The word of the day is “irony.” Many preachers today give the impression that they know all about God’s designs for human history. By selective quotations from the scripture, they offer their own keys to the ways of God. Today, in our reading of Romans 9:18-33, we read Paul’s rebuttal of all claims to grasp how God fulfills His purposes in the course of human history. Paul writes, “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness (NKJV vs. 30-31).
Today we reflect on the irony of God’s treatment of Jews and Gentiles. We will find that the question that Paul poses applies to all who think they comprehend the mind of God: “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (NKJV vs. 20).
The Irony of God’s Treatment of Jews and Gentiles
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one definition of irony is “the incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.”
If we view our reading from this point of view, we see that the Gentiles who did not know or neither knew nor sought righteousness attained it. On the other hand, the Jews who knew the “law of righteousness” did not achieve it (vs. 30-31).
From a human viewpoint, we would think that the Chosen People, the Jews, would be the beneficiaries of the coming of the Messiah. And when the Messiah came, we would think that the Jews would be the first to accept Him. Yet the irony is that the Gentiles who knew nothing of the promised Messiah were the ones who received Him.
Is It Human Choice?
On the surface of history, these ironies seem a matter of human choice. Indeed, Paul says that the Jews did not attain the righteousness that the Messiah came to establish because they sought it by works of the law and not faith (vs. 32). Indeed, this explanation fits Paul’s emphasis on salvation by faith.
Human logic would conclude that since God gave the law to His Chosen People, they would earn righteousness by keeping the law. However, Paul puts his emphasis on faith within the framework of the sovereignty of God. He maintains that the Almighty has willed that righteousness in His sight should be given by faith and not the law.
God Does Not Have to Meet Human Expectations
By human standards, the Jews’ rejection of the Gospel demonstrates the irony of his dealing with Israel. We would expect that God would be faithful to His beloved people. Instead, Paul teaches that God endured the disobedience of His people until the Messiah came. Then to some He willed “to show His wrath and make His power known” (OSB Romans 9:22). But to others, both Jews and Gentiles, he also chose to show His mercy (OSB 9:23).
In today’s passage Paul stresses that God does not answer to human reason. And He is not obligated to human logic. He says, “I will have mercy on whomever I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion” (OSB Romans 9:15). Mercy does not belong to humankind. It is God’s to withhold or to give (Romans 9:16).
Recall that Paul has said, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (OSB 1 Corinthians 3:19). This is the lesson of the climax of the Book of Job when God Almighty answers Job’s complaint: “Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding…” (OSB Job 38:4).
Our human understanding is no match for the wisdom of God. If that is troubling for us, perhaps it is because we rely on our own paltry comprehension. If we are, then we might remind ourselves of Paul’s words, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness” (1 Corinthians 3:19; Job 5:13).
Yet from another perspective, it is comforting to know that God has His own reasons. We are not in charge. Though we cannot fully understand God’s plan, He has the world—and our own destiny—in His hands.