God’s Character Is to Have Mercy on Everyone (Romans 9–11)
In Romans 9–11, Paul returns to the immediate problem the letter is meant to address—the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Since this is not our primary concern in the theology of work, we will summarize quickly.
Paul discusses God’s history with Israel, with special attention to God’s mercy (Rom. 9:14–18). He explains how God’s salvation comes also to the Gentiles. Jews experienced God’s salvation first, beginning with Abraham (Rom. 9:4–7). But many have fallen away, and at present it seems as if the Gentiles are more faithful (Rom. 9:30–33). But the Gentiles should not become judgmental, for their salvation is interwoven with the Jews (Rom. 11:11–16). God has preserved a “remnant” of his people (Rom. 9:27, 11:5) whose faithfulness—by the grace of God—leads to the reconciliation of the world.
For Jews and Gentiles alike, then, salvation is an act of God’s mercy, not a reward for human obedience (Rom. 9:6–13). With this in mind, Paul takes on a number of arguments on both sides, always concluding that “God has mercy on whomever he chooses” (Rom. 9:18). Neither Jews nor Gentiles are saved by their own actions, but by God’s mercy.
Salvation from God, says Paul, comes by confessing Jesus as Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9–10). In other words, salvation comes to everyone who trusts in the life-giving power of God that enriches the lives of both Jews and Gentiles who follow Jesus as Lord (see Rom. 10:12–13). Disobedience—whether of Gentiles or Jews—provides God with the opportunity to show the world the mercy of God toward everyone (Rom. 11:33). Paul’s concern in this letter is to reconcile broken relationships between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.
Romans 9–11 offers hope to all of us in our work and in our workplaces. First, Paul emphasizes God’s desire to have mercy on the disobedient. All of us, at one point or another in our working lives, have failed to embody Christ’s faith and faithfulness in some aspect of our work. If God has mercy on us (Rom. 11:30), we are called to have mercy on others in our work. This does not mean ignoring poor performance or keeping quiet in the face of harassment or discrimination. Mercy is not the enablement of oppression. Instead, it means not letting a person’s failures lead us to condemn the person in their entirety. When someone we work with makes a mistake, we are not to judge them as incompetent but to assist them in recovering from the error and learning how not to repeat it. When someone violates our trust, we are to hold that person accountable, while at the same time offering forgiveness that, if met with repentance, creates a path for reestablishing trust.
Second, this section of the letter reminds us of our responsibility to persevere as faithful Christians so that we might be the faithful “remnant” (Rom. 11:5) on behalf of those who have temporarily stumbled in their obedience of faith. When we see those around us fail, our task is not to judge them but to stand in for them. Perhaps our faithfulness can mitigate the damage done to others and even deliver those who caused it from harsh punishment. If we see a colleague mistreat a customer or a subordinate, for example, perhaps we can intervene to correct the situation before it becomes a firing offense. When we remember how close we have come to stumbling or how many times we have failed, our response to others’ failings is mercy, as was Christ’s. This does not mean we allow people to abuse others. It does mean we put ourselves at risk, as did Christ, for the redemption of people who have erred under the power of sin.
Third, these chapters remind us to demonstrate for the rest of our colleagues what the obedience of faith looks like in daily life and work. If we actually walk in newness of life (see “Walking in Newness of Life” in Romans 6) and set our minds on how our actions can bring a new quality of life to those around us (see “Living According to the Spirit Leads a New Quality of Life” in Romans 8), won’t others be attracted to do the same? Our actions at work may be the loudest praise we can ever offer to God and the most attractive witness our co-workers ever see. God’s desire is for everyone in the world to be reconciled to God and to one another. So every aspect of our work and life becomes an opportunity to bear witness for Christ—to be one of God’s reconciling agents in the world.
Fourth, we need to remain humble. When we, like the factions to whom Paul was writing, judge our own position as superior to those around us, we imagine that we have the inside track to God. Paul speaks directly against this arrogance. We don’t know everything about how God is at work in others. As General Peter Pace, retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the U.S. Armed Forces, puts it, “You should always tell the truth as you know it, and you should understand that there is a whole lot that you don’t know.”
The specific ways we embody this ministry of reconciliation in the world are as diverse as our work and workplaces. Thus we turn to Romans 12 for further direction from Paul on how to discern ways to carry out God’s reconciling love in our work.
Peter Pace, “General Peter Pace: The Truth as I Know It,” Ethix 61 (September/October 2008, http://ethix.org/2008/10/01/the-truth-as-i-know-it.