Summary: Faith, obedience and patient acceptance of suffering can attract others to the Gospel.
“If it is you calling, Lord, bid me come to you.” We have all been called by Jesus–usually in a tiny, whispering sound, barely audible above the roar and clamor of our lives. That is why we must take time every day to pray, to listen in silence to the Walker on the waters. But we can’t ever forget who bears us up and keeps us from sinking like Peter–sinking like a Rock. It is not the water–it is most certainly not our power. It is the hand of Jesus, the Word of Life, the presence of the One who is Emmanuel–God with us. That means we cannot pray “Lord, Lord,” and then ignore what Jesus told us to do. Our faith must be coupled with obedience–active love of God in the sacraments and prayer, and active love of our neighbor, doing good and avoiding evil.
In this year of St. Paul, we should take the Church’s cue and stop ignoring this second reading, this precious five verses that begin three of the most powerful chapters in Paul’s writings. This section of Romans is as great as Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and the Church’s choice of these verses is much like playing the first eight measures of that symphony and then quitting. I want to yell “don’t stop just when it’s getting interesting.” So when you go home today, carefully read all three chapters, 9 - 11, and add Romans 7 and 8 while you are at it.
What is it that you want out of life? What do we all want? Aristotle sums it up well: we want to be happy. Genesis goes way beyond that–God’s plan is always greater than our own–by saying that God wants us to be His image and likeness. That’s what the Father intended in the beginning: to make us divine, to endow us with divine happiness. We turned our backs on that–in the persons of Adam and Eve, and in our own sinful pursuits of happiness in lesser things–possessions, illicit sexual practices, disobedience. We told God–and continue to tell Him–no thanks; I’ll do it my way.
The Father could have washed his hands of us as a failed experiment. But, when we least deserved His love, he poured it out even more. In response to our infidelity, He remained faithful. Of all the weak, sinful, disobedient, rebellious peoples on earth, he chose father Abraham, infused faith into Abraham, and promised to make of him a mighty nation in which all the peoples of earth would be blessed. This nation–God planned–would be so faithful to the one God that they would attract all other peoples, convert every nation, and be the firstborn of many siblings that all loved God and loved each other.
That’s what firstborns are supposed to be, aren’t they? They should be models of obedience and right behavior. They are supposed to do what father and mother tell them, and show their younger siblings how to be respectful and obedient and kind and gentle, loving their parents and helping each other. But even in families do we find weakness and sin–backbiting and disobedience. The firstborn is often rebellious. In fact, I suspect that I was such a firstborn–first adopted–handful that my mom and dad changed their plans and didn’t adopt any more.
So it was in the family of God. Abraham was chosen and became very like God through the obedience of faith. He was, in a real sense, the model for all firstborns of God. But Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, abused his younger brother, Isaac, and was rejected. Isaac’s firstborn, Esau, was a selfish lout, and was rejected. His younger brother Jacob was chosen over him, but he was a piece of work, too. In fact, he was such a selfish cheat that God renamed him “Israel,” which means the guy who fights God. Throughout the OT, we read stories of the descendants of Israel not acting like the ideal firstborns, attractive to the nations and loyal to the One God. No, they lied, cheated, fornicated and stole their way through history. Time and again God let them have what they wanted, let them wallow in their sin and receive the natural consequences of that sin. Time and again they turned to Him and repented, were rescued, and then went right back to their disobedience. Out of twenty successors to Solomon–who turned into a jerk in his old age–only three of these kings of the Jews, the southern kingdom, were faithful. Out of nineteen kings of the northern, more prosperous kingdom, none were faithful to the One God. So God said, in effect, you want to play politics with the big boys? You want to get in bed with Baal and Astarte? Fine. And he let them be led into exile, and let their temples be destroyed. Even after their exile, they continued to practice injustice and disobedience, erecting laws that allowed them to disobey the Ten Commandments through big loopholes.