Today's first reading is the climax of another extraordinary and crucial section of Paul's Letter to the Romans. In chapters 9-11 he wrestles with this conundrum: why have the chosen people not realised that the fulfillment of the prophecies is in the death and resurrection of Jesus? He himself did not realise this at first and regarded the preaching of Christ as blasphemous. But in his experience on the road to Damascus he was not so much converted to a new religion as he was given a new insight into what had up to then remained hidden in the scriptures he had always loved. For those who have eyes to see. For those who read them in the light of Christ. He was blind, remember, and then he was made able to see.
Three times in these Romans 9-11 Paul uses phrases such as 'not at all', 'of course not' - almost 'don't be stupid'. Is there injustice on God's part in his election of the younger over the elder? 'By no means' (9:14), of course not. So in the way things are now unfolding, has God rejected his people? 'By no means' (11:1), not at all. Have they stumbled so as to fall? 'By no means' (11:11), don't be stupid.
What we are given in these chapters is a reading of the promises of God by Paul, a Pharisee, now that he has come to believe in Christ. He reads it all again, the law, the prophets and the writings, and interprets their teaching through what he has learned from Christ and about Christ, from his parables, from Christ's teaching of the Apostles, and from that personal encounter with Christ which Paul says entitles him too to be called an apostle. He works as he was originally trained to do, telling us again and again that things are happening 'as it is written', in Exodus, in the Psalms, in Isaiah.
This reading of the promises of the Bible is not obvious. There is something new in their fulfillment, something unexpected, a surprise never anticipated. It is, as Paul describes it here, a reversal of eschatology. What does that mean? The promises for the end time were that Zion would be restored and then the Gentiles would be gathered in. The Lord would restore his people in the place of his presence, where he had made his home, and then people would come from east and west, north and south. The riches of the Gentiles would be gathered in Jerusalem.
But what Paul has come to see is that these prophecies of the end time are being fulfilled but in reverse. The Gentiles are already being gathered in, and Zion will be restored. 'When the Gentiles are gathered in,', he says, 'then Israel too will be restored'. Israel - now the elder brother - must wait until the full number of the Gentiles come in 'and so all Israel will be saved' (11:25-26). God does not reject his people, he does not go back on his promises, he does not betray his covenants. At the same time God remains eminently free in his election. But it is God who never forgets the original purpose of that election, of those promises, of the covenants: that all the nations might be blessed. This was always Israel's vocation, to be the first-fruits, a sign to the nations, the roots of a tree that remains strong and alive but onto which the branches of the Gentiles are being grafted.
Who is entitled to be in? The answer is 'nobody'. The basis of entitlement, as today's gospel reading makes clear, is the host's call or invitation. Nothing more and nothing less. And the host is free to achieve his purpose in whatever ways he chooses. His purpose is the gathering in of all, the fullness of the Gentiles and all Israel. Our mistake is to look at the other guests and to think about them rather than looking at our Host, and then at them in His light. And finally, of course, at the wonder of the invitation we ourselves have received. How inscrutable God's judgements, how unsearchable his ways!