Romans 11:1-2a, 29-36
August 17, 2014
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, a church marquee broadcast the following message: "There is no problem bigger than God."
It was meant to be comforting, but given the devastation and suffering Katrina brought, it could have been taken another way.
The desire to understand God's role in the inexplicable ways we respond to God and one another in this earthly life is strong, hence Paul's attempt at explaining Israel's non-acceptance of Jesus as Messiah in chapter 11 of Romans. Elsewhere, he affirms that "Now we see in a glass darkly, but then, face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). Here, he apparently feels he has to make an effort at seeing through that glass.
His conclusion is that Israel didn't respond because God intended it that way.
This line of explanatory thinking is reminiscent of Mark 4:10-12 where Jesus explains his use of parables, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 in a way that seems to say that he does it so people will not understand.
It is reminiscent of the Exodus story where at least three explanations are given for Pharaoh's hardened heart. God did it (Ex. 4:21); Pharaoh's heart "was hardened" (Ex. 8:19, 9:7); and Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:32). Clearly the authors were seeking to provide various explanations for the mysterious phenomenon of people resisting God's commands and guidance.
Paul's explanation of why Israel didn't respond reminds me of Jesus' explanation of the cause of the man's blindness in John 9. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (Jn. 9:3).
It reminds me of Job's friends' attempts to explain the mystery of innocent suffering throughout the book of Job.
I am reminded of the comment a young man made to me one time during the break from a seminar I was leading on Job and Ecclesiastes. "Human beings would rather blame themselves for their suffering than have no explanation at all." In this case Paul blames God, but it is the same principle at work: We can't help but want causal explanations. When negative things happen or positive things fail to happen, we ask, "Who dunnit?" When people suffer, it is their own fault, God's fault, or someone else's fault. People can't just suffer. There has to be a reason and a culprit.
In his classic book on theodicy, The Will of God, Leslie Weatherhead distinguishes three manifestations of the will of God: the intentional will of God, the circumstantial will of God, and the ultimate will of God. In my view, to say that a certain group of people did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah so that others could receive mercy from their disobedience is a confusion of the intentional will of God with the circumstantial will of God.
I understand and respect Paul's distress that motivates his desire for an explanation of the ways of God. I find it an interesting juxtaposition, however, that, immediately following that explanation, he says: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rom. 11:33). He continues for two more verses in this vein. It is as if he is acknowledging the inadequacy of his own attempts at explanation.
A few weekends ago our family rented a pontoon boat on Lake Texoma in Pottsboro, Texas. It was equipped with a depth finder—whenever we were in water shallow enough to risk running aground, it beeped. It occurred to me that that would be a good thing for a human being to be outfitted with.
I wonder if Paul's depth finder began to beep at the point at which he wrote verse 32, resulting in him steering the ship out of shallow water into deeper waters, and acknowledging the mystery of God.
The Bible contains a built-in depth finder, it seems to me. The multiple perspectives on theodicy seem to fulfill that function.
So Job's friends, and Job's own reflections on the cause of his suffering, sound a depth alarm and we have, as an antidote, God speaking out of the whirlwind in chapters 38-42. God asks Job who he thinks he is, implies that the world is a lot more complex than he realizes, and informs him that he is not at its center.
Likewise Jesus offers an alternative interpretation of suffering to his words in John 9:3. They come in Luke 13:4 where he asks, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
In this strange and unpredictable world, positive things fail to happen and negative things do happen. People disappoint us and people surprise us. And we feel compelled to explain it all somehow, often in terms of God's intentionality.
Paul understands very well that the church marquee could be read as a painful statement of reality: There is no problem bigger than God, hence his convoluted explanation of the ways of God in 11:25-32.
He also understands that it can be read as a comforting statement about God's ability to overcome those painful realities. Hence his inspiring poetic conclusion to chapter 11:
"Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Who has been his counselor?
Who has given a gift to him,
To receive a gift in return?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen."