21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – Responding in Unity and Community

Jesus Giving Peter the Keys

Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time
Romans 11:33-36
August 23, 2020

Several weeks ago when we looked at the ending of Romans 8 we saw that Paul can write individual passages that are so beautiful that we can forget that they are not meant to stand alone but to bring a section of the letter to a conclusion. We see the same today. This week’s passage is also meant to do double duty: conclude Paul’s teaching on the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians, Rom 9-11, but also the entire letter that went before. Paul as an artist was up to the task.

At the very beginning of the letter, Paul wrote:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel;
it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who has faith,
to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

(Rom. 1:16)

He has, as we have seen, first shown us what salvation and faith meant (Rom 1-8) then how it affects Jew and Greek (Rom 9-11). This last section was painful for Paul to write and difficult for us to read: he has unambiguously taught that Jew and Greek are in this together and forever. This was, at best, only reluctantly accepted by anyone. Paul needs to bring this together with great power and eloquence which he does through a doxology: a liturgical formula in praise of God.

At the conclusion of Romans 8, he used the literary technique of chiasm to make his audience to pause and reflect. He uses “3s” a different technique today for the same effect. Let a diagram take the place of 1,000 words:

  1. Opening exclamation
    the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (11:33a)
  1. Scriptural verification:
    For who has known the mind of the Lord
    or who has been his counselor? (Rom 11:34)
    Or who has given the Lord anything
    that he may be repaid? (11:35)
  1. Concluding Doxology
    For from him and through him and for him are all things. (11:36a)

There are two sections which do not fit into this neat formula. This is not an accident. Paul wants them to stand out so that we can see them more clearly.

How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! (11:33b)


To him be glory forever (11:36b)

Paul states that God is a bottomless pit of wisdom and goodness. We should just not take his word for it but must go to scripture.

Note the connections are in reverse order:

There are many statements in the Old Testament for our not being able to know the fullness of God’s mind or giving him counsel. The most direct is:

Who has directed the spirit of the LORD,
or as his counselor has instructed him

(Is. 40:13)

Remember that both the Jewish and Gentile Christians are being stretched by Paul’s words and not unsurprisingly do not like it. He is showing them from scripture that the question is not whether they like what Paul is saying or not but does it come from God?

The second quote is a rather free translation of Job 41:3:

Whoever has assailed me, I will pay back—
Everything under the heavens is mine.

God’s riches are most especially his saving grace. We cannot save ourselves much less “save” God. This is constantly echoed in Paul. God owes us nothing, we owe him everything.

God then is the ultimate giver. We receive all things “from him” – creation – “through him” – redemption – and we respond “to him” – salvation.

This provides a very tight expression of Paul’s belief that the unity of Christians is the will of God and even if we do not understand clearly, we must obey completely. It is part of the mystery of salvation.

This mystery we saw last week in Rom 11: 25-27:

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:

Mystery is the divine plan, fully known only to God but revealed in the scriptures to us. Our hearts may be hardened but the plan of God still works in and indeed through us.

Thus, the first section which does not “fit” in this schema tells reveals the key to understanding:

How inscrutable are his judgments
and how unsearchable his ways!

(Rom. 11:33b)

Even with revelations as profound as Paul’s we cannot fully understand the ways of God. The mystery will never be completely revealed to us on earth. Yet we must entrust ourselves to the mystery and live by and for it.

This is an eternally valid teaching. Somehow this pandemic is part of the great mystery of God. To be more precise, how we as his people respond to it is the mystery and the “answer” will be in unity and community. The Jewish Christians wondered why the Gentiles would not just be like them become Jews and then accept Jesus? The Gentile Christians had difficulties accepting why they needed to hold on to anything Jewish. Paul and the other leaders of the early Church told them as powerfully as possible that they were one and needed to build the Church together. The Roman church may not have been more comfortable after their experience of Paul, but it was stronger.

So it will be with us. We do not know what we will be called to do and whom we will be called to do it for. If it is real, it will not be comfortable.

And it will give glory. Our passage ends with “To him be glory” A few weeks ago, we read the famous saying of St Irenaeus of Lyon which was translated at the time: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”. This is only partially true. He was also thinking about the church and we could just as easily say “The glory of God is a Parish fully alive”. Let St. Charles reopen, reform, and re-found, gloriously.