By Sarah Wilson
Today we have reached Romans chapter 11, in which St. Paul wraps up his exploration of the painful topic of why his fellow Jews mostly don’t believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, while at the same time so many Gentiles do in fact believe in this same Jesus as the Son of God. There are two false interpretations of this turn of events that Paul wants to reject completely. The first false interpretation is that the God of Israel has abandoned the people of Israel. The second false interpretation is that Jewish unbelief means Gentile pride and superiority over against the Jews. Let’s look at these one at a time.
Our reading today began with Paul quoting a question that he must have heard from his congregations: “Has God rejected his people?” — namely, the Jews. Paul’s answer is swift and certain: no way! He points out the obvious fact that he, Paul, is himself a Jew, descended from Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. Paul himself, and other Jewish believers, are proof that God has not simply abandoned the Jews.
But of course, that doesn’t explain the fact that a large number of other Jews don’t believe in Jesus. What about them? Maybe God has rejected the unbelieving Jews but will still save the believing Jews. Maybe you could just split the people of Israel into two parts: believing and unbelieving Jews, and therefore split them into good Jews and bad Jews. Then you could keep the “good, believing” Jews, but get rid of the “bad, unbelieving” Jews.
Well, unfortunately, this is how a lot of Christians throughout the history of the Church have interpreted Jewish unbelief. And it has sometimes led to very deadly outcomes for Jews. Moreover, this move betrays the Christian faith and ignores St. Paul’s whole point here in Romans 11. Paul has a completely different interpretation of Jewish unbelief. It’s not because the Jews are bad or have somehow moved beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Not at all.
Paul certainly doesn’t like Jewish unbelief — he wishes all the Jews would believe just like he does — but Jewish unbelief doesn’t mean that the Jews are beyond hope. No, in fact, Paul understands that Jewish unbelief is God’s own doing! I hope you are a little shocked by this. It’s a shocking statement! How could God possibly want his people not to believe in him?
Paul, who has spent much of his life preaching about Jesus to the Gentiles, has an insight, in fact a revelation, about why: Jewish unbelief has pushed Paul and the other apostles beyond their natural community and comforts to take the good news of salvation out to the Gentiles — to the whole world. In fact, they’re not just taking Jesus to the world; they’re taking the whole history of Israel, and Israel’s Scriptures, and the God whom Israel has known since Noah and Abraham, and so they are bringing the Gentiles to belief in Israel’s God. Paul even hopes that wide-scale Gentile belief in the God of Israel and Jesus the Messiah will make the Jews jealous for the blessings that the Gentiles receive! So Jewish unbelief actually has a divine purpose. It does not mean divine abandonment.
Paul now makes a further point. In our natural human way of thinking, if one team wins, then the other team loses. And apparently the Gentile Christians started thinking this way. “Go, team Gentile! You win! Hurray! Down with team Israel! You lose! Ha ha!” But this is, again, not the right way of thinking about it. Instead, Paul reasons like this: if Jewish unbelief means rich blessings on the Gentiles, then ultimately Jewish belief will mean something even greater — more, not less! If Jewish unbelief means the reconciliation of the world, then Jewish belief will mean the resurrection of the dead and everlasting life. Jewish unbelief is temporary, Paul tells us. It’s in order to win over team Gentile. But when finally team Gentile has scored all its victories, then team Israel will also win. It’s not a win-lose situation, but a win-win situation.
So, Paul warns the Gentile Christians, don’t go thinking you’re better than the Jews — don’t even think you believing Gentiles are better than unbelieving Jews. After all, Paul points out, all of Christian belief is based on Jewish belief. You can’t have Christianity without the God of Israel and therefore you can’t have Christianity without also the people of Israel.
Paul compares Israel to an olive tree, with deep roots in the soil. Gentile believers are grafted in — that means a wild branch has been attached to the main olive tree, bound to it, and lives from the main tree’s roots and branches. If the main olive tree and its roots were dead, so would be the wild branches that were grafted in.
Therefore, the wild branches shouldn’t imagine they can live without the main tree! Paul trusts that God will graft back in even the natural branches of the olive tree — that is, the Jewish people — who don’t believe in Jesus; they will reconnect to their roots, once all the wild branches have become attached to the tree.
Why can Paul say all this with such certainty? It’s because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” In other words, God does not break his promises. God made a promise of salvation to Israel: God is not going to change his mind about Israel now. Here’s the deep truth: salvation doesn’t depend on us. It doesn’t even depend on our faith. Salvation depends only on God: God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s promises. And that means we are all equal, in this specific sense: whether we appear to be good or bad, religious or unreligious, spiritual or unspiritual, in fact, before God, we are all sinners and all disobedient. None of us has any hope in ourselves. But all of us have hope in God — even if we don’t know about it.
Paul tells us: God has let everyone disobey and turn into a sinner, precisely so that God can have mercy on all of us. What a strange equality among human beings! And what a strange generosity on the part of God! Even St. Paul can barely grasp the wonder of it. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Everyone disobeys — Christian and Jew, unbeliever and atheist — and yet God’s decision in sending his Son is to have mercy on us all. To which we can only say: thank you! hallelujah! and Amen.
The Rev. Sarah Wilson is associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church.