Romans 11: 1-2a; 25-32
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In 1966 I was in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. There I visited the home that served as the World War II hiding place for Anne Frank and her family. Inside this home, made famous by the play and movie The Diary of Anne Frank, I met two women tourists from New York City. We quietly walked together through this poignant museum. Outside the three of us sat on a park bench facing the Anne Frank house. In silence, we lamented this delightful Jewish teenager who taught us so much about life -in the face of Nazi death camps.
The event's solemn meaning was brought home to me when my two friends told me they were Jewish. They were on their way to Israel. Sitting on that park bench, I felt a deep and abiding affection for a people who had suffered so much. For the first time, I felt a deeply personal solidarity with a people who had lost one third of their worldwide population in such a shocking fashion. I had that same feeling in 1994 at the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and in 2010 at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In the lifetime of many of you sitting here today, the world has seen the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Jewish people - up from the gas chambers, the ash heaps, and the mass graves of central Europe they have arisen. These political events - the Holocaust during World War II and the establishment of the Israeli State in 1948 - have forced us again to look at ourselves and our attitudes toward the Jewish people.
The Holocaust must not be forgotten- it looms before us in books and movies. Who can forget the impact of the movie Schindler's List? The Holocaust brings Christians to this sobering thought: Jesus and Paul and all twelve apostles would have died at Auschwitz - as Jews!
That is why Romans 11 is so crucial for us as Christians in our relationship to our Jewish friends. One way to understand our passage is to consider it in the light of the conclusion to Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable ends by focusing on a father who passionately desired that his two estranged sons would live in peace under the same roof. Think of the elder brother as the Jewish people, the younger brother as Gentiles, and the father as our loving God.
The parable ends with the Father urging the elder brother to join the celebration with these words: "Your brother was dead and is alive, he was lost and is found." In a sense, Paul in Romans 9-11 faces the fact that the elder brother the Jewish people of the First Century, in fact had not been reconciled to the younger brother, the wayfaring Gentile-not then, not now.
This sad state of affairs, this broken family, is what causes Paul so much pain in Romans 9-11. He prayed constantly that Jew and Gentile might be one in Christ. Yet, Romans 9 begins with Paul, a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, saying of this heart-breaking situation: "I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart." But by Romans 11 Paul seems to have re-written the parable to end like this: the elder and younger brothers will be reconciled - because the Father will intervene yet again. Under one roof the celebration will continue, and the fatted calf will be eaten by the entire family. It happened in Genesis 45 when Joseph and his brothers were reconciled - it can happen again. That is why Paul ends Romans II with a heartfelt doxology in praise of God's mysterious ways. So, think of Romans 9-11 as Paul's conclusion to Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. Let’s consider the three main characters.
First, the elder brother -- the Jewish people. For Paul, the great enigma was that God's chosen people, who had been led out of Egypt into the promised land, sustained by God's faithfulness through disaster, wars, and disobedience, were refusing to believe the good news of Jesus Christ. In countless synagogues Paul had been expelled and rejected. It was a lover's feud Paul had with his own people. Like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Stephen, and many others, Paul had experienced the deep pain of being without honor in his own homeland. Ten years earlier in his letter to the Thessalonians Paul had spoken very harshly about his fellow Jews who he said, “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out”. At that point Paul could only envision God’s wrath overtaking the Jewish people. (I Thess. 2: 15-16)
Even as he wrote the Roman letter on the eve of his fateful journey to Jerusalem, Paul was anxious for his personal safety there among his own people.
With all the solemnity of a funeral dirge, Paul laments Israel's hardness of heart. Yet, his final word is not a coroner's report. Paul's final word for the elder brother, his own people, is one of hope and salvation. He boldly announces a mystery, apparently a further revelation he had received from Christ. And here was the mystery - as incredible as it may seem - "all Israel will be saved!" God will once again deliver a remnant. Despite her disobedience, Paul believed that God's covenant with Israel stood irrevocable. God will be faithful to the covenant with the elder brother. So, the future is filled with promise.
Paul proves this point by pointing to himself -a bounty hunter for the hides of Christians twenty-five years before he wrote this letter. If ever there had been a hardened elder brother, it was Paul himself. Paul asks rhetorically if God had rejected Israel. He answers emphatically, "By no means. I myself am an Israelite" - that is, as a Jew, I, too received God's mercy - even in my disobedience. He's saying, I am just one case in point that demonstrates God’s undying love for the recalcitrant elder brother.
Paul very simply believed that the Jewish people's hardness of heart was temporary and partial. Not all Jews disbelieved. Not only that, but this condition is only for a limited time. And God used Israel's disobedience to bring salvation to the Gentiles. The Father has not finished the story with the Jewish people. And that is what Paul calls his special revelation, a mystery. It is an astonishing secret, unique to Paul in all the New Testament.
And now the younger brother, the prodigal son - you and I, Gentiles.
Paul asserts that we Gentiles were wild olive shoots grafted onto the one root of the cultivated olive tree. That is, we were received into the fellowship of the covenant people without our deserving it. The point in this strange agriculture image is simply to remind us Gentiles: do not boast of your position. If we think we deserve this new status, we completely forget that we are saved by God’s grace alone.
Paul can even claim that salvation for the Gentiles will have one major result – Israel herself will ultimately be saved. What Paul exactly meant is still quite mysterious. But this is Paul’s deepest hope and most fervent prayer.
Finally, we consider the third major character - God, the loving parent in the parable. God continues to seek the elder son just as God sought the younger son. In a very real sense, we Gentiles dare to trust God's steadfast love for us because we have seen God's steadfast love for Israel - God refuses to give up. Totally unlike conditional human love, God has fully risked God's own self - even to death on a cross. God's love for us is entirely unconditional, God's faithfulness is everlasting, and God's covenant is irrevocable. Paul reminds us to "stand in awe" (11:20) of such love that will not let us go. That is the God we worship – great is Thy faithfulness. So, the future is filled with promise.
I believe these reflections might help us to examine our own attitudes toward the Jewish people. This seems particularly urgent when we see Neo-Nazis proudly carrying Swastika emblems through the streets of Charlottesville chanting loudly: “The Jews will not replace us!” Throughout her history we sadly confess that the church has been rather uniformly anti-Semitic. Time does not permit to rehearse this story of our family quarrel. But one episode in particular bears rehashing During the Reformation, Christian theology reached a low ebb when Martin Luther, in his bitter old age, wrote the following: "First, their synagogue or school is to be set on fire and what won't burn is to be heaped over with dirt and dumped on, so that no one can see a stone or chunk of it forever. Second, their houses are to be torn down and destroyed in the same way. Third, they are to have all their prayer-books taken from them. Fourth, their rabbis are to be forbidden henceforth to teach, on penalty of life and limb. On penalty of life and limb, they are to be forbidden publicly to praise God, to thank (God), to pray (to God), to teach (of God) among us and ours, and furthermore, they shall be forbidden to utter the name of God in our hearing." Such language shames us today. It is no accident that several Nazi leaders, during the Nuremburg trials, appealed to Luther as a defense.
So what teaching of the church is primarily the cause of anti-Semitism? It is the issue of deicide, the affixing of blame for Jesus' crucifixion on the Jewish people. The final outcome of blaming Jews for Jesus' death was the liquidation of six million Jews during World War II. Thus, the question of blame for Jesus' death is a critical issue for Christians as well as Jews.
In his book The Anatomy of Anti-Semitism James Daare suggests that Holy Week was an event that involved both Jewish conspirators and Gentile collaborators - the Romans. The Apostle's Creed affirms that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate," a Gentile indeed. Both Jews and Gentiles raged against the Lord's anointed, but neither Jews nor Gentiles were thereby cursed or banished from God's sight. Contemporary Jews can no more be blamed for Jesus' death than can contemporary Italians.
Only one was cursed by the cross. Jesus Christ himself was cursed on the cross for the sake of Jews and Gentiles alike. As Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”. Jesus bore the sins of the world, the whole world. At the foot of the cross Jew and Gentile stand before God in need of forgiveness. And let us never forget the most theologically significant of Jesus’ seven last words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgive them. Forgive them all-without exception.
So rather than using the cross to blame the Jews, Paul saw the cross as that which reconciled Gentile and Jew. Paul’s fondest hope is that both the elder and the younger brother find a gracious future in the shadow of the cross. On Friday evening Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld invited me to offer the closing benediction at the Shabbat service at Congregation Albert. I wanted to be there to show solidarity with my Jewish friends following a week that had presented so many unsettling images of anti-Semitism in our nation and even in Germany.
During worship, I found myself praying for the fulfillment of Paul’s hope that one day “all Israel will be saved.” It is still a mystery what Paul envisioned. So, I simply prayed that God would hasten that promised day of healing.
Imagine that Messianic feast of God’s people from east and west, north and south sitting at table in the presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Lamb of God. Around that table the broken family of God will once again be made whole. Then will these words find their glorious and joyous fulfillment: “Come and celebrate for your brother who was dead is now alive, your brother who was lost is now found.” The steadfast love of God endures forever. Thanks be to God. Amen