(Editor's note: This is the second and concluding part of a major review of the life of Saint Paul. Part one appeared in the Sept. 17 edition of The Catholic Advocate. Pope Benedict XVI has challenged Catholics to know Saul of Tarsus-Saint Paul the Apostle-more intimately through prayerful study of his letters.)
The covenant gift began with Abraham, Sarah and their family and elevated Israel from clan to nation at Mount Sinai. Later priestly (Num. 25:13) and royal (2 Sam 7:8-16) covenants were the means whereby continuity of leadership at the service of God's people would be assured.
Every privilege has a concomitant responsibility. The gift of God's instruction (Torah) enabled the people to understand the dimensions of their creaturely and filial response. During the First Temple period the tables of the Decalogue were kept in the Ark of the Covenant; an examination of conscience prepared the community for worthy worship (see Psalms 15 and 24). Frequently priests and prophets reminded them that fidelity to the covenant in the details of social exchange was essential to true worship.
While demanding a total response to the Torah, God assured His people of help so that divine plan would be fulfilled. Under the guidance of the Anointed One, Son of David, all humanity would be blessed through the name of Abraham (see Gen 12:3; 17:4-5).
A liturgical proclamation of the Scriptures offers a message to the congregation, whether in the synagogue or church (ekklesia convocation called forth by God's Word), and the passages would be interpreted in a homily for the edification of the listeners. Saint Paul used the same principle as he dictated this epistle. Ancient texts breathed upon those listening to Paul as he wove an argument, or a series of insights, in the light of the Gospels.
Jewish teachers like John the Baptist had insisted that the pedigree "descendant of the patriarchs" called for a life of righteous deeds (Mt 3:7-12). So did Paul (Rom 9:6-13). These days a priest on a bus cringes as an inebriated person sits next to him and proclaims for all to hear: "I used to be an altar boy."
When we read the biblical quotations assembled by Paul, we must recall that he did not see himself as alienated from the Jewish people. After all, he frequented the synagogue during his travels and accepted punishment for misdemeanors of which he was accused. "Five times I have received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one" (2 Cor 11:24). He was not using the Jewish Bible as an arsenal from which to attack contemporary Jews but, like Jesus (Mt 15:7-9, etc.), wanted to provoke a reflection on the part of his listeners. In a similar situation Christians should be careful not to quote biblical passages against those with whom they disagree as a cheap way of sealing a debate.
From the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel (Rom 9:5-11) Paul moved to Pharaoh and the Exodus, when Moses learned that the sacred Name revealed in the burning bush means "God is love and mercy" (Ex 3:14; 33:19; 34:6-7). In the Gospels and in Paul's letters the opponents of Jesus include "the Pharisees," who seek righteousness under the Law (Phil 2:6).
Some may have focused upon the works of obeying the commandments too exclusively, forgetting the underlying divine gift of the Covenant, but others would have understood from the daily prayer using Deut 6:4-5 that the yoke of faith precedes the yoke of the commandments.
In the mid-first century Jews constituted approximately 10 percent of the Mediterranean population; a goodly number must have been striving for eternal life by keeping the commandments (see Mt 19:16-26), as beneficiaries of divine mercy, in accord with Paul's heart's desire and prayer (Rom 10:1). Only God judges the fate of each individual, so the distinctions in Romans 9-11 must be read in the light of the principles elucidated in Rom 2:1-16, for God will repay according to each one's deeds (2:6).
Just as Jesus challenged His listeners with the example of the centurion's faith (Mt 8:10-12), so Paul chose prophetic passages to provoke an examination of conscience concerning complacency or self-righteousness among Jews. But God has not rejected his people (Rom 11:1). Obstinacy or stubbornness inhibit a response to the divine will, yet some may be stimulated by jealousy on recognizing that salvation has come to the Gentiles (Rom 11:11).
So that non-Jewish Christians would not become proud or arrogant, Paul introduced the image of a venerable olive tree on to which wild branches have been grafted (Rom 11:17-26). The divine plan flows continuously from Abraham and Sarah down through the millennia. The root and trunk support the natural and grafted twigs so that the divine work will prevail in spite of the vicissitudes of history.
In Romans 9-11, "Saint Paul is not concerned with the destiny of individuals, their predestination or reprobation, but the fate and salvific function of two great communities, Israel and the nations" (J.M. Oesterreicher). The Apostle proposed a mystery to his listeners: "A hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in and so all Israel will be saved" (Rom 11:25-26). Choosing the Greek word "mystery," Paul referred to the Book of Daniel where the Aramaic term "raz" means the eternal plan of God, long hidden from human probing, but to be revealed for a privileged generation (see Rom 16:25-57).
The animosity resulting from the challenge of the Gospel to Israel's efforts to be faithful to the Torah (Law of Moses) involves what should be a creative tension between Jews and Christians. From a human perspective they may be enemies, "but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of the patriarchs; for the gifts and call of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11:28-29). Rather than a judgment about responsibility and guilt of individuals, Paul returns to the profound reality of divine mercy, which will always triumph (see Rom 3:21-26; 9:14-18; 11:30-32).
Whenever the Apostle reached a crescendo in his exposition or celebrated a profound insight, he turned to a paean of praise. Thus, one finds a doxology in Rom 9:5 and 11:33-36. Saint Paul has scrutinized the painful schism between the chosen people, who are living evidence of God's fidelity to ancient promises, and the people created as God the Father's children through Baptism into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus (Rom 6:3-4). In praise of divine wisdom, Paul's celebration of God's fidelity and mercy informs us that all theological discourse, all probing into the meaning of history, should be taken up into prayer.
As we review the long and often painful history of Jewish-Christian interactions, we wonder: How often did Christian theologians and preachers turn to prayer as they attempted to teach about Israel? The Second Vatican Council drew upon certain themes of Romans to lay a foundation for the future.
In gratitude, the Church recalls "that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in his inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted wild shoots, the Gentiles" (Nostra Aetate No. 4).
Recalling the promise to Abram that his descendants are called to be a blessing to the world (Gen 12:3), Pope John Paul II exhorted both Christians and Jews "to be first a blessing to one another" (April 16, 1993).
(Father Lawrence Frizzell is the director of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, South Orange, and a longtime columnist for The Catholic Advocate.)