We are now in Week 5 of our eight week series on Romans- "Grace is for Everybody". This week we're reading chapters 9 through 11, specifically Romans 11:1-2a, 13-24.
This passage caps off another section of Romans that, like chapters 5 through 8, some scholars think to be a precomposed unit unto itself. If one took these three chapters out, the line of argument going through chapter 8 could flow straight into 12. Given how much Paul jumps around and frequently stops mid-sentence only to come back to the same idea after going down a totally different path, the incongruity of these chapters isn’t all that surprising, given what we know about the writer. Whatever the case may be, these chapters are here, and people have had a lot of opinions about them.
The central question is, given what God has done in Jesus the Messiah, how do we understand Israel’s role in what God is doing?
Some writers have posed this question slightly differently, asking now that Jesus has come, what is Israel’s purpose? That question, framing it in terms of time, rests upon the assumption that Israel’s sole purpose is to produce the Messiah. But as many messianic promises and foreshadowing as we Christians tend to read into the Old Testament, we never see such a thing expressed as part of God’s covenant with Israel.
The covenant language we read in the first books of the Old Testament talk about Israel being a “holy people” and “priestly kingdom” whose purpose is to demonstrate to the world who God is. Christians believe that this is what happens in the person of Jesus, being the definitive (but not final) revelation of who God is, but this doesn’t mean that this is the only way Israel goes about proclaiming God’s identity.
When discussing the relationship of the Judaism and Christianity (which, at the time of Paul’s writing, were not two separate religions as we understand them today), there is an 800 pound gorilla sitting in the corner that has not been there for most generations encountering this text: the Holocaust. Obviously mass genocide is not the context in which Paul is writing, but it is part of the context in which we interpret what this text means for us, so while the actions of Adolf Hitler have to come in to the discussion, they don’t need to set the agenda.
We should also note that the current popularity of Dispensational theology (the Left Behind novels, etc.), with its insistence that the reestablishment of Israel as a political state (which has, of course, happened) and the building of a third Temple (which has not) are necessary for the “second coming” of Jesus, plays a role in how many people address this question today.
NT Wright claims that the story Paul is setting up in these chapters is intended to be a counter-narrative to that of the Roman Empire. Rome points back to Romulus and Remus, traces its heritage through great rulers, all culminating in Caesar sitting on the throne as lord of all creation. Paul, in turn, takes the shape of that same story, points back to Abraham, whose descendants become Israel, culminating in Jesus, who is “Lord of Lords and King of Kings” (a title taken by the Caesars). So rather than explicit supersessionism, Paul is likely being politically subversive against the theological claims of the Empire. As a citizen of the current most powerful nation in the world, this gives me pause to examine the stories we tell about our own nation and what God’s role is in our rise to dominance. Perhaps we should back off on our claims of God’s unquestioned approval of all our government’s (or one particular party’s) actions.
Like last week, the whole “predestination” thing rears it head in these chapters, particularly chapter 9, and we likely won’t be addressing that issue this time around. Perhaps it merits coming back to for another sermon or series as part of a larger discussion about who God is and what salvation is.
Paul laments of Israel’s “unbelief”. Since he, himself, is a Jew, and never renounces that identity, he desperately wants the rest of his people to experience what he is experiencing. This is not, necessarily, because he thinks they will go to Hell if they don’t get on board. I have never read any examination of what, if anything, Paul believed about the concept of Hell, but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. If any New Testament scholars want to point something out, I’d be grateful.
In spite of Paul’s lament over Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, he emphatically states that God has not abandoned Israel (11:1, 11:11, etc). In the part of chapter 11 that we will be reading on Sunday, Paul is warning Gentile Christians against falling into the same trap that some of the Jewish Christians had- assuming they were superior because of their ethnicity. This is the part I’m most interested in, because one of the biggest temptations that human beings experience is to assume that they are better than someone else because of any kind of external factors, instead of seeing that the image of God in all people makes us all of equally sacred worth.
The image of branches grafted on to an olive tree is a very vivid one, even if it doesn’t represent what horticulturists would actually do, blending wild and cultivated vines in the way Paul describes. There is empty space left by cultivated branches that were intentionally broken off, and those spaces are filled by the wild branches. If the vine represents the Kingdom, is there some implication here that space is limited? I hope not!
There’s also a certain messiness implied in the grafting of branches from one tree on to another. While they’re similar enough to coexist, they’re different enough that the mingling can easily go wrong, so there has to be a lot of tending and care for it to work. Does that say something for us about diversity in the church and how we handle cultivating the meeting and mixing of different cultures?
I’ve thrown out several questions in the above paragraphs, so feel free to comment on those or anything else you feel relevant. Then tune in next week to see how this came to fruition in the sermon.