20th Sunday of Ordinary Time – The Mystery of God’s Salvation

The Assumption of the Virgin, Titian, 1516–18, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Romans 11:13–15, 29–32
August 16, 2020

Last week, we began to examine St Paul’s teaching about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. We saw that for Paul the major issue was the faithfulness of God. He promised the Jews that he would never abandon them, and they would always remain chosen. Yet with the death and resurrection of Jesus, it seems that he has raised up a new people and displaced the Jews. For Paul this would make God a liar and is thus inconceivable.

As we saw Paul reminded the people, Jew and Greek, that God could transform them as a community just as he transformed him as an individual Jew. Although, certainly for us and most likely for his original audience this was a difficult concept, Paul found it important enough to review it and indeed expand on it. Our reading today reflects this, and I would like to remind you that not only does it contain some difficult concepts the passage skips around Romans 11. We will need to fill in a lot of material.

The first thing to remember however is the audience to whom Paul is writing. The Church in Rome was at the crossroads of the world. It had many strong connections to Jerusalem and its core was firmly Jewish-Christian. This was intensified by the exile of many Gentile-Christians a decade before Paul writes. Yet now other Gentile-Christians were moving to Rome and so these issues were real, in the flesh and may have been reclining next to you,

At the beginning of Chapter 11, Paul notes that the Jews have many times rejected God and yet he did not abandon them. As we see in Isaiah:

And as for me, this is my covenant with them,
says the Lord: my spirit that is upon you,
and my words that I have put in your mouth,
shall not depart out of your mouth,
or out of the mouths of your children,
or out of the mouths of your children’s children,
says the Lord, from now on and forever

(Is. 59:21)

“God has not rejected the people whom he foreknew” (remember Romans 8 as well) He uses Elijah as an example. Elijah tell the Lord that most of the people have abandoned him. But God responds:

I have left for myself seven thousand men
who have not knelt to Baal.”

(Rom 11:4)

This was a remnant, and this is what Paul calls the Jews who accepted Jesus.

So also at the present time
there is a remnant, chosen by grace

(Rom. 11:5)

This describes the Jewish-Christians at Rome. They are a remnant of the faithful but by God’s grace not by their own merit. The other Jews are also not permanently damned as they have played a role as well. The messiah was to bring all Jews back to God “the ingathering” and if they had responded immediately, the kingdom would have come before the Gentiles could have entered. Now as we will see the Gentiles can be a part and will make the Jews who have not become Christians jealous and they will enter as well.

This is where we begin the reading today.

Paul’s credentials as the apostle to the Gentiles are impeccable, but he reminds everyone that he will never abandon the Jewish people. Therefore, by rejecting Jesus they opened salvation and new life to the Gentiles, but when they accept the invitation then truly Jesus will return and complete his kingdom,

The next section, not in our reading, is the image of the broken branch. The Jews are broken branches which Paul prays will be grafted back on the tree. His example are the Gentile Christians themselves:

For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree,
and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated one,
how much more will they who belong to it by nature
be grafted back into their own olive tree.

(Rom. 11:24)

He reminds the Gentile Christians that they should not feel themselves superior to any Jew. They too could reject the gift of God. This is a real issue for this community. The Gentile Christians may be younger and increasing in the Church at Rome and may feel themselves superior, but they are being told to treat the Jewish Christians with respect. (This mirrors a good deal of Matthew’s Gospel, especially today’s selection.)

This is a “Mystery.” Mystery in Paul is the plan of God for salvation. We know that it exists, but we cannot understand its fullness. Paul insists however that this Mystery extends to the entire history of the Jews

I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery,
brothers, so that you will not become wise
(in) your own estimation:
a hardening has come upon Israel in part,
until the full number of the Gentiles comes in,
and thus all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
“The deliverer will come out of Zion,
he will turn away godlessness from Jacob;
and this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

(Rom. 11:25–27)

God knows his plan: it is his mystery and it is based and depends on his faithfulness.

We resume with “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”(Rom. 11:29).

All should take comfort in this. We have all disobeyed, but we have all received the Mercy of God. Just as God has maintained his commitment to the Jews, he will do the same with all who follow him in Jesus. That is the essential message, but it does not exhaust its meaning. The relationship of Jews and Christians will always contain tension. Paul’s attempt to show how both groups can be chosen has been interpreted in many ways in the past and will I imagine change again. But look at the rest of the chapter with its emphasis on the working out of the divine plan – “the mystery of faith” as we say at Mass – and the imperative to treat each other with kindness and respect. Our interpretation of the intricacies of the Pauline argument may change but wonder at the divine and courtesy to the human will never change.