with the fact that by becoming truly human, God the Son became capable of bleeding, suffering pain, and even dying and yet those same people bristle at—or at least become powerfully nervous over—the idea that maybe by becoming truly human, God the Son as Jesus became also capable of learning. Seems to me the notion of God’s Son dying should be a whole lot more shocking than the idea of God’s Son learning something via the school of hard knocks same as the rest of us!)
But as interesting as all of that may be, the real lesson of this incident–the main reason why Matthew made sure to record this story in the first place–is to challenge all of us in the church to imitate Jesus in being willing to extend the gospel to all people, starting with the ones who, for whatever the reason, we may initially deem beyond the pale.
Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner allows that Jesus maybe really did learn something through this Canaanite woman, but what is vital to see is that Jesus’ heart did not change from stingy to loving. Jesus was always loving. It was more a matter of priorities that got shuffled around. Matthew wants us to see that even though we may think we know exactly what (and who) needs to come first in our ministries, the main thing is to remain open to the people God sends our way. We, too, may think that when it comes to “first things first,” taking care of in-house folks has a higher profile than reaching out to the community. But if we, like the Lord Jesus, are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that’s what it takes to be loving toward everyone we meet.
Scholars think that Matthew was quite probably writing this gospel specifically for a Jewish-Christian audience. If so, then perhaps that community of faith, like so many communities down along the ages, was struggling with questions about who should be included in the church. What is the scope of salvation? Matthew has been pushing his readers outward right from the start. As we have noted before, Matthew opens with what looks like a dry and boring family tree of Jesus, but upon closer examination you notice the startling inclusion in that family history of four foreign women, several of whom had dubious sexual histories, yet each of whom became one of Jesus’ great-grandmothers.
Matthew follows that opening surprise very quickly with the New Testament’s only record of the visit of the Magi from the East. This, too, was designed to shake readers up. Astrologers like these quacks from Baghdad were despised by Jews, condemned by passages in the Old Testament itself. But Matthew brings these very fellows to the cradle of the Christ as another early gospel hint that the scope of Jesus’ work was going to know no ethnic, religious, social, or economic boundaries.
Now in Matthew 15 Jesus himself is pushed outward by God’s Spirit. Matthew 15:22 is the only place in the entire New Testament where the word “Canaanite” appears as an adjective. To Jewish ears, the very word “Canaanite” smacked of all that was hostile to Israel, all that they (since the days of Joshua) were supposed to root out and steer clear of if they were to be faithful to God. But like the Magi, here even a Canaanite becomes a beloved character in a story about the Messiah. Certainly for us, and maybe even for Jesus, she becomes an instrument of teaching by reminding us that in the end, the love of God needs to be available to all people.
Commentator Frederick Dale Bruner points out that in the Greek of this pericope, after verse 21 Jesus’ name does not occur until verse 28. Until then, Jesus is referred to only as “he” or “him.” He said . . . . He answered. But then in verse 28, when he extends love to this woman, suddenly the text says again, “Then Jesus answered.” It’s almost as if Matthew is saying that when the words of love and inclusion come into this story, that’s Jesus talking! Now we are hearing from the true Lord Jesus Christ! Maybe at first Jesus had been mouthing the conventional wisdom of his day–and maybe at first even he thought his ministry needed to fit into that somehow–but when the woman’s faith is approved of and healing is granted to her daughter, that’s finally Jesus talking for sure!
Some years ago when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who became (the now-retired) Pope Benedict XVI ignited a firestorm of discussion when he issued the declaration Dominus Iesus or “The Lord Jesus.” This document, which received the endorsement of Pope John Paul II, re-affirmed the doctrine that salvation comes only through Jesus. That central thesis did not receive much press, however. Instead the section which grabbed the attention of so many was the part which dealt with the Church. If only Jesus saves, where can you meet this Savior? Jesus is encountered through the Church, which proclaims the gospel. But to the great disgruntlement of many, Ratzinger refused to call any group outside Roman Catholicism a “church,” opting instead to call non-Catholic denominations only “ecclesial communities.”
There’s just one true Church, Ratzinger claimed, and it’s the one headed up by the pope in Rome. Other groups of Christians “are not Churches in the proper sense.” The closer you are to Rome and to the “fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church,” the closer you are to the true Body of Christ. The farther you are from all things Roman Catholic, the farther you are from being in any sense a “church.”
Well, this angered many people, including a good many Roman Catholics. My guess is that its sets a lot of people off. No one who attends the “First Baptist Church” of Wichita wants to be told that the name has to be changed to “First Baptist Ecclesial Community” of Wichita on account of not being a true church after all!
Insiders and outsiders. Who’s in, who’s out? Unhappily, it is religion that has long been associated with making such distinctions. Historically, religious distinctions have led to a tragic amount of conflict. Catholics versus Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims versus Christians in the Crusades, Christians versus Jews in the Inquisition–on and on the list goes. Lines get drawn, in the name of God walls are built up ever higher, and as a result the idea that religion is mostly about love gets ever more difficult for some people to believe.
Genesis 45: 1-15
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
When I attended the Fuller Seminary conference “Preaching in a Visual Age” in Hollywood about a year-and-a-half ago, I heard a lecture by screenwriting expert Bobette Buster. Ms. Buster has spent her life studying films, teaching screenwriting, and analyzing narratives and so she knows that when a movie works, it is because it tells a good story that as often as not will be:
* A tale of redemption (think of the movie Rocky or what happens to Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List or the trajectory of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader across the Star Wars films)
* A tale of anti-redemption (like what happens to Michael Corleone in The Godfather)
* A story of reinvention (think Julie and Julia or My Big Fat Greek Wedding)
* A story of transformation (think of Cher’s character in Moonstruck or what happens to relationships in Field of Dreams)
All good stories move toward a climax and very often, that climax pulls everything together in ways that draw you in emotionally.
Genesis 45 brings us to the climax of the Joseph cycle of stories. These stories began with some dreams but then took the nightmare twist of Joseph’s apparent death. But we’ve known all along that Joseph was not dead, and so neither were the dreams. We’ve known all along the secret guilt of the ten brothers–the guilt they bore both for having sold Joseph in the first place and then for having lied so boldly to their father about what happened. And we’ve known since chapter 42 that the stern governor of Egypt before whom the sons of Israel bowed and at whose hands they were treated rather harshly was really Joseph, quietly taking some revenge on these fraternal scallywags. All along we as readers of the Genesis narrative have had a leg up on the characters: we’ve known things Jacob didn’t know, we’ve known things the ten brothers didn’t know, we’ve even known a thing or two Joseph himself may have missed.
So as climaxes go, Genesis 45 is one of those narrative peaks we’ve seen coming from a long way off already. Still, it’s a powerful narrative high point. Three major plot threads all converge: the guilt of the brothers, the guile of Joseph, and the grief of Jacob. Guilt, guile, and grief are all going to be uncovered and then, in a flash, put away forever.
The guilty brothers are going to be forgiven. The guile of Joseph will be ended when he lifts the mask of his deception because he just can’t take it anymore. And soon thereafter the grief of the old man Jacob will also vanish when he learns that his long-lost son is alive and well. We’ve seen this coming, but it’s still a startlingly powerful story to read. Suddenly the pages of Genesis are soaked with puddles of tears as one brother after the next weeps and sobs for sorrow or for joy, and sometimes for a little of both at the same time.
Yet there is one element to this climax that we maybe didn’t see coming: the hidden hand of God in it all. Prior to Genesis 45 there is no hint that Joseph himself realized that all the bad things that had happened to him were part of a larger divine plan. Indeed, considering how wretched a good many events of the last twenty years had been, a more likely conclusion would have been that God had been absent from all the lies, cheats, careless abandon, and other shenanigans that had been going on for so long. God had seemed more off-duty than busily at work while all that dreadful stuff was happening.
Certainly the brothers, bearing as they did a most horrible load of guilt, had never felt like the tools of divine providence. (Actually, you could wish most of them had felt a bit more guilt than it appears they did! They maybe had been the devil’s pawns, but God’s instruments? Not likely. For his part Jacob may have cried out to God, maybe even blamed God for letting his favorite son die so horribly at the claws of a lion, but Jacob never suspected that two decades’ worth of grief were going to lead to something wonderful for himself or the world. Finally, in more recent chapters it has been difficult to square Joseph’s vengeful actions with anything we ordinarily associate with divinely sanctioned activities.
No one in these many stories seemed to have had providence much in mind as these events unfolded. And yet there it is in Genesis 45:5-8: the threads of guilt, guile, and grief converge in a shattering narrative climax. Joseph picks up these disparate threads, braids them together into a strong rope, and calls this the very cord of providence. “God did it all, not you, not me!” Joseph bawls out to his brothers. Suddenly, in the face of this suggestion, it seems as though all is resolved: guilt is lifted, guile is ended, and grief is assuaged. Suddenly there don’t seem to be any loose ends dangling anywhere. The presence and work of God are asserted in a way that seems to settle all old scores, levels out what had been very rough terrain, and connects what had seemed to be a series of random dots.
God had been there all along. Because of that, the family is re-united but more than that, they are literally saved from death. The assertion of God’s work brings new life. Israel and his children are saved. Even Egypt and whole swaths of the larger earth are saved because of God’s work in Joseph. To Joseph’s mind in Genesis 45, it is this presence of new life that tells him something that he himself may have been missing until then: namely, he was witnessing the strange out-working of God’s mysterious plans. Joseph cannot account for all the life and love he suddenly sees around him in any other way than to give credit to the Author of Life and the Source of Love.
That is the way this story’s climax plays out. All along in these stories, however, we’ve been wondering about all this. If God was involved, then did that make what the ten brothers did to hapless Joseph OK after all? Was this necessary in the sense that God himself mapped out that dirty scheme, slipped the plan into the heart of Judah, and then goaded Judah to carry it out? Is that what God’s involvement in this has to mean?
These are among the most difficult of all questions to ask. Some Christians would have no difficulty answering these ponderings by saying that of course all of life is mysteriously scripted and pre-ordained by God. Although we avoid making God the source of evil or sin, we nevertheless conclude that even evil and sin couldn’t happen unless God let it happen. God operates some big secret plan that we cannot fathom but that somehow allows God to have something to do with the evil that happens yet without God’s being at fault for having caused that evil.
Others would say that free will and the way God set up the world means that God has not pre-written a script that we humans can do no more than blindly follow like actors on a stage. Instead, God has programmed some free play into the universe. Yet that freedom of choice does not cause this world to be out of God’s control. Instead God is actually powerful and clever enough to be able to realize his larger purposes despite, and sometimes even through, those events that also God despises as sinful.
Still others would parse these matters in a quite different fashion. Some would say that we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can look back on an unhappy series of calamities such as Joseph had experienced and then retroactively stamp it all with God’s seal of approval. We’re merely trying to comfort ourselves by making sense of the senseless through invoking God as the ultimate arbiter of all confusing things. That is a cynical point of view, of course, though we should admit that we’ve all seen something of this in action at one time or another. A drunk driver runs down a two-year-old, and yet the parents look unblinkingly into a TV camera and say, “We know it was really God who took little Felicia home and so it’s OK. We’ll submit to God’s superior wisdom.”
Sometimes we are too quick in our claims to know exactly what God makes of a certain bad situation and/or how God may have been active in or through a tragic event. Speedy answers are often wrong answers. Conversely, though, there may be other times when we are too slow to recall that if God is as sovereign and powerful as we confess him to be, then there is finally something bigger and more full of purpose that is always coming under, over, and beyond the booming-buzzing nature of global events and history. We may not always achieve the clarity Joseph displays in Genesis 45, but neither should we dismiss the idea that probably there is much more going on at any given moment than we suspect.
We don’t always know what God is up to, and we are properly cautious about too quickly saying we do know not just what God is doing in the world and also just why he’s doing it. But if we are Christians, then we cannot give up on the twin notions that there is ultimately both a what and a why to things as God is working them out.
It’s all so complicated and yet Christian people have long confessed that it all comes together in the simplicity of God. To those not versed in theology, it is sometimes a bit of a bracing surprise to hear God described as a simple being. Yet simplicity has long been a key attribute that theologians have ascribed to the Almighty One of the cosmos. God is a simple being in the sense that God is not composed of various diverse elements. God has no accidental qualities (the way a human person might have blue eyes or brown, might be short or tall) nor does God ever find one part of his nature at odds with another part. God is pure divinity, pure and simple being, all the way through. And so if and when God has a certain plan, everything in God is directed toward that plan’s execution–no one part of the divine being will ever hinder or get in the way of some other part. There is no competition within the Trinity, no disagreements, no doubts as to what must be and will be accomplished.
Life is complicated but the simplicity of God assures us that in the long run and in the last analysis, God will finish what he intends for us. And when the great cosmic climax one day comes–when not just a few narrative threads come together as happened in Genesis 45 but when untold billions of such threads come together before the judgment seat of God–then we should hope and expect that diverse though those historic threads are, they will all find one final answer in God’s providence in a similar way to how guilt, guile, and grief all found their final answer in Joseph’s eloquent, yet simple, declaration: “It is all of God!” It is our hope that when God’s kingdom fully comes, we will see something in the divine heart and mind that will answer our many questions. It is our hope that our various guilts and griefs, our many questions about evil and goodness, the myriad issues of history that vex us now, will find resolution in the awful grace and tenacious execution of a universe-wide providence.
That’s our hope. If we knew all of this for sure at this present moment, if we could see it all with utter clarity, we wouldn’t need hope. But for now we do. Because for now we need the gentle power of a grace that holds faith together; a grace that once in a while affords us a glimpse over the distant horizon into that far country where God will be all in all.
I like the way this first part of the story ends in verse 15. After the shock of it all wore off, after there had been a whole lot of weeping and hugging and expressions of disbelief, it seems like everyone took a deep breath, wiped their eyes, and then, the text says, the brothers all sat down “and talked with Joseph.”
It’s such a common image with which to end such an uncommon and climactic story. But there’s something about the purely mundane and ordinary nature of this closing picture that fits. In a way, it’s what we hope will happen for all eternity once the kingdom fully comes. The larger sweep of God’s cosmic providence will be revealed for all to see. There will be astonishment, weeping, gasps, and wonder. But once that all begins to lift, perhaps we will all be able to take a deep breath, sit down with our Lord Jesus Christ and spend a long time just talking about it all. We’ll have plenty of time–an entire eternity in which to explore the riches of the mysteries of our great God and the universe he created.
Frederick Buechner once wrote a lovely book called The Alphabet of Grace. Near the end of this volume, Buechner compared life to the Hebrew language. As some of you know, ancient Hebrew contains no vowels but only consonants. So you have words that, all by themselves on paper, look like BRK, GDL, BNJMN. You can’t pronounce such things, of course, without vowel sounds to slide in between those consonants. Native Hebrew speakers know just which vowels to supply where. And so BRK becomes barak, GDL becomes gadol, and so on.
Life is a little like that, Buechner suggests. There are lots of hard truths, hard sounds that get jammed together in the tragedies (and even in the ordinary circumstances) of our lives. It doesn’t always make sense or seem even very pronounceable. But it is finally faith that provides the vowels at just the right points, making even for now at least a little bit of sense of things. Life isn’t always very phonetic in some literal sense, but with the Spirit’s help, perhaps grace can supply what is sometimes missing.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 133 is a song in praise of unity. At first glance it appears to applaud familial unity. After all, it uses familial language when it speaks of the wonder and beauty of “brotherly” unity. In fact, some scholars suggest this lends credence to the idea that families sang Psalm 133 on their pilgrimages to and from Jerusalem.
Deuteronomy 25:5 refers to the custom in which brothers continued to live in their father’s home even after they married. An emphasis on familial unity certainly would be appropriate in the light of the seeming countless things that have all too often fragmented families ever since our first parents fell into sin. So Psalm 133 may offer an opportunity for preachers and teachers to reflect with hearers about the blessings of familial unity.
However, it’s quite clear to most scholars that the unity to which Psalm 133 primarily refers is unity among God’s adopted sons and daughters, among “brothers” (and sisters!) in God’s family, our true family. After all, verse 3 refers to Mount Zion, that symbol of God’s house where God’s people gathered together, as the place where God bestows God’s blessing of life forevermore.
The unity that Psalm 133 praises is distinctly counter-cultural. We sometimes talk about the “balkanization” of society by which we seem to increasingly define ourselves by and divide ourselves along racial, gender, socio-economic, national and other lines. Sadly, however, such lack of the unity that this psalm lauds haunts Christ’s church as well. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously called 11:00 on Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the whole week. Beyond that, of course, Christ’s church has divided itself into three main branches: Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as a nearly infinite number of denominations.
So Psalm 133 offers preachers and teachers a good opportunity to explore with hearers both the sad fragmentation of Christ’s church and steps Christians might take to deepen our unity. After all, Jesus himself prayed for such unity among Christian brothers and sisters in John 17:20:1: “I pray also for those who believe in me through [the disciples’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
Yet the psalmist doesn’t seem to be praising the kind of theological unity for which many Christians long. She isn’t just claiming that it’s beautiful and wonderful when people “get along,” as The Message paraphrases verse 1. Psalm 133 also seems to be a song in praise of physical unity among God’s sons and daughters. After all, in verse 1 the psalmist prays, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together (italics added) in unity!”
This may refer to God’s Israelite children’s practice of eating and living together like family during festivals like the Tabernacles. James Mays suggests that such festivals transformed pilgrims into a family that temporarily lived and ate together. This is a unity that part of the early Christian church also tried to literally embody. After all, in Acts 4:32-35 we read, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had . . . There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” Augustine even claimed that Psalm 133 served as the inspiration for the monastic movement. However, even if that isn’t literally true, it’s a song in praise of unity that was important for such communities that came together to serve God and God’s kingdom.
In verse 1 the psalmist refers to unity among God’s children as “good” (tob). He may mean that it’s either the opposite or moral evil or that it’s valuable. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates it as “wonderful.” Its use ties it to verse 2 where the psalmist compares unity to the tob oil poured on Aaron’s head. In verse 1 the psalmist also refers to unity among brothers and sisters in God’s family as “pleasant” (na’im). The Hebrew word can mean acceptable, favorable or beautiful. However, na’im is used elsewhere to refer to a song’s melodiousness. That at least hints that Christian unity is like a beautiful song.
In verse 2 the psalmist compares the value and beauty of Christian unity to “precious oil poured on the head … running down Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” This would seem to refer to the oil with which Aaron was anointed for priestly service that saturated not only his head, but also his beard, in fact, running down on the collar of his priestly garment. The NIV Study Bible suggests that this profusion of anointing oil symbolized Aaron’s total preparation by God for service to God and God’s sons and daughters.
Preachers and teachers might explore with hearers how, in a similar way, God’s Spirit uses Christian unity to prepare God’s children for service to the Lord and each other. In fact, it might prompt a search for a more modern metaphor for Christian unity such as, perhaps, a cool shower on a hot day or a bowl of soup on a cold night that heartens a person for further work.
In verse 3 the psalmist also compares the value and beauty of unity among God’s people to “the dew of Hermon … falling on Mount Zion.” After all, if as much dew were to fall on Zion as regularly falls on Hermon, Zion’s hillside would be very fruitful. Similarly, The NIV Study Bible notes, unity makes God’s children very fruitful.
The psalmist closes this lovely short psalm by noting that Christian unity has wonderful benefits. It doesn’t just please the Lord who created us for such unity. Wherever there is Christian unity, the psalmist suggests, God also gives the gift of God’s blessing, perhaps referring to the gift of prosperity. God also, however, gifts God’s united children with “life forevermore,” with life that lasts into the future without end.
Preachers and teachers might reflect on how where there is unity among God’s adopted sons and daughters, there is real life, in fact, eternal life. As an old cliché goes, Christians might as well get used to spending time with fellow Christians, even those with whom they don’t fully agree. After all, by God’s grace we’re going to spend eternity, “life forevermore” united with them in the glory of God’s redeemed and renewed creation.
As J. Clinton McCann notes, Psalm 133 offers preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on “family values.” There’s certainly no shortage of modern tips on how to promote those values. One website encourages parents to ask their children what they think are their family’s most important beliefs and values. Another offers tips on how to “create a foundation which allows your children to make healthy choices on their own.” Still another “promotes traditional family values, focusing primarily on the influence of television and other media on our society.”
However, Psalm 133 reminds us that while such discussions about strengthening the nuclear family are important, they’re often far too narrow. After all, we easily turn biological families into idols that exclude those outside of them. They’re also all too often places of abuse and neglect.
By the Holy Spirit, God is busy graciously incorporating otherwise unrelated individuals into the family of God, making us the brothers and sisters whom God longs to unite. As James Mays writes, Psalm 133 “is a witness that God was at work building a family that transcends all the given and instituted barriers that separate and diminish life.” Even when Jesus’ own family came to visit him, he said, according to Mark 3:34-35, “Here are my brothers and sisters! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Romans 11: 1-2a, 25-32
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
In the maelstrom of current events—the epidemic of shootings at schools and businesses, the crisis in the Ukraine, the tragic shooting down of a passenger jet full of people, the awful weather perhaps related to global warming, the unending tensions in the Middle East that erupted into full-scale war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza—it is easy to forget and even harder to believe that God is working out his master plan for all of human history. But he is. God has a plan to save this world from sin and evil and death, a plan announced at the very dawn of human history when that unholy trinity broke into human life.
For thousands of years that plan centered on the people of Israel. Salvation is for the Jews. And salvation is from the Jews, because the Savior of the world would be the Jewish Messiah. But when Messiah came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a strange thing happened—the Jews rejected their own Messiah, even crucifying him as a blasphemer. They would not believe that Jesus was their long promised Savior, the center of God’s plan to save them and the world.
Here in Romans 9-11 Paul labors to account for Jewish unbelief. Has God’s plan failed? Not at all. In Romans 9 Paul explained that God has always elected only some of Abraham’s children. In Romans 10 he demonstrated that the rejection of the Christ by Israel was born of their own disobedience and stubbornness. Now here in Romans 11, he shows that this rejection itself is part of God’s master plan for history. And he reveals the great mystery of verse 26, namely, that in the end “all Israel will be saved,” and the even greater mystery of verse 32, that God will have “mercy on them all.” What does that mean?
We need to start at the beginning and cover the entire chapter, even though the lectionary reading skips all of the middle verses that are so crucial to understanding the twin mysteries noted above. There is no way to properly interpret those apparently universal “all’s” without attempting to understand the intervening verses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Paul begins with, “I ask, did God reject his people?” They rejected the Messiah. Did God, in turn, reject them? Is God done with his ancient covenant people? “By no means!” says Paul, explaining in verses 1-10 that Israel’s rejection of the Christ was not complete, and in verses 11-24, that this rejection was not final.
First of all, Israel’s rejection of Christ was not complete. There have always been Jews who did not turn away from God and his salvation. “I’m one of them,” says Paul. Then he gives a little history lesson from the time of Elijah, when all of Israel seemed to have rejected Yahweh for Baal. But even then there was a faithful remnant of Jews who had not bent the knee to Baal. “So, too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace,” says verse 5, an elect remnant, says verse 7, who did obtain the salvation God has always planned for his people. The rejection of Israel was not complete.
And it is not final, for, although God has hardened Israel (in response to their rejection of Christ), that is not the end of the story. Israel has stumbled, but, says verse 11, not so badly that it won’t recover. In fact, the stumbling of Israel has opened up salvation to the Gentiles. That’s exactly how it happened in city after city as Paul preached through the Roman Empire. As the book of Acts shows, he would always begin with the Jews in their synagogue. When they rejected the Gospel and chased him out, he would preach to the Gentiles and they would believe.
Now Paul lets us in on something we wouldn’t have guessed. Salvation has come to the Gentiles to make the Jews envious. The pattern we observe in Acts was not an accident of history; it was part of God’s eternal plan for history. God’s idea was that when his notoriously stiff necked people saw these outsiders enjoying the blessings he had always promised to them, they would envy the blessings and finally come around and accept their Messiah. What a day that will be! Verse 12 puts it this way. “If the transgression of the Jewish people, their unbelief, brought such riches for the world, how much greater riches will their fullness bring.”
Hang on to that thought—“their fullness.” Put it together with that word in verse 15, “their acceptance.” Combine that with the image of “grafting in” from verses 17-24. When we combine those words, we get the distinct impression that God is not done with Israel yet. Their rejection is not final. God intends to do something startling, something unexpected, something big with them yet.
In view of that, says Paul in verses 13-24, you Gentiles should not get cocky about the fact that you are saved and those Jews are not. You have to remember that they were first and that they are the center of God’s plan. They are the root of the salvation tree, the cultivated olive tree that yields oil that pleases God. When many of the Jews rejected God’s Messiah and became weak and sick and dead and, thus, unfruitful, God broke off those branches. He grafted you wild olive branches onto that cultivated tree, so that you could become fruitful. But don’t take credit for that grafting. It was solely by God’s grace. And it is solely by faith that you stay grafted. If you should ever become unbelievers, you would be broken off just as surely as the unbelieving Jews were.
What’s more, says Paul in verse 23, “if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive three that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree.” It is easy for today’s non-agricultural audiences to get lost in all that farm talk, but Paul is conveying a simple, blunt message to us Gentiles who may be tempted to look down on “those” Jews. Don’t get cocky about your own salvation, as though you earned it. It is by grace through faith. God is able to do the very same thing for those Jews who have rejected the Christ.
Not only can he do that; he will. “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited; Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved.” Whenever Paul uses that word “mystery,” you can be sure that he will say something no detective could ever solve. He is always talking about some part of God’s truth that defies all human reasoning or imagining. So it is here. This is the grand finale of God’s master plan that we couldn’t have guessed in a million years.
As we saw above, when Israel rejected the Messiah, God turned to the Gentiles, in order to make the Jews envious. This is the time for the Gentiles to be saved, and they are being saved all over the world. When all of them are saved, the full number of the elect from among the Gentiles, something will happen to the Jews. “All Israel will be saved.” That is the mysterious conclusion of God’s master plan.
But what on earth does that mean? It is much disputed. Some believe that Paul is talking here about the restoration of the nation of Israel to its geopolitical place, but it is clear that Paul is talking about salvation here, not politics. For that idea of national restoration, we have to look elsewhere in Scripture; it’s not here. But what does Paul mean?
When I began to study this passage, I was convinced that Paul was using the word “Israel” here in the same way he does in Gal. 6:16, where he speaks of “the Israel of God.” There he obviously means the church composed of both Jew and Gentile, the new people of God. So, I thought, here in Romans 11 he simply means that God would finally save all of his people both Jew and Gentile. And I still think that is true, obviously true. But in fact Paul never speaks of Israel as including Gentiles in Romans 9-11. Indeed, the point is precisely the Jews as contrasted to the Gentiles. When the fullness of the Gentiles is gathered in, then all Israel will be saved. So I don’t think this is about the church composed of Jew and Gentile.
Some scholars think that Paul is saying God will finally reach back into all of history and save every last one of the Jews, no matter who they were or what they believed or what they had done. He will save every single Jew who ever lived. That is a wonderful thought, and it might provide some comfort for those who have been permanently scarred by the Holocaust. But that interpretation runs up against the central principle of Romans 9:6, “not all descended from Israel are Israel.” There has always been a selection, so that not all Jews are Jews in the sense of the promise, that is, saved children of God. That is why Paul says in 11:14 that “some” will be saved.
I have come to agree with those who believe that God will finally save the mass of Israel who are alive in that day when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. “All Israel” doesn’t mean every Jew who ever lived, but the vast majority of the Jewish people on earth when Jesus returns. Again, this is not talking about the establishment of the Jewish state in 1947. It is talking about the people whom God chose as his special people from the beginning of his grand plan for history. In the end, says verses 26 and 27, the mass of them will be turned from their rejection of their Messiah and their sins will be forgiven.
Paul isn’t done explaining God’s plan yet, for in verse 32 he says, “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” If there is any universalist text in the Bible, this certainly seems to be it. Some scholars believe that Paul is indeed teaching that in the end, after the history of this world is over and the punishment of those who would not believe is completed, God will finally show mercy to all human beings and all will be saved. It’s a wonderful thought. I hope it’s true.
But such absolute universalism does not agree with the rest of Scripture, nor with the context here. Recall that Paul is contrasting Jew and Gentile here. He concludes that in the end the fullness of the Gentiles (all of God’s elect among the nations) and all the Jews (the vast mass of them) will finally be saved. I think that Paul means not all without exception, that is, all human beings, but all without distinction, all kinds of humans, namely, Jew and Gentile. In other words God’s master plan for human history is as large as the world. He plans to save the world—not just a few here and there, not just the Jews, not just the Gentiles, but the world. God’s plan is to “have mercy on them all.”
This vision sends Paul into an ecstasy of praise. Here at last the pained outcry of a lost and battered world is overwhelmed by the overflowing joy of an evangelist who has caught a glimpse of the wideness of God’s mercy. Behind the awful world-wide effects of human sin, there is a loving God working out his master plan for all of history and all of us. It is more complex than we could ever imagine, so don’t despair when you can’t figure it out. Just know this, says Paul. God’s mercy will finally triumph over human sin. When we believe that, we will be able to join Paul in his doxology which concludes with this startling statement—“For from him and through him and to him are all things.”
How can we preach something as difficult and esoteric as this business of Jews and Gentiles? Well, of course, we can assure folks that Paul’s central point is true. God has a grand plan and he is working his plan, even when it is an utter mystery to us. All things, literally all things, are a part of that plan. History and our lives are not out of control, nor in the control of sin and evil and death, “for from him and through and to him are all things.”
Of course, that seems to make God the author of sin and evil and death, but that isn’t what Paul means. He means that God will make all things work together for the good, not only of those who love him now, but also those whom he has called according to his purpose, whom Paul has just revealed includes “all of them.”
Practically, we can preach this text as a call to humility in the face of mystery. Our congregants and even we preachers have often said, “I don’t understand what God is up to in this. I can’t see how this terrible thing could possibility be turned into something good.” Paul’s concluding doxology calls us to bend the knee and raise our voices in praise to the God who is beyond our comprehension. In the end, we will find ourselves in the presence of “Love divine, all loves excelling… lost in wonder, love, and praise.” Our sermons can be an invitation to begin that now.
Further, this text can serve as a sharp rebuke to all anti-Semitism. Even after the horrors of the Holocaust should have moved the whole world to lay its collective hand on its Jew-hating mouth, we still hear scorn and ridicule poured on God’s ancient chosen people. We don’t have to be Zionists to love God’s people. The fact that God still loves them and has good plans for them should make every Christian a friend to the Jews.
Finally, Paul’s assurance that there is hope for a people who have been hardened to the Christ for two thousand years should give us hope for the hardened ones we know. The God who transformed Paul almost against his will can still make Christians out of the most hardened enemies of Christ. That will preach in any congregation.
I just finished a beautifully written novel entitled The Orchardist, which chronicles the life of a tough, taciturn, but ultimately tender-hearted orchardist named Talmadge. One day, two runaway girls sneak into his life and steal his heart. They have been abused so badly by a sexual predator that they will be wounded all their lives. The scars will harden their hearts until they die, which they both do, tragically. But not before Talmadge tries to save them. In particular, he develops an elaborate plan to help one of the girls, Della, escape from prison. Della refuses to cooperate with his plan and she ends up dying in prison. Talmadge never gets over his inability to save his “adopted” child, and he dies with a broken heart. It’s a sad tale, but utterly realistic. We humans ultimately can’t save each other, no matter how carefully we plan, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we’re willing to sacrifice. Salvation is, finally, of the Lord. His plan, his work, and his sacrifice can save even the most battered and hardened.