Proper 15A

August 11, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 45: 1-15

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 133

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    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.

    Illustration Idea

    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.