Mercy for everyone? Say what?!
In Isaiah 56, the Lord tells his people, Israel, to keep on keepin’ on: “Maintain justice and do what is right.” He goes on in verse 2, and says, “Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
Nothing controversial there. Sons of Abraham nod and smile. But then the Lord says, “Foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.” God caps it off by saying about Israel’s Temple, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Say what?! Centuries of separate living by means of circumcision, kosher diets, Sabbath observance, and unique religious feasts and now “foreigners” get to come in?
Of course, those words comfort us, since we’re foreigners and everything: non-Jews, Gentiles. We like the good news that God isn’t for certain people and that the promised Messiah doesn’t limit his work to one group, but instead is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world!” We love Galatians: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So Matthew catches us off guard. Jesus hits this woman with chauvinism and ethnocentricity.
“Son of David, have mercy on my demon-possessed daughter!” First, silence. Then, when the disciples urge him to blow her off, Jesus seems to comply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Finally, the woman kneels before him, just as the Jew Jairus did, and begs for her daughter. Jesus says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Say what?!
We’re used to the Jesus who healed a Roman’s servant and who sent Paul to non-Jews. A Jesus who says, “I am willing.” Doesn’t Jesus know Isaiah 56? This woman doesn’t call him “Rabbi,” she calls him “Son of David.” She personifies the Isaiah 56 foreigner: a non-Jew bound to the Lord. Because she’s a non-Jew, Jesus calls her a dog and gives her the cold-shoulder?
Blessedly, after all that, Jesus heals the girl and commends her mom: “You have great faith!” We sigh, relieved. “Good, Jesus isn’t a jerk.” Just his disciples. They want her gone. They miss the cues. Jesus wants them to say, “That’s not how you roll.” He hoped they’d remember Isaiah 56 and other Scriptures: “Lord, it’s written, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ Everyone, not just Jews.” But they didn’t. They saw a Gentile dog.
Then there’s Paul. “I make much of my ministry to the Gentiles.” Paul doesn’t sneak around. He tweets out his destinations. He updates Instagram with pictures saying, “In Macedonia with Sosthenes! Best bacon wraps!” Yet he also says, “I do this in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some.” Where Isaiah focused on “all nations” and Jesus head-faked toward only Jews, Paul looks at Jews in one hand and Gentiles in the other and says, “Put your hands together.”
It’s complex. Concerning Jews: “as far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies.” Easy enough. The Jews “who refused to believe” the good news about Jesus followed Paul stirring up trouble, especially because he went to the Gentiles. Before a official they said, “We’ve found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple.” We expect Paul’s words about the Jews to end here: enemies, lost, damned. But they don’t: “as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gift and his call are irrevocable.” Say what?!
The last word causes the most trouble: “irrevocable.” “Once you’re in, you’re in? You don’t need Jesus? It’s not grace alone and faith alone? If God picks you, no matter what, you’re in?” Irrevocable sounds that way, sort of a Jewish version of the “once saved, always saved, you can’t fall from the faith no matter what,” mantra. Support comes from grabbing Romans 11:26: “All Israel will be saved.” Except that ignores Paul. He talks about a hardening in part. He speaks about saving some of his people, not all. In Romans 11:6 it’s a remnant chosen by grace: some Jews.
Better than “irrevocable” is how King James and the Latin Vulgate translate it: “without repentance”, or regret. God isn’t sorry for choosing and calling Israel. That’s not what going to the Gentiles is. God’s purpose in election always stands: those he foreknew, he predestined; those he predestined, he called; those he called, he justified; those he justified, he glorified. What’s irrevocable isn’t some automatic, straight ticket to heaven for every Israelite and Jew simply by virtue of Jewishness. Otherwise look at Ishmael and Esau and ask, “What about them?”
It’s not that someone like Israel can’t fall from the faith. Paul says it repeatedly. He calls them enemies of the gospel who need to be saved. He calls them rejecters and rejected. He says they are now disobedient just as non-Jewish Gentiles were before God mercied them and called them by the gospel, enlightened them, sanctified them, and kept them in the true faith, daily and fully forgiving their sins through faith in Christ, for the sake of Christ’s holy, precious blood, his innocent suffering and death. Paul in Romans 3 proved that Jew and Gentile alike are under sin, and now repeats it here: “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
Paul does say, however, that among Israel, among the Jews, some elect still remain. God doesn’t regret choosing Israel, because by giving them the Word, giving them the promises, having the Word become flesh from them and among them, some were saved, and some still will be. And so, Paul says, there’s no reason for Gentiles to look upon Jews as anything but potentially among the elect, God’s chosen; even if, at this moment, they fight the gospel.
This makes election – also called predestination – hard. God does this choosing in eternity. Before time began he said, “They’re mine,” and so, in eternity he chose and adopted believers in Jesus. Outside our time. Then in time he calls by the gospel. He sends his Holy Spirit with the Word, who works faith, as our confessions say, “Where and when it pleases him.” In other words, we see some believe and some not when the same Word is preached. We would like to see this differently. We want all men saved right now, or at least to know God’s plan for getting those who are his. We want Isaiah’s prophecy: “My house will be a house of prayer for all nations” now, not at some future time in God’s secret appointment book.
So does God. Paul makes it clear: God desperately wants to remember his covenant, so to speak. It’s like Noah in the ark. We read Genesis 8 and it says, “God remembered Noah”, after a year of floating hither and yon and not hearing from God. That seems to be Israel’s fate. Since they rejected Christ, the Jews haven’t heard from the Lord in a while. He’s been “silent”, it seems, for centuries: letting them fall away from the church, letting them be poorly-treated everywhere, culminating, it seems, in the Holocaust. But not because he’s forgotten; as Psalm 105 says, God “remembers his covenant forever.” “They are loved on account of the patriarchs.” God’s dying to speak to them, to call them back!
Like a certain father Jesus spoke about in Luke 15: a father at the end of his drive looking for his son, while an older brother grumbles. In the first telling, the younger son was tax collectors and sinners. The older brother was “faithful” Israel, the same who grumbled when Jesus told them about workers in the field getting paid the same no matter how long they worked. Faithful Jews “work” all day, while these dolts work for an hour – tax collectors, sinners, Canaanites, Gentiles, dogs – and get the same pay: heaven!
Now it’s flipped. The Gentiles become the older brother, and Israel the younger. Gentiles have the gospel. The Church is almost exclusively Gentile. God mercied us, sending Christ to live for us, to die for us, to rise for us, to be, as we said earlier, the atoning sacrifice not only for Jewish sins, but the world’s!
Then Paul expresses a desire to preach to the younger son. He preaches to us, sure, but eyes others. “Hey, we’re faithful! They blew it!” Whether we talk about the Jews God still calls beloved, our congregation’s delinquents, those removed or excommunicated, or people around us who fit the bill of “tax collectors and sinners”, we aren’t always eager to see God go to the “dogs.”
What did Paul say? “If their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” Jewish rejection didn’t force God to expand the reach of Jesus’ blood. God preaches the Law to the Jews, “You won’t have me? Fine. I’ll go elsewhere.” Elsewhere is us. He called us. He told us about Jesus, the Savior of the Nations. He brought us into his house of prayer and said, “You’re welcome here.” “Salvation unto us has come,” not because we’re good – we were sitting in sinful filth too – but “by God’s free grace and favor.” A grace and favor that says “Jesus ‘did for all the world atone.’” Jesus brought reconciliation to and for the world so that “each Christian therefore may be glad and build on this foundation….Your death is now my life indeed.”
You can be sure, not because you gazed into God’s eternal – and secret – choices, but because God promises it right here, right now, in time, to you through His Word. And when God promises, he means it. And desires it. Remember the Father’s excitement about his son: “He was dead and is alive!” Heaven desires this, Jesus said. The angels rejoice over one sinner who repents, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. God desires that no one perish (though many do); God wants all to come to the truth (though many won’t). “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Mercy for Jews. Mercy for Gentiles. Mercy through Christ, who came to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. Amen.