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Proper 15A 2nd Reading

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Jason Buckwalter

Has God utterly and finally rejected Israel? That’s the question at the heart of this week’s passage from Romans. Given the history of violence against the Jewish people, I would venture to guess that if you asked your congregation this question, they would, without hesitation, declare that Israel has been cut off.

For his part, Paul answers the question quite differently and emphatically. No! Under no circumstances can it be stated that Israel (as a whole) ceases to be God’s people. If we zoom out a bit, we’ll see that Israel’s continued inclusion as the people of God is the dominant topic of conversation from chapter 9 until the end of 11.

This week’s disjointed collection of verses, 11:1-2, 29-32, provide a summary statement of these three chapters. Though, in your preparation for this week’s sermon, it would be wise to include the intervening verses. There is a deep richness found in those verses that will help you effectively communicate Paul’s thoughts to your people. At the very least, I would include verse 28 in your congregational reading, as it’s the first part of the sentence that makes up verse 29 in our English Bibles, even though verse 29 is a separate sentence in the original Greek.

As Paul concludes this section of his letter, it becomes apparent that he understands that every bit of human disobedience is an opportunity for God to offer grace and mercy to those who disobey. God, in mercy and grace, granted special privilege to Israel’s patriarchs. Israel’s adoption as the people of God rests solely on God’s choosing. Their disobedience, rather than disqualifying them from eschatological participation in God’s kingdom, has paved the way for the Gentiles to be included. Paul makes it very clear that somehow, God will overcome Israel’s disobedience and bring them back into the fold. Their gifts and calling are irrevocable, that is, in the sense that God will never stop trying to woo Israel back through grace and mercy. Paul also makes the argument that the Gentiles’ inclusion will help bring Israel back, too. If God is merciful to those who are not his chosen people, how much more merciful will God be to Israel?

The striking thing about Paul’s argument here is that human disobedience always allows God the opportunity to display grace and mercy. An interesting approach to this passage would be to recount significant stories from the Old Testament, focusing on how God worked redemptively through the stubborn and disobedient actions of people.

Of particular interest might be the Joseph narrative that’s the current subject of the alternate first reading in Genesis. Joseph’s life story is chocked full of examples of the disobedience of God’s people. Repeatedly, God works out salvation for Joseph and his family despite their sinful actions and the sinful actions of others.

Focusing on the entire Old Testament timeline would accomplish a few things. First, it would continue to set Paul’s argument in the context of Israel’s history by highlighting how God’s grace calls and moves Israel forward through time, even when Israel fails to live faithfully. Second, it displays God’s unrelenting faithfulness and ability to work with human freedom for the sake of God’s kingdom. Finally, it would necessarily move the congregation to contemplate the cross as the ultimate example of God working through human disobedience for redemption.

The sermon might conclude with a call for congregants to examine the ways in which God has worked redemptively through their own disobedience or the disobedience of others. Or, you might challenge the congregation to look for possible movements of God’s grace and mercy in and through times of brokenness.

A word of caution is needed here, however. If disobedience is always an opportunity for God to work redemptively in our world, those in our congregation may be tempted to make excuses for their poor behavior. They might be tempted to say, “Well, if God is going to work to bring about God’s Kingdom without my obedience, then why be obedient? Why should I limit my own freedom? Why should I have self-discipline?”

Very emphatically, Paul says about Israel in verse 12, “Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” If sin is an opportunity for God to bring about redemption, then how much more will obedience be used by God? Even though we can celebrate God’s goodness despite our disobedience, that doesn’t mean we have the license to be disobedient. No, to do so would be the height of arrogance, and Paul warns us about that in verses 17-24.

Additionally, verse 32 might lend to this perception. If God has imprisoned us in disobedience, then we’ve got no choice, right? If we’re faithfully reading the rest of Paul, we’ll be able to answer a hearty no. The dominant thread throughout chapter 11 has been God’s mercy, for Israel and for the Gentiles. Greathouse and Lyons put it like this, “Paul is not reluctant to acknowledge God’s ultimate responsibility for their sin as well. Paul is not unaware of intermediate causes, thus he leaves room for human responsibility. But he recognizes God as the ultimate cause of everything; he is, after all, the Creator.”[1]

Nevertheless, the fact remains that God has always been and will always be faithful to his promises. And God has promised grace and mercy, redemption and salvation. No amount of disobedience, from God’s chosen people, Israel, or from Gentiles, will remove the offer of grace and mercy from us. Mercy really is the last word.

[1] William M. Greathouse and George Lyons, Romans 9–16: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2008), 119.

Jason Buckwalter

About the Contributor

Pastor, St. Louis Missouri