Proper 15 (20), Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
20 August 2023
The Christian story is peculiar.
It begins with the election of a nomadic people who eventually settle in a land called Canaan, but not before they have been enslaved by an imperial power called Egypt. But despite this detour their calling remains the same, as God intended to bless all nations through Abraham and Sarah, so God’s people Israel shall continue to be that blessing.1
As the history of Israel unfolds, Israel is often unfaithful. Not unlike us. Israel doubts God’s promises, worships other gods, and trusts more in military might than it trusts in God. This leads to the catastrophes of the fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians in the year 720 BC and to the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile roughly a hundred years later. Yet throughout Israel remains God’s beloved people.
Prophets continue to speak in the name of the Lord, the exiles return home three generations later, the temple is rebuilt, even though in the meantime and by necessity, Israel’s worship has changed from the temple cult to the reading of the scriptures.
Israel continues to expect the Messiah who is born to a poor single mother. Jesus our Saviour is Jewish, as are his disciples.
The story is peculiar because it is particular. It is true that throughout God chooses the last, the least, and the little, and in this way Israel represents a counter-narrative to the narrative of empires and of power.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (Matthew 11:25-26)
Paul riffs on this in the opening of 1 Corinthians, “27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Cor 1:27-31)
God chooses not empires but nomads, not oppressors but slaves, not Goliath but David. Did I say that God’s story with us is a counter-narrative to the narrative of empires and of power?
The story is particular because God’s election is not an abstraction but the manifestation of God’s longing and love to make the world whole again.
It is particular because God’s love is always enfleshed, always incarnate. It is incarnate in a people, incarnate in the scriptures, incarnate in Jesus.
We who are together on this Sunday morning are late-comers to the story, even if we were raised in a Christian family and baptized as infants. We are late-comers because God’s story begins with the Jews.2 The Apostle Paul speaks of God’s people as the olive tree onto which we – that is those of us who are not Jewish – were grafted. We are newcomers to the story. We have been incorporated into the story.
The late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson says that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”
That is, God’s action in Jesus is the same as God’s action toward Israel, it is always toward salvation. The Christian story is unthinkable without Israel, which is why Christians read what we call the Old Testament, and why we are not the “new Israel.” We have not replaced God’s people but we have been grafted onto the tree that is Israel. Christians without the Old Testament have no history and therefore no root, and no depth to their understanding of God.
Or think of it differently, if God had ditched the first covenant in favour of a second covenant, why should we trust a God who does not keep covenants? But if we know anything about God, we know that God is faithful. Thus Paul can say that all Israel will be saved (11:26) and that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.
This is also one reason why Christians cannot be anti-Semitic.
We mostly know the Apostle Paul from his letters. We also know him from the Book of Acts.
Reading these chapters in Romans about Israel in the plan of God’s salvation, written by a faithful Jew who knows the scriptures well and quotes them often, makes me think of members of congregations I have served in the past who shared with me their concern about members of their family, often children or grandchildren. These people believed, like Paul, that our redemption comes to us through faith in Jesus. They worried that they may spend eternity apart from those they love, and most importantly that those they love would not be among those saved.
I think that this is going on for Paul, who can boast of his Jewish credentials.3 What motivates Paul to address the question of whether the people God called first will be saved is the same as the motivation of those who worry about their children and grandchildren. How is this all going to work out? God has shown God’s mercy to me. Will God show mercy toward those I love?
There is a second reason also. In a church, that is the congregation in Rome to which he is writing, where most believers are Gentiles, there may have been a degree of arrogance toward Jewish believers as having been superseded and bypassed, without understanding and appreciation that the election of particular people is the root on which our faith depends. Remember Robert Jenson who said, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”
There may be another reason Paul is asking and answering this question. When considering the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in our Gospel, it may be possible that Matthew was writing for a Gentile audience, reminding them of their place in salvation history: “… to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”4 I know that Matthew is generally believed to be writing for a Jewish audience, for he references the Hebrew scriptures more than any of the other evangelists. But remember that Matthew’s gospel begins with the arrival of the Gentile scholars who come to worship the new born king, and ends with the command to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. It could then be that Matthew tells the story of the Canaanite woman not to rebuke her but to rebuke those in his church who look down on their Jewish roots or on their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Paul is not only theologian but also very much the pastor who cares about and for his people. Because Paul speaks to us not just as the theologian of the church but as our pastor, his answer may not be entirely convincing, at least theologically.
But Paul is speaking from a deep faith that knows Jesus to be the source of all mercy.5 His answer that all gentiles and all of Israel shall be saved is thus born of this faith in God’s mercy revealed in Jesus. Jesus Christ is the one and the final Word of God. In him we see God’s mercy. And this mercy is reason for the church to give thanks, as Paul concludes chapter 11: “33O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?’
35 ‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.”
We can join in the praise, for we too know God’s mercy.
1 See Isaiah 60, etc
2 See Jesus’s reply to the woman at the well, “… salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22)
3 “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
4 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Romans 1:16
5 2 Corinthians 1:3-4