August 10, 2020
The Proper 15A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 15:(10 – 20), 21-28 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 45:1-15 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 67 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 20 (Lord’s Day 7)
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28
Author: Scott Hoezee
Years ago 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. Jesus was 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 felt spiritually downright dangerous.
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 nothing, 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? (This is a real possibility in that part of Matthew’s purpose in writing this Gospel was to help Israel re-appropriate the tradition, which usually meant rolling back old stereotypes and prejudices against outsiders.) 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.
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.
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 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 it set 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.
Author: Stan Mast
You can’t beat the Bible when it comes to telling dramatic stories in a spellbinding way. Our text for today is a perfect case in point. I’m going to use Eugene Lowry to explain that. In his classic preaching book, The Homiletical Plot, Lowry outlined the 5 movements of classic narrative using 5 interjections: Oops, Ugh, Aha, Whee, and Yeah!
A good story begins by throwing the reader off balance with an unexpected Oops. Then it pulls the reader into the action with an ever deepening set of complications that seem unsolvable, the Ugh. At the point of greatest difficulty, the story suddenly reverses itself with an Aha moment. Then the resolution plays itself out as things get better and the reader is taken on a thrill ride, the Whee. Finally, the previously ugly situation is completely resolved and everyone settles into the Yeah, the peace that concludes the conflict.
The Oops of our story, of course, began 20 years ago when Jacob’ favorite son was sold by his brothers into slavery. Things got worse and worse for Joseph, but then there was a temporary resolution, a kind of premature Aha, when he rose to the second highest post in the land of Egypt. But for the last several chapters of Genesis, the plot thickened as Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt looking for food in the midst of a global famine. Joseph seemed to play a cruel game of cat and mouse with them, ratcheting up the tension with hidden identity, two trips, hidden silver, hostages, cruel demands, paternal angst, and fraternal dismay. The latter finally erupts into Judah’s impassioned speech at the end of Genesis 44.
That speech is what finally breaks the tension and leads to the great Aha of the story and, with a little sanctified imagination, to the great Aha of the Gospel. “Then,” says verse 1, “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out, ‘Have everyone leave my presence!’” The Empire leaves, so that Joseph can tend to Family business. “So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers.” With weeping so loud his attendants could hear it through closed doors, he said, “I am Joseph.”
But that isn’t the great Aha, because that revelation doesn’t reverse the action. Instead, it leaves his brothers so terrified that they can’t even speak. Their horror is deepened when Joseph beckoned them closer, so they could more clearly see his face. He didn’t relieve their terror when he identified himself as “your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt.” Their brother is not only alive and in charge of all Egypt, but he remembers exactly what these miserable brothers had done to him. They are in deep trouble.
Then comes the Aha. It begins with the words that so often accompany a theophany in the Bible. “Do not be afraid, do not be distressed.” Joseph adds a further calming word, when he says, “and don’t be angry with yourselves,” meaning “with each other or with yourself for your own role in my plight.” Then comes the totally unexpected reason they shouldn’t be afraid or angry; “because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”
Wait! What? “God sent me!” God? Yes! Four times Joseph says that God not only sent Joseph to Egypt, but also “made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler of all Egypt.” But these brothers had sent Joseph to Egypt. We watched it happen earlier in the story. God was nowhere in sight. We never heard God’s voice, only the cries of Joseph begging for mercy. We never saw God do a thing, only his brothers and those traders doing their nefarious deeds. All we saw was human sin and misery. And now Joseph tells his brothers that God was at work in all that. God did it so that he could “save lives, preserve a remnant,” and accomplish his covenant plan for his chosen people and his dying world.
This stupendous claim has troubled many, because it raises the whole issue of the relationship between human responsibility (and sin) and divine sovereignty (and salvation). I will address that theological conundrum in a moment, but first let’s follow the movement of the story from Aha to Whee to Yeah.
Immediately after revealing God’s saving intervention in this sinful drama, Joseph cuts through the brothers’ shock and confusion with a royal command. “Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what you son Joseph says….’” Saving grace is extended to the entire family. It results in the restoration of Jacob’s joy in life, the movement of the entire family to the best region of Egypt, and the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream of becoming ruler. Our particular story ends with a satisfied Yeah, as the brothers are embraced by Joseph and he forgives them all and there is warm family conversation. All is well.
Well, not completely, as we see in Genesis 50 where the brothers are still terrified when their father dies. What will Joseph do to us now that dear old dad isn’t here to buffer his rage? But there, again, grace cancels all sin and all is genuinely well (until another Pharaoh rises to power, but that’s another story entirely). For now, God’s grace has triumphed over sin and brought salvation to his people.
In your sermon on this rich story, you might not want to complicate matters by considering the theological issues raised by Jacob’s blunt claim, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Do Joseph’s words mean that God actually moved the brothers to commit sin against Joseph? Or do they mean that God only allowed their sin and then used their sin to accomplish his purposes? How are we to parse out the relationship between the misery caused by human sin and the salvation worked out by God through that sin and misery?
Multiple attempts have been made to cut through this theological Gordian knot. Rather than get into it too deeply, it is probably best to live within the story which shows both the reality of sin and the reality of God’s sovereignty. We don’t have to be able to solve the theological mystery in order to celebrate the victory of God’s gracious plan of salvation. In the end, God wins! As the New Interpreters Bible puts it, “the brothers’ sinful objectives have been thwarted by being drawn into the larger orbit of God’s purposes and used by God in such a way as to bring life rather than death… God has ‘taken over’ what they have done and used it to bring about this end.”
Or as Paul put it in the doxological conclusion of his masterful exposition of the Gospel in Romans 11:33 and 36: “O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Cf. Isaiah 14:24-27 and 55:8-9 for similar words about God’s sovereign plan.)
Speaking of God’s sovereign plan, this story of Joseph gives us ample opportunity to preach Christ. Even as God worked through human sin and the suffering of his chosen one, Joseph, so God would work ultimately through the sin of the Jewish and Roman leaders and the suffering of Jesus to bring salvation. The prayer of the early church in Acts 4 applies the theology of Genesis 45:5-8 to Christ: “Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
In God’s gracious plan, what seemed like death was in fact the way of life. God used sin and death to bring the life that is life indeed, the ultimate Whee and Yeah. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “The sovereign character of God’s purpose can create a real newness, a Genesis, an un-extrapolated freshness which negates the past, redefines the present, and opens futures.” This story reaches its climax when by the victorious grace of God, Joseph can stand before his sinful brothers and exclaim, “I am Joseph!” Just so, the crucified and risen Christ stands before a sinful world and exclaim, “I am Jesus” whom God sent to save you all.
Today, we often hear about people who effect radical changes in the course of human events. They are popularly called, “disrupters.” Time magazine recently devoted an entire issue to identifying the disrupters who are changing society for the better. God is the Ultimate Disrupter, the only one who can totally and permanently break through the chain of cause and effect that appears to determine the course of human events. Only he can “negate the past, redefine the present, and open futures.”
In my research on this text, I found one scholars who wrestled with the mystery of human responsibility/divine sovereignty using an interesting set of words to explain it: “in, with, under, and through.” God works in, with, under and through the choices and actions of humans. That reminded me of the Lutheran explanation of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist. Christ’s physical body is “in, with, under, and through” the molecules and atoms of the bread and wine in a way too mysterious to be comprehended. They call it “consubstantiation.” Maybe that’s a sacramental way to think about the mystery of this story and of our story.
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you read Psalm 67 a certain way, it could look like some example of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” or “One hand washes the other.” The poem begins with an echo of the great Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6 with reference being made to God’s face shining on people. And it will conclude with a similar call for God to bless God’s people. In between in this fairly short psalm are calls for all the nations and all the peoples everywhere to praise the one true God of Israel.
But in both of the places where God’s blessing is sought, this is immediately followed up by something the equivalent of “And then the earth will see how great you are, O God!” In other words, “You bless us and, you know, we’ll prove to be a blessing to also YOU and so your blessing us will be a real boost for also you, dear God.”
It’s not clear from the psalm how this is meant to be understood. Did it mean that just by becoming a shining showcase of divine favor, other nations would look at Israel and conclude, “Hey, we want what they have!”? Or was this meant more along the lines of Israel’s responding to being blessed by then going out and telling the nations how great God is. If the former, that makes a certain amount of sense. If the latter possibility, well that could start to look almost borderline manipulative along the “You scratch my back . . .” line I quoted above. It sounds like a scene from some mafia movie where a powerful mobster intimidates someone by saying, “If you be good to me, well then, y’know, I’ll be good to you. Capiche?” (It helps if you picture Robert DeNiro saying this!)
Or maybe it’s both and yet without the second possibility necessarily needing to be associated with some kind of manipulation or untoward bargaining with God. After all, God’s relationship with Israel was a covenantal relationship. It was already a kind of bargain, an agreement. God says “I will take care of you as my special people so long as you hold up your end of the covenant and act like a chosen people.” And the people essentially say back to God what Jacob said after his dream of a ladder going up to heaven, “If you come through on all your promises, then I will worship you.”
Of course, eventually Jacob would find out—and later the nation of Israel would find out—that the whole relationship is founded on grace alone. Eventually God first keeps his promise to Abram of generating an entire nation out of Abraham and Sarah’s meager offspring of one child and only then—and after rescuing them from Egyptian slavery—does God issue the Ten Commandments and all the rest of his laws. Salvation came first, rules on how to live as a redeemed people came second. God did not first give a set of laws and then say “Once you achieve a certain level of obedience and adherence to all this, I will consider making you my people.” No, God creates the nation, saves the nation, and only then does God tell them what their end of the bargain ought to look like from then on out. It begins in grace. The rest is all a grateful response to grace.
In the long run, sadly enough, Israel did a miserable job on their end of the deal. Hence the exile to Babylon eventually. And in the longest run God concludes that he is going to have to keep BOTH ends of the covenant himself if this is ever going to work and so the Son of God becomes a human being in whom would be fulfilled what Israel never managed to do themselves.
In any event, the point is that all along the kind of reciprocity we see in Psalm 67 was part of the biblical narrative. God blesses Israel (and Israel seeks the shining face of God’s blessing) and Israel in turn lives as a distinctive people who act like they are aware that a Holy God is dwelling in their very midst. And both of those things in turn were to become a witness to the nations. God’s big Blessing issued in many smaller blessings and the whole package transformed Israel into a living billboard promoting the goodness of Yahweh, the one true God of the cosmos.
Were we to feel a bit uneasy about the “You scratch my back . . .” possible way of reading Psalm 67, in the end there is no reason to feel that way. Because at bottom what this all signals is God’s deep desire to have a true relationship with humanity. That desire was first expressed when God built a Garden in which to fellowship with Adam and Eve. No sooner did that get fractured and God kept promising to find a way to bring about a reunion. It started with a Tabernacle tent in the wilderness and then proceeded to a Temple in Jerusalem and ultimately God’s reunion with humanity climaxed when the Word of God was made flesh. And the Spirit of that Word made flesh then turned each and every believer into a walking, talking Temple of the Holy Spirit, into mini-intersection points of God with humanity.
So the whole “You bless us and we’ll bless you and tell others about you” aspect of Psalm 67 is finally about just one thing: Love.
Many of us are so used to the phrase “May the Lord’s face shine upon you” from the most famous benediction in the Bible that we maybe have lost touch with why this desire was so meaningful to ancient people like the Israelites. And that is in part because many of us really don’t know just how dark this world can get at night and how frightening the dark was to people in history. We live in a world that has the luxury of worrying about “light pollution.” Most of our cities are so well-illuminated even in the dead of a moonless night that the upward shining light has been known to disorient migrating flocks of birds. And, of course, our houses are well-lit day and night. Even without a nightlight, many of our homes can only get so dark at night given the presence of streetlights and such.
But ancient people knew how dark it can get when there was nothing shining in the sky. The dark is scary. And so a desire to have God’s face “shine” on God’s people was in part a desire never to feel afraid, never to feel alone, never to feel lost in the murky darkness that descends on this world every night and in which all of us spend half of our lives. “The people living in darkness have seen a great light” the prophet Isaiah famously wrote. But you have to BE a people who knows what it’s like to live in grave darkness in the first place to know why the light of God’s face is such good news.
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Author: Doug Bratt
Your attitude towards disobedience may depend on whether you view it from a parent’s perspective or a child’s. After all, as the wonderful American preacher Fleming Rutledge notes, parents want children who obey.
We want sons who don’t do things like touch hot stoves or abuse alcohol. You and I want daughters who do things like look both ways before crossing the street and do their homework.
Yet disobedience can be very appealing. How else do you explain all of empty beer bottles in the woods where teenagers hang out? No one has to teach children to be disobedient – we call it Original Sin.
God longs for God’s adopted sons and daughters to obey the Lord even more than human parents do our children. However, while earthly parents sometimes demand the wrong kind of obedience from our children, the living God only tells us to do what’s best for us.
Among God’s graces toward God’s adopted children are the Ten Commandments. Since some of the churches and denominations of which many of this site’s readers are a part pay more public attention to them than most, we might argue that we obey those commands more than most.
So Romans 11’s proclaimers might ask our hearers and us how we’re doing. In the very first commandment God expects Christians to have no other gods before the Lord. We profess that means, among other things, that we trust in God alone and look to God for every good thing. So how did we do last week?
Rutledge refers to a stage in human development called “the myth of infantile omnipotence.” Basically it means that babies and young children assume that they’re the center of the world that they control.
Imagine a four year-old child doing something like running into a busy street without looking both ways first. Imagine her dad responding by angrily telling her, “You’re a bad girl.”
That accusation may lead the child to believe that she’s among the worst children on earth. She may even assume that since she’s the center of the world, nothing can overcome her badness.
Rutledge notes that two contradictory things result from such assumptions. First, some people secretly hate ourselves for being so bad – we sometimes call this a “loss of self-esteem.” Second, however, we quickly shift the blame for our badness onto other people.
So even Christians naturally either try to attach ultimate importance to ourselves or cling to our illusion of our innocence. Either way, however, we essentially make ourselves into little gods.
After all, the ultimate message we give and receive is almost always a variable on the same refrain: “you must be a good girl. You’ve got to be a fine young man. It’s all up to you. You need to be successful. God helps those who help themselves. God’s making a list and checking it twice to see who’s naughty and who’s nice.”
Adam’s bite of the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the first instance of disobedience. He responded to being “bad” by first trying to cover himself perhaps because, as Rutledge suggests, he assumed the whole world was looking at him. And when he failed to hide himself from God, Adam blamed his wife. Eve, in turned, blamed a snake. Yet to both our disobedient first parents, God said, “You’ve been bad.”
God couldn’t let Adam and Eve go on being disobedient forever. So God both chased them out of the garden and set limits on their lifespan. God could and perhaps should have also abandoned our first parents. Yet even as God judged them for their disobedience, God showed them mercy, compassion and forgiveness where they deserved severity and condemnation. God, in other words, showed our first parents grace.
Now Paul writes this strange thing at the end of our text: “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” It’s as though he’s claiming that God has somehow made our badness part of God’s ultimate plan to be good to “all.”
Imagine a mom telling her daughter, “You’re bad” or, “You’ve done a bad thing.” Now imagine the teenage daughter telling her mom, “Yes, I’m bad, but God is mercifully making me good. So I don’t have to be afraid.”
Christians actually once taught children something similar. Rutledge refers to an old catechism that asked them, “Do you think that you are bound [to obey God]?” Children would answer, “Yes, verily; and by God’s help I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Savior. And I pray unto God to give me this grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.”
Even Jesus’ followers are naturally “bad.” God, in fact, allows us to be disobedient in one form or another from the moment we’re born until the day we die. Yet Paul also reminds Christians that we won’t be stuck with that disobedience forever. Even our badness isn’t more powerful than God. So God promises to show us mercy, for Jesus’ sake.
Our God is, in fact, so mighty that God somehow makes our disobedience work in people’s favor. Because of God’s amazing grace, in even our disobedience God will somehow work for God’s dearly beloved peoples’ good.
In this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson, Paul talks about both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are the “godly people,” God’s chosen community. The Gentiles, on the other hand, are the “ungodly,” the pagans.
As the apostle writes, however, things have shifted in the Roman church. Gentile Christians, who once were outcasts, have become proud of their faith. Rutledge points out that this shift is normal. It’s always tempting for godly people to forget about our natural sinfulness and congratulate ourselves on becoming Christians.
The Gentile Christians in the Roman church seem to have come to believe that they’d turned to the Lord on their own — with perhaps just a little help from God. So in verse 20 Paul warns them, “You stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.” So he’s basically telling his readers, “In spite of your disobedience, God has graciously chosen to give you faith.”
As he writes in verses 30 and following, “Just as you [Gentiles] who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so … [the Jews] have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.”
So there’s a kind of chain reaction going on here that Rutledge says we’d expect to be like a multi-car pileup on an icy freeway. Israel has been disobedient. So we’d expect that to cause the crash that is God’s condemnation of all disobedient Jews.
Yet because Israel has been disobedient, Paul insists God chooses to show Gentiles mercy. This, however, triggers its own chain reaction. After all, because God has shown Gentiles mercy, God also vows to show Israel mercy.
After all, as Paul summarizes in verse 32, “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” God has, in other words, allowed all people to be bad so that God may also be gracious to us.
Paul is basically saying that God is showing Gentiles that God somehow made the disobedience of Jews who have not faithfully received the Messiah part of God’s plan. God has chosen some for faith and temporarily let others have their rebellious way.
Yet in verse 25 Paul writes, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written … ‘He will turn godlessness away from Jacob’,” by which Paul means “Israel.”
God promises to “turn godlessness away from” Israel. In other words, God will eventually banish ungodliness in Israel. God will somehow turn her badness into goodness, disobedience into obedience.
People, of course, won’t do this. Even God’s adopted sons and daughters can’t, after all, turn disobedience into obedience. So God will have to, in fact, turn our badness into goodness in spite of ourselves.
Paul at least suggests that God has allowed some people to flounder in temporary unbelief in order to teach those who have faithfully received God’s mercy that we live by grace alone. So when we see unbelievers, we can only say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Unbelief in others reminds Jesus’ followers that we can only trust in God, not ourselves. Who, after all, is the “good boy or girl” who consistently keeps even one of the commandments? “There is no difference,” Paul writes in Romans 3, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Now the “all” in Romans 11:32’s “God has bound all men to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” raises the sticky question of just to whom it refers. Does Paul mean that God will have mercy on literally all people? Does he mean, in verse 26, that God will save literally “all” Israelites?
The Greek word panta is the same for the “all” that we believe is universal, as at the beginning of verse 32, as it is for the “all” that we traditionally believe is more limited in verse 26 and at the end of verse 32. In other words, each word that we translate as “all” in our text is the same in Greek.
Yet the church has traditionally professed that God will show mercy to only all those whom God has chosen. But the Scriptures’ Greek makes it, frankly, hard to be completely sure what God will do.
God’s adopted children know that God expects us to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. So we know that God will graciously save those who trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation.
However, such saving faith is, of course, God’s gift before it’s our decision. After all, even all Christians are naturally bad. We’ve all also failed to obey God. You and I all fail to deserve God’s grace.
Yet while all of us deserve God’s rejection, God has chosen to grace some of us with the gift of both faith and the Holy Spirit who equips us to be obedient. To whom else God may yet graciously give those gifts remains, thankfully, in God’s loving hands, not ours.
(From Scott Hoezee’s August 14, 2017 Romans 11 Sermon Starter)
“For some reason Romans 11 and its words about God as at once kind and severe put me in mind of the wizard Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Gandalf was often a bit of mystery to the Hobbits who revered him. He could be at turns deeply kind and mirthful and yet sometimes apparently rather severe and curt.
“Yet in the end the Hobbits learned a deeper truth about Gandalf: he was fundamentally kind and good and if at times there was a severity about him, it did not last long and even this was somehow rooted in Gandalf’s bottom line desire to see everyone flourishing. He was severe about what blocked delight and goodness but it was his basic kindness and love that drove everything he did.”