Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 16, 2020
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Commentary
Your attitude towards disobedience may depend on whether you view it from a parent’s perspective or a child’s. After all, as the wonderful American preacher Fleming Rutledge notes, parents want children who obey.
We want sons who don’t do things like touch hot stoves or abuse alcohol. You and I want daughters who do things like look both ways before crossing the street and do their homework.
Yet disobedience can be very appealing. How else do you explain all of empty beer bottles in the woods where teenagers hang out? No one has to teach children to be disobedient – we call it Original Sin.
God longs for God’s adopted sons and daughters to obey the Lord even more than human parents do our children. However, while earthly parents sometimes demand the wrong kind of obedience from our children, the living God only tells us to do what’s best for us.
Among God’s graces toward God’s adopted children are the Ten Commandments. Since some of the churches and denominations of which many of this site’s readers are a part pay more public attention to them than most, we might argue that we obey those commands more than most.
So Romans 11’s proclaimers might ask our hearers and us how we’re doing. In the very first commandment God expects Christians to have no other gods before the Lord. We profess that means, among other things, that we trust in God alone and look to God for every good thing. So how did we do last week?
Rutledge refers to a stage in human development called “the myth of infantile omnipotence.” Basically it means that babies and young children assume that they’re the center of the world that they control.
Imagine a four year-old child doing something like running into a busy street without looking both ways first. Imagine her dad responding by angrily telling her, “You’re a bad girl.”
That accusation may lead the child to believe that she’s among the worst children on earth. She may even assume that since she’s the center of the world, nothing can overcome her badness.
Rutledge notes that two contradictory things result from such assumptions. First, some people secretly hate ourselves for being so bad – we sometimes call this a “loss of self-esteem.” Second, however, we quickly shift the blame for our badness onto other people.
So even Christians naturally either try to attach ultimate importance to ourselves or cling to our illusion of our innocence. Either way, however, we essentially make ourselves into little gods.
After all, the ultimate message we give and receive is almost always a variable on the same refrain: “you must be a good girl. You’ve got to be a fine young man. It’s all up to you. You need to be successful. God helps those who help themselves. God’s making a list and checking it twice to see who’s naughty and who’s nice.”
Adam’s bite of the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the first instance of disobedience. He responded to being “bad” by first trying to cover himself perhaps because, as Rutledge suggests, he assumed the whole world was looking at him. And when he failed to hide himself from God, Adam blamed his wife. Eve, in turned, blamed a snake. Yet to both our disobedient first parents, God said, “You’ve been bad.”
God couldn’t let Adam and Eve go on being disobedient forever. So God both chased them out of the garden and set limits on their lifespan. God could and perhaps should have also abandoned our first parents. Yet even as God judged them for their disobedience, God showed them mercy, compassion and forgiveness where they deserved severity and condemnation. God, in other words, showed our first parents grace.
Now Paul writes this strange thing at the end of our text: “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” It’s as though he’s claiming that God has somehow made our badness part of God’s ultimate plan to be good to “all.”
Imagine a mom telling her daughter, “You’re bad” or, “You’ve done a bad thing.” Now imagine the teenage daughter telling her mom, “Yes, I’m bad, but God is mercifully making me good. So I don’t have to be afraid.”
Christians actually once taught children something similar. Rutledge refers to an old catechism that asked them, “Do you think that you are bound [to obey God]?” Children would answer, “Yes, verily; and by God’s help I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Savior. And I pray unto God to give me this grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.”
Even Jesus’ followers are naturally “bad.” God, in fact, allows us to be disobedient in one form or another from the moment we’re born until the day we die. Yet Paul also reminds Christians that we won’t be stuck with that disobedience forever. Even our badness isn’t more powerful than God. So God promises to show us mercy, for Jesus’ sake.
Our God is, in fact, so mighty that God somehow makes our disobedience work in people’s favor. Because of God’s amazing grace, in even our disobedience God will somehow work for God’s dearly beloved peoples’ good.
In this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson, Paul talks about both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are the “godly people,” God’s chosen community. The Gentiles, on the other hand, are the “ungodly,” the pagans.
As the apostle writes, however, things have shifted in the Roman church. Gentile Christians, who once were outcasts, have become proud of their faith. Rutledge points out that this shift is normal. It’s always tempting for godly people to forget about our natural sinfulness and congratulate ourselves on becoming Christians.
The Gentile Christians in the Roman church seem to have come to believe that they’d turned to the Lord on their own — with perhaps just a little help from God. So in verse 20 Paul warns them, “You stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.” So he’s basically telling his readers, “In spite of your disobedience, God has graciously chosen to give you faith.”
As he writes in verses 30 and following, “Just as you [Gentiles] who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so … [the Jews] have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.”
So there’s a kind of chain reaction going on here that Rutledge says we’d expect to be like a multi-car pileup on an icy freeway. Israel has been disobedient. So we’d expect that to cause the crash that is God’s condemnation of all disobedient Jews.
Yet because Israel has been disobedient, Paul insists God chooses to show Gentiles mercy. This, however, triggers its own chain reaction. After all, because God has shown Gentiles mercy, God also vows to show Israel mercy.
After all, as Paul summarizes in verse 32, “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” God has, in other words, allowed all people to be bad so that God may also be gracious to us.
Paul is basically saying that God is showing Gentiles that God somehow made the disobedience of Jews who have not faithfully received the Messiah part of God’s plan. God has chosen some for faith and temporarily let others have their rebellious way.
Yet in verse 25 Paul writes, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written … ‘He will turn godlessness away from Jacob’,” by which Paul means “Israel.”
God promises to “turn godlessness away from” Israel. In other words, God will eventually banish ungodliness in Israel. God will somehow turn her badness into goodness, disobedience into obedience.
People, of course, won’t do this. Even God’s adopted sons and daughters can’t, after all, turn disobedience into obedience. So God will have to, in fact, turn our badness into goodness in spite of ourselves.
Paul at least suggests that God has allowed some people to flounder in temporary unbelief in order to teach those who have faithfully received God’s mercy that we live by grace alone. So when we see unbelievers, we can only say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Unbelief in others reminds Jesus’ followers that we can only trust in God, not ourselves. Who, after all, is the “good boy or girl” who consistently keeps even one of the commandments? “There is no difference,” Paul writes in Romans 3, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Now the “all” in Romans 11:32’s “God has bound all men to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” raises the sticky question of just to whom it refers. Does Paul mean that God will have mercy on literally all people? Does he mean, in verse 26, that God will save literally “all” Israelites?
The Greek word panta is the same for the “all” that we believe is universal, as at the beginning of verse 32, as it is for the “all” that we traditionally believe is more limited in verse 26 and at the end of verse 32. In other words, each word that we translate as “all” in our text is the same in Greek.
Yet the church has traditionally professed that God will show mercy to only all those whom God has chosen. But the Scriptures’ Greek makes it, frankly, hard to be completely sure what God will do.
God’s adopted children know that God expects us to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. So we know that God will graciously save those who trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation.
However, such saving faith is, of course, God’s gift before it’s our decision. After all, even all Christians are naturally bad. We’ve all also failed to obey God. You and I all fail to deserve God’s grace.
Yet while all of us deserve God’s rejection, God has chosen to grace some of us with the gift of both faith and the Holy Spirit who equips us to be obedient. To whom else God may yet graciously give those gifts remains, thankfully, in God’s loving hands, not ours.
“For some reason Romans 11 and its words about God as at once kind and severe put me in mind of the wizard Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Gandalf was often a bit of mystery to the Hobbits who revered him. He could be at turns deeply kind and mirthful and yet sometimes apparently rather severe and curt.
“Yet in the end the Hobbits learned a deeper truth about Gandalf: he was fundamentally kind and good and if at times there was a severity about him, it did not last long and even this was somehow rooted in Gandalf’s bottom line desire to see everyone flourishing. He was severe about what blocked delight and goodness but it was his basic kindness and love that drove everything he did.”
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