Readings Isaiah 51:1-8; Romans 11:13-24; Luke 13:18-21
A major point of contention, debate, and teaching in the early years of Christianity was the relationship of this new movement of Jesus followers to the continuing people of Israel who did not recognise him as messiah. Wrapped up in this were a host of questions: do Gentiles who seek to follow and be baptised into Jesus (recognised by Christians as Israel’s messiah) first need to become Jews (i.e. do they need to keep the law of Moses: be circumcised, follow the dietary laws, etc) – while several positions on this can be found in the New Testament, in the end – in part due to Peter’s experience at the house of Cornelius, and in part due to the fruit Paul was seeing in his mission to the gentiles, the decision was made that gentiles did not have to be circumcised or keep Torah in order to be a disciple. Another question concerned whether the Jewish followers of Jesus should continue to follow the law of Moses – this one is a little trickier to parse from the texts, but it does seem like, in the early generations when the two movements were far more intermingled, the answer to this was yes (and thus the early church remains part of the synagogue for some time). A further question, at the heart of this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans we heard today is: what does it mean that some fellow Jews (most fellow Jews) do not recognise Jesus as the messiah? What does this mean for their status with God? What does this mean for the covenant made with Abraham?
Paul develops several threads and images across this section of his letter, chief among them is the image of the wild olive tree. The wild olive tree represents here God’s covenant, the adoption and redemption of God. Paul, then, speaking to the Gentiles within the assembly, reminds them that they were not the native branches of the tree but have (out of God’s good kindness and nothing more, been grafted onto this tree. Paul chastises them for lauding themselves over the natural branches, that is considering their place within the family of God, within the covenant of God as superseding or being of a loftier and more noble variety. Paul reminds them, that as branches grafted on they should not boast but stand in awe, thankful for the kindness of God that grafted them on. Paul then reminds the Gentiles present, that while it may appear that some of the natural branches have fallen or been cut off, their own status as Gentiles grafted on “contrary to nature” should serve to remind them of just how much more generous, faithful, and kind God is and will remain to the natural branches. As Paul begins this whole section of the letter:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! … God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
God has not abandoned or rejected Israel, they remain the natural branches (the natural heirs) of the covenant, we Gentiles have received a spirit of adoption, through the Son we become co-heirs, grafted (against nature but in divine kindness) onto the tree of life.
It is then a sin most profound to play ourselves off against the Jewish people, as those who managed to “get it”, those who, by virtue of recognising Christ as Messiah, have “earnt” our place on the tree. It is a sin most profound to claim that God has rejected or replaced the people God liberated and established. It is a sin most profound to characterise one religion as one of law and rigidity, the other of grace and freedom. For in this we not only seek to displace Israel upon the tree, but seek to displace God upon the throne, enshrining and establishing ourselves as the arbiters of God’s covenant and redemption. Humility, awe, and gratitude are the perpetual postures of we Gentiles… and should we ever begrudge such a position, begrudge ‘being second’ or being grafted, we remember that it did not have to be thus, for it was the kindness of God who saw fit to plant a mustard seed for the many birds of the air to make a home.
It is particularly helpful to have these readings near Easter which is often a time where anti-Jewish and Christian supersessionist tropes get additional air time. It is also a season, historically, where much Christian violence against Jews has been perpetrated. Some of this is due to a misreading of the gospel accounts which sees it as a conflict between Christians and Jews, rather than an intra-Jewish conflict and conversation around messianic identity and the future of the faith. Sometimes this is an issue of translation, for instance the way in John’s gospel the writer uses the phrase “The Jews” to signify a particular group within the temple leadership and scribal elite who were oppositional to Jesus and his movement, can obscure the reality that everyone in these scenes is Jewish. Sometimes this is an issue that emerges from the fact that many of us are, sadly, not in real relationships with our siblings in the faith, which allows lazy stereotypes to creep into our imaginations. It also papers over the reality that the Judaism of today (which is in the lineage of a particular form of Rabbinic Judaism that emerged following the destruction of the Temple, is as different, if not more different, from the Judaism of the time of Jesus, as the Christianity today is different from that of Paul and the other apostles). As we move into Easter, and particularly the readings and imagery surrounding Jesus’ passion, we must remember that this is not a story in which Christianity triumphs over Judaism, or a story in which the Jewish people reject God and so are replaced by a new Israel in the Church. It is rather a story of how the God who raised Israel from Egypt also raised Jesus from the dead. It is a story in which God took on flesh so that we who were outside of the covenant could be grafted on, adopted in, and commissioned as ambassadors of God’s expansive, surprising, and kind reconciliation.
And in truth, the story of God’s kindness to those who did nothing to earn their redemption, adoption, and commissioning, whilst also remaining steadfast, faithful, and present to the covenant with Abraham and Israel, is a far better, more hopeful, more glorious story to proclaim! For this story exemplifies the consistency and love of God – which is always a welcome reminder in a world of flux and pain. In this story the kingdom of God may indeed be compared to a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.
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