19 February 2014

Romans 9:14-29

“What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (v. 14)


Paul continues to wrestle with the question of why God has chosen some Jews to be part of this new way of believing, while others turn away. He returns to the question addressed in the first part of chapter 9, suggesting that he doesn't think he has finally dealt with it. Has he left God open to a charge of injustice (verse 14)?

Paul's answer begins (verses 15-18) by revolving once again round God's unpredictable choice, and he illustrates this with further examples from the Old Testament. Moses and Pharaoh provide another 'paired' story, following the paired examples in the previous section. Both are chosen as channels of God's power, Moses through his obedience, Pharaoh (despite himself) through disobedience.

Paul goes on (verses 19-23) to use the familiar Old Testament illustration of a potter shaping the clay, drawing on Jeremiah's visit to the potter's house (Jeremiah 18:1-6; cf Isaiah 29:16; 45:9). The potter has radical freedom to decide whether to make a work of art or a clumsy kitchen utensil; the clay is not in a position to argue back. Underlying this is a strong affirmation of God's absolute power as creator, wholly in control of creation. If Paul's hearers accept his premise that God has such absolute power, then it follows that there is no reason to complain about God's actions.

Thirdly, Paul uses other Old Testament texts to show that God always intended to include Gentiles (non Jews) in the chosen people (verses 24-26). Hosea's text (Hosea 1:10; 2:23) can be read in two ways, and it is possible that Paul has both in mind. In its original context, Hosea says that God will renew the family relationship with the people of Israel through the names given to Hosea's children: 'Not-pitied' will be renamed 'Pitied', 'Not-my-people' will be renamed 'My people'. For Paul, this change of name could refer either to the Jews or to the Gentiles.

Finally in this section, Paul uses a range of texts from Isaiah (10:22-23) to develop a theology of remnant (verses 27-29). The original purpose of the text is to offer hope to a people facing destruction: a remnant will survive. Once again, Paul adapts this to his own purpose, suggesting that God only ever planned that a remnant would survive to be called into the new dispensation.

How are we, as twenty first-century Christians, to respond to this argument? Firstly, in the light of the shameful tradition of Christian anti-Semitism, we need to note that Paul is not hostile to Jews as such, but that his grief and anger is directed towards those individuals who will not or cannot see what is so obvious to him. Secondly, for Paul this is a 'family argument'. He is a Jew, arguing with his brothers and sisters in faith - a very different position from our own.

To Ponder

  • How would you explain your faith to someone of a different faith? Would you seek to convert them to your own point of view?
  • How far is the image of clay in the potter's hands helpful in understanding God's relationship with creation as a whole?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.