How Inscrutable Are God’s Ways – Romans 11:33-36
St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is one of the most important theological books ever written. For many centuries it remained for Catholics the beginning and end of theology. What many people do not know is that St Thomas did not complete that work. You see, Thomas was a theologian as well as a mystic. Toward the end of his life, Thomas had a mystical experience in which he was granted a glimpse of the divine glory. In comparison with what he saw, he felt that what he wrote about God in the Summa was thrash. His theological treatise was such a poor representation of the glory of God that Thomas wanted to burn the book. Fortunately, his brother friars prevented him from doing so.
Today’s 2nd reading is the conclusion of Paul’s theological discourse on the position of Israel as the chosen people of God and how it squares with the choice of Christians as the new people of God (Romans 11-13). Opposing, on the one hand, his contemporary Jews who claimed that God has chosen them and not the Christians, and on the other, the predominantly Gentile Christians who claimed that God has now chosen them in place of the Jews, Paul argues that God has chosen both the one and the other. Paul knows that his position does not make much sense, logically speaking. As he struggles with the question, he suddenly realises that God’s ways transcend the strict rules of human reasoning. God’s ways are mysterious. God’s ways are beyond full human understanding.
Like Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life, here we see Paul abandoning theology for poetry, abandoning arguments for adoration, and abandoning inquiry for contemplation. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Yet Paul still manages to articulate these inscrutable ways of God under three headings: God’s riches, God’s wisdom, and God’s knowledge. Next he expatiates on each of these three attributes of God with a rhetorical question, beginning with the last.
“For who has known the mind of the Lord? (verse 34a). Here Paul is saying that the depth of God’s knowledge is unfathomable. Even the most knowledgeable theologian on earth, in many ways, still does not know the mind of God. This reminds us of one of the Igbo epithets for God: “Amaama amasiamasi” the known but never fully known. The belief that we know God’s mind, minus the corresponding belief that we do not fully know God’s mind, equals theological arrogance, intolerance and extremism. The belief that we know God’s mind, plus the corresponding belief that we do not fully know God’s mind, equals theological humility, open-mindedness and balance, such as we see in Paul and Thomas Aquinas.
Or who has been his counsellor?” (Verse 34b). Here Paul is saying that God’s wisdom is so deep that God does not need our advice and suggestion on how to run the world. Many of us spend our prayer time advising God on what He should do and how He should run the world instead of recognising our nothingness before Him and submitting to Him. Such was the attitude of Job when he challenged God for a debate, until God asked him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). Then Job surrendered to God and confessed, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3).
“Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? (verse 35). Here Paul talks of Gods’s riches and generosity. Paul is saying that all the advantages of being people of God, which the Jews and now Christians enjoy, are free gifts of God and not a reward for anything on our part. All is G-R-A-C-E (God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense). They are free gifts of God’s unconditionally love. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). If God gives us these blessings without any merit on our part, so can God also give GRACE to others who are equally undeserving.
Many of the rules we make in society regarding who belongs and who does not belong are justified on the grounds that we have limited resources. If an immigrant takes a job, then that job is lost to a citizen who is looking for a job. Jobs are limited. But God’s riches are so abundant that there is room for all and then some. So the rules for who is in and who is out may not apply. Everyone can be in and yet no one is deprived. We can all be first born sons and daughters of God (Hebrews 12:23). All nations on earth can be God’s chosen people without depriving the Jewish nation or Christians of their historical importance and heritage.
“For from him and through him and to him are all things” (verse 36a). Paul reminds us that everyone in the world, indeed all things in the world, came from God, is kept in existence by God, and will ultimately return to God. This is the mystery of the oneness of all humankind, and indeed all reality, in God. In the face of this huge mystery, our only response should be: “To God be the glory forever. Amen (verse 36).
Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp