This is a picture I took a couple years ago in an olive grove halfway up Mount Carmel in Israel. According to our guide, the trees in this grove are more than two thousand years old.
Notice the newer branches growing out of the stump. It makes me think of the practice of grafting—where a branch from one plant is fused into the trunk of another. I don’t know if that’s what happened to this tree, but the end result is pretty much the same: something new growing out of something old.
Paul uses the grafting analogy in Romans to explain why he brought the gospel to Gentiles and not just Jews:
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
—Romans 11:17-21 (TNIV)
This passage is used by lots of people to make a lot of different points. It’s part of a larger section of scripture, Romans 9-11, that many in the Calvinist tradition consider the linchpin of their argument for individual predestination—the belief that only those handpicked by God for eternal life have any real hope of salvation. The rest, are (depending on what kind of Calvinist you are) either predestined to hell or simply passed over. This is what I used to take from this passage. Never mind the fact that Paul is quick to point out that the original branches, which represent ancient Israel, were only broken off because of their “unbelief.”
Among evangelicals, there are at least two major views on the relationship between Christians and Jews—and both camps appeal to Romans 11:17-21 for support. One camp argues there is a clear distinction between Israel and the church. The church, they say, is sort of a parentheses or interlude in the middle of God’s dealings with his chosen people, Israel. This view emerged in more or less its current form back in the 19th century, and it gave rise to Christian Zionism, a unique blend of theology and foreign policy.
The other camp argues that the church has replaced Israel; the church is the new Israel and baptism is the new circumcision (and pork is the new lamb, presumably). Ancient Israel had its chance and blew it, according to this view. And now the distinction of being the “chosen people” has been transferred to this thing called the church.
And of course, there are plenty of nuances to both views and many good efforts to arrive at some sort of middle ground between the two. But in the end, I think both camps miss the point of Romans 11:17-21. Maybe if we pay better attention to the analogy Paul uses, we can avoid making the same mistake.
In horticulture, grafting is done for a number of reasons: to increase fruit yield; to create new, hybrid breeds; to improve plant hardiness; to repair damage… the list goes on. Whatever the reason, grafting is a lot like God’s idea of marriage: two things, previously separate, becoming one.
Saying either that the church is totally separate from ancient Israel or that it has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people both lead to the same conclusion: missing out on a big part of our heritage.
If, on the one hand, we reduce the church to a mere parentheses in between God’s dealings with Israel, then for those of us in the Christian tradition, the Hebrew scriptures are of little use aside from their historical value. And the church—God’s best plan for putting his love on display—will be reduced to a mere historical footnote. We may even forget the redemptive role we have to play in this world and waste our time with lesser things.
On the other hand, if we say that we have replaced God’s formerly chosen people, then like the wild branches in Paul’s analogy, we’re in danger of thinking ourselves superior. We might forget that we’re building on a foundation someone else laid for us. We may end up making the same mistake that some Jews made in Jesus’ day, thinking their lineage gave them an all-access pass to God’s kingdom (Matthew 3:9-10).
The good news of Romans 11:17-21 is that as Christians, the Hebrew tradition is our tradition. Their promised blessings are our promised blessings.
But the even better news of Romans 11 is that God’s economy does not operate according to the principle of the zero-sum game. Just as God always meant to extend his blessing beyond the original “chosen people” (Genesis 12:3), our blessing does not have to come at the expense of theirs (Romans 11:30-32).
There is room in God’s kingdom for all of us.