The word of the day is “children.” Do we complain that God is not fair in His dealings with us? Perhaps we do not give voice to our grumbling. Nevertheless, the unspoken attitude might linger in our hearts. Today’s reading of Romans 9:6-19 takes us back to the question of why most Jews rejected the Gospel that Paul preached. If the Jews are God’s Chosen People, why didn’t the Almighty ensure that they would realize that Jesus was the Messiah?
Paul writes, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainty not. For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion” (OSB Romans 8:14-15). Today we learn that our place as human beings is not to question the sovereignty of Almighty God. We should rather trust that He has His own good and just purposes.
Was God’s Promise to No Effect or Had He Taken It Back?
Remember that the Jews were the Chosen People to whom alone God had revealed His will in His Law and to whom God had given the promise of the Messiah. But in St. Paul’s day, most Jews had already turned their backs on Jesus Christ and His apostles. What conclusion could one draw from this tragedy? Either God’s promise was of no effect, or He had taken His pledge back from the Jews and given it to the Gentiles.
However, Paul argues in this passage that the Almighty’s promise was never given wholesale to all the offspring of Abraham. The Orthodox Study Bible comments that the qualification to be a member of the Chosen People was not merely biological. If membership depended on being a son or daughter of Abraham alone, then the children of Hagar (Gen. 16:4, 15) and Keturah (Gen. 25:1-4) would be entitled to be part of the Chosen People. The true children of Abraham were the “children of promise” who believed in that hope.
Moreover, while they were still in the womb, God selected Jacob and not Esau to be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel (Romans 9:10-12). Consequently, Paul argues that the Jews who rejected the Gospel were clinging to the false assurance that they were the Chosen of God simply because they were Abraham’s descendants. But in fact, it was by God’s selection that they were chosen to be “children of the promise.”
God’s Choices Demonstrate His Sovereignty
The unbelieving Jews did not question whether God was fair when He chose Abraham over everyone else in the world to be the father of the Chosen People. Nor did they have problems with the favor of God for Jacob over Esau. Moreover, God’s “hardening of the heart” of the Pharaoh caused no uneasiness. Paul’s opponents considered these events acts of God’s sovereign and gracious will (Romans 9:18).
The logic is clear. Suppose the Almighty’s selective actions in the past were above question. Then why should the refusal of the Jews to accept Jesus as the Promised Messiah be questioned? The history of the Chosen People demonstrates that what the Almighty does is according to His sovereign will. The clay has no say in what the potter makes of it (OSB vs. 11). The choice of showing mercy on some and hardening the hearts of others is God’s alone (OSB Romans vs. 18).
We Cannot Fully Understand God’s Purposes
We cannot grasp nor can we fully understand God’s purposes. Thus, Paul asks, “What if God wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (OSB Romans 9:22). Paul’s question proposes a possible reason that God permitted the unbelief of the Jews whom He called the “vessels of wrath.” The Almighty endured their rebellion[i] for centuries so that finally when the Messiah did come, He might demonstrate his almighty will. On the other hand, Paul suggests that God purposed the unbelief of the Jews to show “the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy” (OSF Romans 9:23). These “vessels” on whom he showed mercy are those He willed and called to believe in Christ.
These examples of what God may have had in mind are not idle speculations. Paul supports his suppositions with a quotation from the prophet Hosea and two quotations from Isaiah. Nevertheless, whether the conjectures explained God’s purpose or not, the point was that the decision was purely up to God.
Our comments might give the impression that God is arbitrary and headstrong. However, the matter of the sovereignty of God must be framed within the faith in His goodness, justice, and righteousness. Seen in that light, the submission to the wisdom and rule of God is a blessing.
St. Silouan of Mt. Athos wrote, “And I, when I lived in the world, knew not the Lord and His Holy Spirit, nor how the Lord loves us—I relied on my own understanding; but when by the Holy Spirit I came to know our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, my soul submitted to God, and now I accept every affliction that befalls me, and say: ‘The Lord looks down on me. What is there to fear?’ But before, I could not live in this manner.”
The Staretz went on, “Life is much easier for the man who is given over to the will of God, since in illness, in poverty, in persecution he reflects thus: ‘Such is God’s pleasure, and I must endure on account of my sins’” (Staretz-Silouan).
Staretz-Silouan. On the Will of God. Orthodox Christian Center.
[i] See the OSB comment on Romans 9:22-24, p. 1539.