Paul’s Dilemma

August 20, 2017          Proper 20  

Romans 11:1-2a,11-13a,17-18,25-32

For the past several weeks we have been ploughing our way through Romans, Paul’s longest, densest, most difficult letter. It has not all been completely comprehensible – we have struggled with these passages in the weekly discussion group, and I’m sure you have struggled with them here. In today’s selection, however, he is doing something particularly interesting. He is doing some original theological thinking, working his way through a problem before our very eyes. And the way that he does that, even more than the details of his specific problem, has a lot to teach us as a church, about how we think theologically and work our way through dilemmas.

This is Paul’s problem: for the whole first half of Romans, he has been trying to explain the central insight of his theology. As we have discovered, his argument is not always easy to follow: he tries several different approaches, several different metaphors, to try to convey the subtleties of his insight to the good people of Rome. Some of his arguments are less successful than others. But for all that his key argument is simply stated: we are made right with God not by works of the law, not by successfully following the rules, not by anything we do really, but by the free gift of God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. All we have to do is to accept this gift, to recognize the love God shows us in Jesus, and as we respond with love, we enter into that life-giving relationship with God we call salvation.

This was not theoretical, abstract thinking for Paul. It is something that emerged out of his life and experience. He began as something of a religious fanatic, totally dedicated to earning God’s favour by his purity of life and by the zeal with which he persecuted the heretics. And then one day, completely unexpected for him, as an act of sheer grace from God, he was given the gift of being shaken out of his way of seeing the world. He realized what a monster his religious zeal had made him. He realized that he was going at it backwards, trying to raise himself up to God by his piety and effort: that God did not need to be bought or cajoled or impressed by us, but that God had come to us in love. And the proof of that love was the person of Jesus Christ, in whom God drew near to us at our most despised and most vulnerable, living with the poor and dispossessed, and even dying a criminal’s death on the cross.

So far so good. Now the problem: what does this theology mean for Paul’s fellow countrymen, the Jews? By this time in the life of the early church it was becoming evident that the whole people of Israel were not about to accept Jesus as God’s prophet, Messiah, and saviour. Many did, of course; all the apostles and the first Christians were Jews, before the important step was taken of welcoming non-Jews into this new Jewish religious movement. Now the great growth in the church was among the Gentiles; some Jews were still coming to accept Jesus, but the majority, it seems, were not ready to take that step. This fact clearly deeply disappointed Paul, who hoped they would all follow in his footsteps. But more than that, it presented him with a real theological dilemma: his central theological conviction is that we are saved by accepting the grace of God in Jesus, but his fellow Jews had not accepted that grace. Does that mean that they will not be saved? It seems to follow, doesn’t it? It is a question, of course, that has dogged the church for two thousand years, and poisoned our relationship to the Jewish people.

I dare say much of our guilt and shame, and the Jews’ suffering, might have been avoided if we had paid more attention to what Paul says here. Because I think the really interesting thing here is how Paul avoids the easy alternatives, avoids both the paths that we usually take when confronted with a dilemma like this.

Dilemmas like Paul’s often seem to arise in the life of the church: on the one hand, we have a theological principle; on the other, we have a group of people who are about to be squashed by what seems to be the logical consequence of our theological principle. And we tend to feel we have to choose one or the other.

Usually we choose the logical consequences. The theology, after all, is the higher principle, and while we may feel sorry for the Jews – and some of them are my best friends, and so on – regrettably it appears that God has rejected them. And who are we to question God’s judgment. And so we conclude that, unfortunately, God condemns Jews, or gays, or Muslims, or atheists, or the sinful, or whoever. It follows from our theological convictions, as a logical consequence. And so we write off all kinds of people, and make God into a monster of logical consistency, condemning people because logic says so.

The other alternative, which we often resort to in the liberal churches, is simply to abandon the theological principle. We don’t find the consequences acceptable, and logically they seem to follow from the principle, so the principle has to go. We end up being a tolerant church, thank God, but a church that is more and more estranged from its heritage. We simply see the logical consequences, and don’t stop to ask what depths of meaning and importance the original doctrine may have within it. God wouldn’t condemn non-Christians, so apparently Jesus doesn’t really matter that much.

The interesting thing with Paul’s approach is that he does neither of these things. He can’t abandon his theology of justification by faith in Jesus; he knows there is too much truth and importance in what he has come to understand. But neither can he rest easy with the idea that God will condemn the Jewish people. The days have past when Paul assumed God was a harsh, judgemental tyrant ready to condemn whole chunks of humanity. And the story of God’s faithfulness to Israel – even when they turned away – runs too deep in Scripture to be tossed out. And so Paul accepts both these theological principles: salvation comes through faith in Christ, and that the gifts and the calling of God to Israel are irrevocable. He doesn’t doubt them; it is his own understanding of the logical connection between them he doubts. He tries to understand God’s purposes in the tension between these two truths, tries to find another way to think them both together.

He devotes three chapters of Romans to working through this dilemma. These too are difficult chapters, complex, often harsh, as he tries different ways of bringing these two convictions together. The solution he comes up with is an ingenious one: the conviction that Israel’s rejection of Jesus is also part of God’s gracious plan, a temporary state of affairs which had to happen to leave room for other nations to come into the new covenant with God.

Now whether you find this a convincing account of the fact that Jews do not accept Jesus as the Messiah is perhaps a matter of personal opinion. Does Paul’s argument still hold up after 2000 years? Well, it is better than most of what the church has thought about the Jews.

But I think that more important than that is the way in which Paul approaches the problem, and what he can teach us today about how to think theologically: that both God’s faithfulness and God’s mercy are important, both the tried and true principles of theology and the human face of the people they might seem to exclude. It is possible to trust in the saving power of Jesus, and still believe that God’s mercy extends to non-Christians. It is possible to affirm all that is good in traditional marriage, and still believe that God is calling same-sex couples to that blessing.

What we must beware of is to put too much trust in the logical consequences, in the abstract decision that one thing has to lead to another. If traditional truth and contemporary mercy seem to contradict one another, the problem lies with neither one nor the other, but with our limited understanding of how they are connected, with our lack of faith that God’s purposes are richer and more complex than our little logical conclusions.