Has God rejected the Jews? For much of the past twenty centuries most Christians have answered, “Yes.” Most Christians believed that they had a new covenant through Christ withh God, and that this replaced the old covenants. The Church was seen as the new, improved Israel ; this kind of theology is called “supersessionism“. Judaism was tolerated at best as a reminder of what God did not want Christians to be. While Jesus, his disciples and Paul were all Jews, this was ignored and forgotten, so that to some Christians it coma as a shocking suggestion that Jesus was a normal Jew, indistinguishable from his peers (which is why Judas had to identify him to the Temple police). In the 16th century Martin Luther, although initially well disposed to Jews, eventually became a profoundly anti-Jewish author, advocating that they be driven from Christendom, their synagogues destroyed, and their books destroyed. This had a profound effect upon German attitudes towards Judaism, and was a major contribution to Antisemitism (discrimination on the basis or Jewish race, not just Jewish religion).
One wonders, then, what these folks did with the following passage, today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary.
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’ But what is the divine reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Paul seems to suggest that at the present time, that is, when he was dictating this letter to the Romans, that there were many like him, foreknown by God to be called in grace to be a follower of Jesus. Paul sees himself in some respects as another Elijah, and recounts the story from the First Book of Kings, Chapter 19, where the prophet flees Ahab and Jezebel flees and believes he is utterly alone. But God says, no, there are yet seven thousand in Israel who are faithful. Likewise, Paul sees a faithful remnant among the Jews living at his time.
What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,
‘God gave them a sluggish spirit,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.’
And David says,
‘Let their table become a snare and a trap,
a stumbling-block and a retribution for them;
let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and keep their backs for ever bent.’
So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!
Paul sees the majority of the Jews experiencing a hardening of the heart. As is his practice, he backs this up with a scriptural quotation. It is not at all clear where Paul is quoting from in the first scriptural reference – perhaps one of Isaiah’s diatribes against those who would combine the worship of Yahweh with Ba’al or some other Canaanite god. The second reference is to Psalm 69.22, although it is out of context – in the original it is part of a curse that the psalmist is casting on those who persecute him.
But then Paul pulls the rug out from under his readers, readers who may already be quite critical of Jewish Christians and all the rest of the Jews. Paul points out that through Jewish stumbling and an apparent defeat salvation has come to the Gentiles, but God in divine mercy and grace will include the Jews in salvation in full accord with the covenant. There is no supersession, only an expansion of grace given to Gentiles. This gets expanded in the next chapter or so.
The point about this is that while God is just, a more central characteristic is that God is so spendthrift and generous that it explodes the ideas of fairness and equity. God does not want to exclude but include, and so takes the risky step of becoming vulnerable and suffering with us. God, outside of creation, enters into creation but is treated as an outsider by both the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. He is a disappointment to the Zealots and impractical to the Herodians. He does not stand apart as the Essenes did, and dares to talk to women, Samaritans, and pagans. He comes from the margins of Jewish society, from Galilee, which had been settled by Jews only a few generations before. His death of the cross remains a stumbling block to his own people and is utter foolishness to pagans. The good news his disciples proclaimed was so outrageously out there that most people found it perverse and cultish. It should never have succeeded. And yet it did.
I think that one of the reasons it succeeded was that the message of Jesus was an invitation to join at the table where there is always room for more. Inclusion is sometimes derided by some Christians, but I would like to think that God’s love is greater than any constraints I can think of to put on it.