By David Baumann
A Reading from Romans 9:1-18
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit — 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own brothers and sisters, my own flesh and blood. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
6 It is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all those descended from Israel are Israelites, 7 and not all of Abraham’s children are his descendants, but “it is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. 9 For the word of the promise is this: “About this time I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac: 11 even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12 not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”
14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
16 So it depends not on human will or exertion but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I may show my power in you and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.
This is a puzzling lesson, even disturbing, especially since it follows directly after yesterday’s euphoric lesson about God’s ever-victorious love. It sure sounds as if Paul is firmly declaring here that God is loving, while stating simultaneously that God chooses some and rejects others by mere whim. But a surface reaction is too pat; the uneasiness it spawns is itself a sign that there is more to the story. Paul is dealing with the real-life situation of God’s calling of the children of Abraham, while many (but by no means all) of them rejected the one whom Paul declares to be the Messiah. He himself is torn nearly in two by the fact: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”
Paul begins to resolve the crushing dilemma by affirming that the situation “does not… depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” At the end of the lesson, we read that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” Put this difficult concept into the greater context of his multiple statements that all people are sinners and enemies of God and the proper objects of his wrath: Col. 1:21; Rom. 3:23; Rom. 1:18. Now put this alongside passages of God’s love for all sinners: Rom. 5:8; Rom. 8:34; 1 Tim. 1:15. In the latter passage, Paul even identifies himself as the “chief” of sinners. Other biblical passages recount how God allows people to remain in their sin because of their own hardness: Ps. 81:11-12; 2 Thess. 2:11-12; and especially Ps. 106:15, which says that God “gave them what they asked, but sent leanness into their soul.” “Leanness in the soul,” perhaps another way of saying “hardening of the heart,” is sent because it is the only way that those who are alienated from God may learn that they truly need God whom they have rejected.
David Baumann served for nearly 50 years as an Episcopal priest in the Dioceses of Los Angeles and Springfield. He has published nonfiction, science fiction, and short stories. Two exuberant small daughters make sure he never gets any rest.
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Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Manchester – The Church of England
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, La.