Sermon notes & Background research for Proper 13 A 2014, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Romans 9:1-5

Recording (Note: the delivered sermon differs from the text, as this is more background information etc… and the sermon is delivered without notes in most instances):

The Wandering Jew by Gustav Dore. A Medieval legend about a Jew who taunted Christ, and was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming.

The Wandering Jew by Gustav Dore. A Medieval legend about a Jew who taunted Christ, and was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming.

When I was in High School one of my close friends shared a story with me, about something that had happened to him when he was in elementary school. More accurately, it was about something he did while in elementary school, and its repercussions. A female classmate of ours had come up in conversation because of some recognition she was receiving, and he mentioned to me that they had once been friends in elementary school, but that he had said something to her that resulted in her slugging him. No… it was nothing like that… remember, it happened in elementary school. You see, our classmate was–is–Jewish, and as a naive elementary school student, when he heard this revelation one day, he blurted “But Jewish people don’t believe in God…” at which point, he received due penalty for his sin, in the form of a fist to the face.

I didn’t witness the event, but I got a good laugh out of his recounting of it. And I gave him a hard time about his ignorance, but of course, I couldn’t tell you when exactly I came to an awareness of the details–including the theism or non-theism-of other religions. And I can even see, based upon his protests, how he could’ve come to that conclusion, so closely was Jesus identified with God in his upbringing, and then also hearing that Jews do not share our faith in Jesus. But as humorous as this particular event is to think about on one level–probably more so for me, since I know the parties involved–it points to something dark at the heart of our own faith.

In many–ok, most–cases, religions are ambivalent about other faiths. Inter-faith dialogue is really still in its infancy. But religions that developed out of a particular faith, especially when the parent faith rejected the new insights or ways of considering the divine, tend to have particularly fraught relationships with their predecessor and sibling religions. This has certainly been the case with Christianity and Judaism. Episcopalian theologian Ephraim Radner, who teaches at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto has highlighted what this tension has meant for Christians:

The Jew, quite distinctly, becomes a “heretic” and the “heretic” becomes a “Jew.” In other words,intra-Christian discord becomes completely coincident with apostasy and/or the denial of Christ, and Christian division is read in terms of religious antagonism in a strong modern sense. Those who “call themselves Christian”—“heretics”—are in fact the same as Jews and Saracens…1

As Radner notes, this polemic gets mapped on to intra-Christian divisions, so that every time someone who says of Roman Catholics “They leave Christ on the cross,” also negatively compares the Roman Catholic Church to Judaism, this more fundamental division is revealed. As one commentator put it: “The point Radner is driving home here is profound. By showing how Jews came to be understood as heretics and later Christian heretics become to be understood as as Jews (i.e. apostates), Radner is suggesting that Christians have been so bad to each other because we were so bad to the Jews. Thus, the inability to handle division and conflict internally, or inability to see the conflict as internal, is a result of how Christians have understood themselves over against their Jewish religious ancestors and neighbors.”2

All of this challenging history makes my friends comment, and others like it, ominous, even if they are not particularly informed by the tradition. They come out of this context, and so, they have an edge to them that we cannot deny. That edge is provided at its root, in large measure, by this section of Romans (chapters 9-11). From the beginning, many Christians have used the phrase “The Rejection of Israel” to describe this section of Romans. It is a phrase that cuts in two directions, but by far the sharpest is in the direction of claiming that God has rejected Irsrael/The Jewish people. The reality is however, that Paul is emphasizing that God has not rejected the Jewish people, but that a portion of the Jewish people have rejected Christ because of a misguided reading of the Torah.

For Paul, the Torah (Law) isn’t bad–though some have traditionally argued that he claims it is. Instead, Paul is critical of a reading of Torah that would see Israel as special because of her ethnicity, rather than especially burdened to share the reality and love of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the world. As Rabbi Ratner, who taught my college Hebrew Bible and History of Judaism courses put it, being the chosen people isn’t so much an honor as it is a burden. The burden of Israel was at least three-fold: To demonstrate to other peoples the right worship of God, to offer sacrifice for sin, not only on their own behalf, but on behalf of all humanity, and, as an explanation of this, to bear the burden of knowing God’s law and therefore being obliged to follow it. This is what Paul speaks of as a sort of focussing of sin in Israel, for which expiatory sacrifice is required. Paul was taking issue with a particular view of Torah which he believed hinged too much on ethnic identity and personal efforts at attaining righteousness, and not enough on God’s grace and on the invitation of all peoples to serve the Lord.3 Interestingly, this picks up on a long standing tension within Ancient Israelite Religion and later Judaism, as evidenced by the strands that would alternatively restrict who could be defined as a member of the Covenant Community (Think Ezra-Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian captivity), and the impulse to expand the worship of the Lord, as enshrined in the Prophets. There is no doubt where early Christianity came down in this debate–whether from the way Jesus opened his ministry by reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, the inclusion of gentiles (the evangelism of whom was Paul’s central ministry), and even the inclusion of gentiles who happened to be eunuchs, such as the Ethiopian court official who was baptized by Philip.4

But what is going on in this section of Romans? Paul certainly believes the rejection of Jesus by so many of the Jewish people is a disaster. His heart is broken by it. Moreover, while historically, some commentators have viewed chapters 9-11 as a departure from the rest of the letter, the fact that so many within Israel reject belief in Jesus, is a central challenge to Paul’s ministry. This is a fact that was not lost on many early gentile Christians, and I believe it lies at the heart of a fundamental misreading of Paul. There were variations, but many within the early church, as I said, looked at this as God’s rejection of Israel even though Paul is clear that this is about portions of Israel rejecting the work of God in Christ. The examples range from the patronizing (St. Augustines argument that Jews act as witnesses to Christ by continuing to study a Law that points to Christ, while never acknowledging it themselves) to the frighteningly anti-semitic (arguments for forced conversion, or the taking of Jewish children to be raised as Christians etc. What has been missed is that “these are Paul’s brothers and sisters–a title he does not give lightly, nor as a matter of courtesy. these are members of God’s household, and the problem is therefore a problem within the household. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption [huiothesia!–the extension of that privilege to gentiles does not mean that it is no longer Israel’s privilege]…”5

As highlighted by Radner, the fundamental problem with interpretations of Romans 9-11 hinge upon the misapprehension that Jews and Christians are not one people of God. Certainly Jews may deny this, but Christians should not. Paul’s later use of the analogy of the olive tree is important. “Paul will argue that, far from being a sign that God has rejected Israel or canceled the promises, the failure of some in Israel to believe is only a temporary phenomenon and is part of God’s overall plan.” 6

It has been helpfully stated that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having before raised Israel from Egypt.”7 I would add that, having raised Jesus from the dead, God will not now allow Israel to perish, for Jesus is the seal of the promises and covenant, and not their abrogation.

The assurance that Paul records in chapter 8, that nothing will separate us from the love of God, is one that extends to all who embrace God’s grace, and recognize that God is bringing the nations in. This assurance is founded on the character of God as the guarantor of the covenant. There were various types of covenants in the ancient world, but the predominant ideal was that each party was grinding themselves to keep the covenant on pain of death. Some covenants were between equals, but many examples exist of covenants between a stronger and a weaker party. Often these were covenants offered (imposed, really) by strong monarchs to lesser kings. The lesser party could accept the covenant and exist in peace, or they could reject it and be in conflict with the stronger party. In the case of the covenant(s) between God and people recorded in the Bible, God is both witness and guarantor of the covenant, making them unique. Because God is the guarantor of the covenant, Israel’s continued unfaithfulness (compared with adultery) does not break the covenant, because God refuses to allow it to be broken. In Christ, God not only guarantees the covenant and refuses to allow it to be broken, God fulfills the requirements of the covenant on behalf of humanity. Paul’s real frustration with his fellow Jews who do not recognize Christ as the messiah, is that they do not recognize that the covenant has been fulfilled by Christ, and that only through faith in him can they share in that fulfillment.

But how does Christ fulfill the covenant? Christ fulfills the covenant by living the perfect human life–a life lived fully “toward God”–and by being the perfect offering for the sins of the world, thereby removing the need for any further sacrifice, save the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Christ’s death removes the need for Israel (used in this sense as synonymous with the whole people of God, including the church) to offer any sacrifice for sins. Instead, from a Christian perspective, the role of Israel/The Church/The People of God, is to offer praise and thanks for what God has done. There’s also an important typological background here. Paul refers to Jesus as the new Adam, “As in Adam all died, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” This is a typological reading that Irenaeus picked up on, emphasizing the way that Christ lived a holy life exemplary for all of humanity.

But more specifically Jesus’ life is seen as intimately intertwined with the history of Israel. It was thought by some that the Messiah would not only embody certain traits of the people, but that he would live a life that was in some way illustrative of the history of the people as a whole. The history of Israel as a whole is foreshadowed in the experience of Abraham, the father of the people. Most strikingly this is seen in the theme of sojourning in Egypt. As Abraham wandered and settled in Egypt for a season, finding respite there, but also conflict, so too would his descendants find refuge there, followed by oppression. Jesus, being the shoot that comes forth from the stump of Jesse, the Son of David, is representative of Israel in a more traditional royal/corporate sense, but also in the sense that in Jesus’ life the experience of Israel as a whole is recapitulated, or reenacted. As N.T. Wright puts it, the gospels are “the story of Jesus told as the history of Israel in miniature.”8 As James Dunn put it, “Matthew thinks of Jesus’ sonship in terms of a mission that fulfilled the destiny of Israel.”9

In this sense then, Jesus’ resurrection is a foreshadowing of that which awaits the whole people of God–including all of Israel, which now has a broader definition (but not a narrower one): the Kingdom of God has been expanded to encompass all peoples. Paul himself will declare that all Israel will be saved later in Romans. Whatever else this statement might mean, it certainly means that God has not rejected Israel.10

It may be that in our reflection of what this passage means for us today, a typological reading of Romans 9, such as that of Karl Barth will become helpful:

“And now, in contrast with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there is thrust upon our attention–Israel, the Church, the world of religion as it appears in history, and, we hasten to add, Israel in its purest truest, and most powerful aspect. We are not here concerned with some debased form of religion, but with the ideal and perfect Church.”11

What does Barth mean by this? He is highlighting the concern that Paul had about false spiritual security, i.e. security in our own righteousness rather than God’s. As one commentator noted:

“What Paul said conceals what Paul says. Paul once spoke to the Roman Christians about the present and future of unbelieving Israel (Romans 9-11) but now he speaks to us, in the very same words, of the tribulation, the guilt, and the hope of the Church: Paul’s text is converted into a metaphor or a parable.”12

The warning Paul gives, against being secure in our status because of something other than God’s grace, is a warning that we all need to be reminded of today. Paul was concerned about his brothers and sisters who had rejected Christ, in particular it seems, out of a security born of their sense of specialness, and perhaps their distaste for gentiles. Barth picked up this warning and demonstrated how this can be seen today as an indictment of false security on the part of the church today.

Paul goes in to greater detail in the ensuing passages (the rest of chapter 9, and chapters 10 & 11). But the foundation is laid in this passage: God keeps his promises. And the Grace of God is that God keeps his promises even when we do not; because of that, it’s never too late to work–together–for the Kingdom.

Further reading:

Dabru Emet: To Speak the Truth (a Jewish statement on Christians and Christianity)

Salvation is From the Jews

Nostra Aetate: The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions

  1. Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 2065-2068). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. []
  2. Furry, Tim. “Radner’s BFB, Part I” from Theology Studio. Radner offers many pertinent thoughts on this matter–pick up the book!–here are a few that really hit home: “But just as in Rwanda it is inescapable that a central element of the violence was that Christians killed, not simply that killers “happened to be” Christians, so, in the case of the Holocaust, there is a consensus that we must face the fact that Christians killed Jews and that these identities given in terms of violent hostility were not only self-consciously defined but carefully supported by religious arguments and traditions. There is no longer any question but that elements of Christian theological understanding and practice—and not only discrete (and somehow Christianly uninformed) acts by Christians—motivated these killings, if in ways that were hardly exhaustive.”
    Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 904-909). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. []
  3. The background of this section is found in N.T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant, p237 ff. []
  4. Margaret Barker incorporates an interesting reflection on this tension in her book Temple Themes in Christian Worship: “A society divided over this issue was the setting in which the books of the Old Testament were edited and transmitted after the exile. The conflict is apparent. Ezra and the leaders of the return redefined Israel, and so many who had worshiped the Lord were excluded. The old priestly class, however, wanted to keep the wider definition of Israel, and this conflict can be seen in the differences between Deuteronomy in the priestly texts in Leviticus and Numbers. ‘Repatriates from Babylon, who sympathized with the exclusionary religious policy of the governors such as Ezra and Nehemiah and those priests who were on their side, would have been very hostile to the open, liberal political stance of the priestly editors.’ The priestly laws make special provision for the ger, the stranger, who is neither a full member of the community nor a foreigner. Merry Douglass, reading the evidence with an anthropologist’s eye, concluded: ‘the ger was one of the other descendants of Jacob, not descended from Judah, nor from Levi or Benjamin, but those other remnants of the twelve tribes who had been defeated and scattered by invaders and who still lived in Canaan during and after the exile in Babylon… The stranger in the Bible has a double sign, he is in exile, and yet he is also obliged to keep the ritual laws and entitled to religious consolations, the rituals of atonement.’ Jesus spoke of the priority of the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10.6; 15.24), and these ‘strangers’ may be the lost sheep. The issue of inclusion and exclusion, and on what terms, was the first major problem that faced the church”, 55 []
  5. As Christopher Bryan (my seminary New Testament professor) argues: To the uninitiated, Paul’s outburst may seem surprising, or irrelevant–but only to the initiated. For here, in fact, Paul touches on the single outstanding issue that threatens to bring down everything he has so far constructed. If the gospel is God’s power to save (1.16), how is it hat many in Israel are not being converted to Christ? Is God, after all, unreliable–since God has (apparently) failed the Jews? Is God unfaithful to the promise? (If so, how can we trust God? Perhaps God will be unfaithful to the church, too?) Again, if the Law actually focused sin in Israel, which seems to be the upshot of what Paul has said on several occasions (3.20, 5.20, 7.7-11, 8.7-8) what does that mean? Was Israel actually disadvantaged by possessing the Law (compare 3.9)? Could it be that Jeremiah had in fact spoken the truth in his desperate cry–“O master, Lord, you have then utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying ‘Peace shall be yours!’–and lo, the sword has taken hold of their life” (LXX Jer. 4.10)? And these are Paul’s brothers and sisters–a title he does not give lightly, nor as a matter of courtesy. these are members of God’s household, and the problem is therefore a problem within the household. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption [huiothesia!–the extension of that privilege to gentiles does not mean that it is no longer Israel’s privilege], the glory, the covenants, the legislation, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the fathers, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Christ who is over all, God blessed for ever! Amen. (9.4-5). Bryan, Christopher, A Preface to Romans, p. 159-160 []
  6. Bryan, 160. Bryan continues: “The section is in some ways the most rhetorically striking of the entire letter, and makes extensive use of virtually the entire range of techniques of the podium and the classroom. There will be rhetorical questions (9.14, 21, 10.8, 14-15, 18, 19, 11.1, 7, 11);there will be dramatic intervention by and argument with imaginary opponents (9.14-21); there will be protestations of the author’s own passion and sincerity (9.1-4, 10.1, 11.1); there will be illustrative parable (11.16-21); and there will be extensive citation of authority–naturally, in view of the subject, scriptural authority (9.9, 12-13, 15, 17, 25-29, 33, 10.5-8, 11, 15, 16, 19-21, 11.2-4, 8-10, 26-27). []
  7. Jenson, Robert Systematic Theology v. I: The Triune God, p. 63 []
  8. Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God, 401-402. This idea of Jesus’ ministry and life being a recapitulation of Israel’s history is particularly important for the Gospel of Matthew. []
  9. Dunn, James Christology in the Making, 48-49, 59. cited in The Recapitulation of Israel, by Joel Kennedy, 6. []
  10. as the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions, puts it “As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation,(9) nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading.(10) Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle.(11) In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and “serve him shoulder to shoulder” (Zeph. 3:9).(12)

    Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

    True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

    Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” read it all []

  11. Barth, Romans, 332 []
  12. Hill, Wesley A. “The Church as Israel and Israel as the Church: An Examination of Karl Barth’s Exegesis of Romans 9:1-5 in The Epistle to the Romans and Church Dogmatics 2/2, The Journal of Theological Interpretation 6.1 (2012), 142 []