Is God Just?
So apparently I cannot count. I wrote two blog posts labelled “Day 22” and somehow did not notice. Anyway, today is Day 28! Paul returns to consider his people, and the justice of God.
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, ‘About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.’ Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written,
‘I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.’
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses,
‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’
So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.
Paul sees the Jewish people as blessed by God by having received covenants through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. They have the Torah given at Sinai, and the worship ordained by the Torah that now takes place in the Temple of Jerusalem. Through the prophets they have heard of God’s promises of restoration, and they await their fulfillment, including the coming of the Messiah.
But Paul also sees his people as having become incapable of seeing the Messiah, just as he did not recognise Jesus as the Christ. He knows that the leadership of the Jews in Jerusalem is hopelessly compromised by collaboration with the Romans, whether by the leadership of the Sadducees in the Temple or by the leaders of the Pharisees teaching the oral torah throughout Judea and Galilee and beyond into the Diaspora. Their hearts have been hardened. Paul uses the term “election” as another way of saying that God calls people to know Jesus as the Messiah, as he was called. Why him and not some other Pharisee? He cannot say, only that God as the creator has the right to choose whomever he wishes.
Paul uses the story of Jacob and Esau as an example of this type of choosing. Why did God decide that the promises would come to the descendants of Jacob and not Esau? It is simply an choice that God made. Why are some Israelites not living according to the instruction given them? It is not clear why their hearts have hardened, why they have become collaborators in the oppression of their own people, or why they say one thing and do another. But it is clear that they are no longer living by faith, but by mere perfunctory observance. That’s why Paul states his hyperbolic wish that he could be cut off for the sake of his own people, so that they may learn to live by faith.
As modern people we have a concept of justice that is separate from the idea of the divine. The idea that “God wants this, so it must be just” does not cut it anymore. This creates issues with the concept of election and predestination, not to mention double predestination. So what do we do with this problem?
My own opinion is that we are not bound by Paul’s thoughts here, as he is really just laying out the issues and proposing some solutions. The insights are not commensurable. We would not use scripture in Midrash the way that he does in this reading. What we can do is affirm with him that God is just. We then have to ask ourselves what “foreknowledge”, “will”, “predestine”, and “choose” mean in the context of God in history. Do we imagine the divine as simply having a bigger mind that we do, or is God wholly other, so that all of the words that we use to describe the Holy One are just metaphors that carry us so far and then break down?
The Christian faith asserts that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth we have a unique revelation of the divine in human form. When we see Jesus, we see God. Paul experienced the transforming power of God in Christ – he was called, he was sent, and the way he looked at things was tuned upside down. The one he thought was a heretic and whose followers needed to be persecuted really was the Messiah. God was just, and forgave him for his error, and Paul experienced the death of Jesus as a sacrificial offering on behalf of him. All of this came in a blinding flash of a resurrection appearance. This experience, common amongst early Christians, became determinative for how they proclaimed the gospel. Peter denied Jesus, but was forgiven and empowered by Jesus. Thomas doubted, but Jesus did as he asked and Thomas was humbled and believed. The disciples scattered at Jesus’s arrest, but they became the nucleus of the church. In all of this they experienced God as just and merciful.