The Olive Tree and the Grafted Branch between Jews and Christians

Sat, Jan 26th 2019 11:00 am
Pondering with God's Word


Two contemporary events, one past and one upcoming, prompt this reflection. On Oct. 12, 2018, 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were slain as they gathered for Sabbath services. This evil was met with a righteous outcry from almost all Americans, rightly so. Meanwhile, on the 25th of this month we Christians celebrate the Conversion of St. Paul. One can ask what would Paul's thoughts be on the radical anti-Semitism occurring in a synagogue named "The Tree of Life?"
Paul's "conversion" was not a rejection of Judaism itself, rather it was a transformation of his understanding of who Jesus was, the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God. Paul was persecuting the early Christian Jews, but then, as he himself recounts, he was gifted with a revelation of Jesus Christ "in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles" (Galatians 1:15-16). The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 9, gives more details: Paul's journey to Damascus, a sudden light that blinded Paul (sorry, no horse involved), and the voice identifying himself as Jesus.
Paul accepted his calling to preach among the Gentiles, but in his letter to the Romans, Paul spoke proudly of his own life as a Jew (11:1). He never rejected totally those among his people who could not accept Jesus. However, he struggled with their rejection with "great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart" (9:3).
In Chapters 9-11 of Romans, Paul asks about God's relationship with the Jews, "Has God rejected his people?" The question is answered with a strong phrase, "By no means!" (11:1). Paul hopes that he can bring all Gentiles to believe in Jesus and then the Jews will be jealous and accept Jesus. That the Jews are not totally rejected is based on Paul's assertion that theirs is "the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, and the promises" (9:4). Near the end of his reflections, Paul says the Jews are beloved because "the gifts and the call are irrevocable" (11:29). One of the gifts is the covenant.
Paul warns the Gentile Christians not to be proud. Beginning with, "if the root is holy so are the branches," Paul uses the image of an olive tree (Judaism) onto which has been grafted a wild olive branch (Gentile Christians) to warn "it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you" (11:18). Paul ends his struggle over the mystery of the situation with: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways" (11:33).
In Roman Catholic teaching today the concept that the covenant with the Jewish people has not been revoked was presented in 1980 by St. John Paul II in a synagogue in Mainz, Germany, when he was addressing a German Rabbinical Conference. The belief that "God's covenant with the Jewish people has never been revoked" is also found in several recent Church documents including The "Joy of the Gospel" by Pope Francis. Christian theologians themselves struggle with this mystery since the New Testament speaks of the "new covenant" in Christ. Nevertheless, Paul speaks of the Jewish covenant as irrevocable. How unsearchable are God's ways!
Finally, even though Paul used the image of an olive tree, not the Tree of Life from Genesis, one cannot help but reflect on Paul's words when Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue were murdered. Christian outrage at this incident and all anti-semitism is well placed. The murderous actions and words strike at our very roots. We Christians are "the grafted ones."


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