August 16, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 (NRSV)
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. . . For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
The calling of the Gentiles is a marvelous thing, but it complements the Hebrew story and does not replace it.
Romans 11 reads, at first glance, like one of what I am fond of calling “Paul’s immense algebra problems.” It is a long passage of dense argumentation explaining the place of both Israel and the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, and this is all the lectionary gives us of the argument before moving on to chapter 12—essentially, we get the opening and closing statements of the argument here.
If you read Romans 11 in its fullness, you will quickly see that Paul elaborates on his statement in Romans 11:1-2 that God has not rejected his chosen people. His audience is clearly Gentiles in this passage (Romans 11:13), and he is crystal-clear that the acceptance of Gentiles into God’s plan of salvation does not dislodge the Jewish people from their appointed place: “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted among the others to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember: you do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:17-18). While people have been known to abstract Romans 11:29 out of this passage (“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”) and make it apply to all sorts of things, in its original context it is a statement about the calling of the Hebrew people. The calling of the Gentiles is a marvelous thing, but it complements the Hebrew story and does not replace it, and both Jew and Gentile are ultimately destined for glory: “Now if their stumbling means riches for the world and if their loss means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! . . . For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:12, 15).
Maintaining this position is a difficult balance for the church, and we have not historically been very good at it. A few years ago, as editor of Christian History, I helped guide us through an issue on Christian-Jewish relations, a devastating story that encompasses everything from medieval ghettos to the rise of the Third Reich. At the same time, I was playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice in our local community theater—a Christian character whom the audience is supposed to root for as she defends her husband Bassanio’s friend Antonio from certain death, yet also a character who displays the casual anti-Jewishness of the late sixteenth century in all her interactions with Shylock, the Jewish moneylender at the heart of the story.
This is even true regarding her most famous speech—the one beginning “The quality of mercy is not strained. . .”—which she makes to Shylock in the trial scene where he is demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio and she is impersonating a lawyer. You can read my entire introduction to the Christian History issue here, but this was my conclusion, rooted in today’s passage as well as my experience as Portia:
I remain convinced that the Old Testament prophesies the coming of Christ. But I will be forever changed by what I have read in these pages. . . .Two things still haunt me. One is Romans 11:17–18, where Paul reminds those of us who are gentiles that we are ultimately branches grafted into God’s olive tree. The other is Portia’s words, Shakespeare’s words, my words, turned away from Shylock back onto my own head.
Portia addresses those words to Shylock in such a way—not least through her offhand “Therefore, Jew” in the middle of the speech—that she herself sets aside the possibility of his hearing her message of mercy and responding. But Shakespeare’s words—which seem very close to Romans 11:31, honestly—still stand as a convicting message to all of us Gentiles who are grafted in to that olive tree:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy,
And [that same prayer] doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
How do you react to Romans 11?
How can you render the deeds of mercy?
I thought “Surely someone has set Portia’s speech to music,” and behold, someone has. Or if you prefer a spoken-word version, here you go. It is worth meditating on the words in relationship to Romans 11. Decide, too, that you will learn more about the historic story of the relationship between Christians and Jews. (You can start with that Christian History issue if you want.)
Lord, may I always render mercy. Amen.
Banner image by Jacob Bentzinger on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: God’s Character is to Have Mercy on Everyone (Romans 9–11).
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
Click here to view Jennifer’s profile.