Connections 08.21.2016: Places in our Hearts

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Romans 11:11-24

Robert Benton’s 1984 film Places in the Heart takes place in 1935 Waxahachie, Texas. Royce and Edna Spalding own a cotton farm. Royce is also the local sheriff. Early in the story, a drunken young black man named Wylie accidentally shoots and kills Royce. A white mob kills Wylie.

The rest of the movie tells the story of Edna Spalding’s effort to save the farm from foreclosure, an endeavor in which she is helped by black farmhand Moze and blind boarder Will.

The film’s closing scene takes place in church. The ushers are serving Communion. We see the elements received and passed, one pew at a time. Finally, we watch as Edna passes them to her husband, who in turn passes them to Wylie. The last words we hear are Wylie softly saying to the man he killed, “The peace of God.”

It’s a hopeful scene. It may even be idealistic. Impossible, some would say. Crazy, others might insist.

Let’s stay with hopeful.

The choir sings “In the Garden” as the congregation shares in the Lord’s Supper, which seems to me to create some tension in the scene. The hymn is individualistic in its orientation; it’s all about “Jesus and me.” “I come to the garden alone.” “He walks with me and he talks with me.”

But the scene is about community. It’s about Jesus and you and me. It’s about Jesus and us. It’s about us and us. It’s about community that only God in Christ can create.

It’s about the hope that someday, we can be reconciled. It’s about the hope that someday, we can be together. It’s about the hope that, by God’s grace, true community will eventually be realized. It’s about the hope that, if it can be that way someday and eventually, maybe it’s more possible today than we realize.

When Paul insisted that both Jews and Gentiles could be saved by grace through faith, he was insisting that such salvation was available to everybody on the same terms.

This is good news.

After all, what kind of Christianity can it be that says, “When we all get to heaven, I hope they’re not there”? What kind of Christianity can it be that hopes for less than full communion with God and with each other here and now?

Discussion

1. How does Paul interpret Israel’s “stumbling” as good news?
2. Why do you think Paul insists that Gentiles, who are “grafted in” branches, shouldn’t boast in their status?
3. What do God’s “kindness” and “severity” have to do with each other? How can we think about God being both kind and severe?
4. This week’s background text continues through the end of Romans 11. What does the rest of the chapter contribute to our understanding of the lesson text?

Reference Shelf

The second stage of Paul’s contention that Israel’s unbelief is only temporary comes in 11:16-24, the illustration of the olive tree (= an emblem of Israel—Jer 11:16; Hos 14:5-6). Verse 16 reflects Paul’s assumption that Israel’s origins in Abraham have to count for something. “If the part of the dough offered as first fruits (Abraham) is holy (= set apart for God), then the whole batch (Israel) is holy; and if the root (Abraham) is holy, then the branches (Israel) also are holy” (cf. 1 Cor 7:14). That in no way denies that “some of the branches were broken off” (= unbelieving Jews; v. 17a). Given the schema in salvation history previously described, however, one should not be surprised to hear Paul saying the purpose of Israel’s unbelief was to benefit Gentiles. “You, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree” (v. 17b). Columella, a contemporary of Paul, knew a mode of grafting “a green slip taken from a wild olive tree” and putting it tightly into a hole made in an old olive tree (De re rustica 5.9.16). Gentiles came to share in the Abrahamic root as a result of Jewish unbelief. Since the Jewish root supports the Gentile branches, however, there should be no boasting on the part of the Gentiles (v. 18).

A diatribe form follows. A Gentile will say: “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in” (v. 19). The implication is that Gentiles replace Jews. A sense of the historical situation in Rome enables one to appreciate this question and its implication. Remember, the earliest church in Rome had been a Jewish Christian one. The only Gentiles in it had come out of the synagogues. When Claudius expelled the Jews and Jewish Christians from the city in AD 49, the church then became exclusively Gentile.

It then included many who had not come out of the synagogues. These Gentiles would have held many of the common Roman prejudices about Jews in general. After Claudius’s death when Jewish Christians returned to the city, they found themselves a minority in a predominantly Gentile church that had little sympathy with Judaism. One manifestation of this new situation was that Gentile Christians made claims to the effect that Gentile belief and Jewish unbelief meant that Gentiles had replaced Jews in God’s salvific plan.

To which Paul responded: “They (the unbelieving Jews) were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not be proud . . . For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps He will not spare you” (v. 20). If one’s inclusion or exclusion depends on one’s faith in Christ or lack thereof, then Gentiles cannot be arrogant and Jews cannot be robbed of hope. “Even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again” (v. 23). In fact, it would be easier to graft natural branches in again than it was to graft in wild ones (v. 24). The point: Gentile pride is out of place. Gentiles belong to Abraham’s heirs only through faith. They remain grafted in only through faith. There is no special privilege for Gentiles. Likewise, Jews are excluded only because of lack of faith. They will not remain broken off branches if they do not persist in their unbelief. There is no special disadvantage in being Jewish; on the contrary, given their future faith it would be easy to graft them back in again. Here again there is the schema in salvation history encountered earlier: Jewish unbelief>Gentile belief>Jewish belief. The impact of this illustration using the olive tree is that in salvation history there is room neither for complacency (vv. 20-21) nor despair (v. 23). As Chrysostom observed: “None of these things is immutable, neither your good nor their evil” (Homilies on Romans 19).

Charles H. Talbert, Romans, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 261-63.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia.

You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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