“More than a Zero-sum Game” by Pastor Andy Braams

Every language is filled with words that bring emotion. But one word that consistently brings emotion for many people across many languages (even if pronounced differently) is holocaust. We may know some of the stories of the holocaust, but we are often captivated by the good in the midst of the horror.

One story you may not know is related to a village in southern France called Le Chambon. During WW2, this small village of approximately 5000 people is credited with saving nearly 5000 people (mostly Jews) from the Nazis. People began arriving in their town and the town helped. Then more came. And still more. But none were turned away. The migrants lived in homes, in barns, or wherever the villagers allowed them to stay.

When the Nazis came to the village to find any Jews there, the Jews were sent to the nearly mountainside (covered by a forest) to hide. After the Germans left, someone would go to the forest and sing a song which signaled the all-clear. Some of the residents of the town were arrested and a local pastor was eventually murdered at a Nazi concentration camp. (Wikipedia & Weapons of the Spirit documentary)

I mention this story because all of us make choices about other people. The people of Le Chambon made a choice to receive people, even though these people were different than them. Others will reject people, even when they are more similar.

Every person must make this choice. And oftentimes, that choice is made several times each day.

The problem is we usually consider our personal differences as less challenging for others than the differences of others are for us. Unfortunately, this is where being judgmental comes into play. Rest assured, we all judge. As humans we make judgments all the time. We must – it is a part of our nature and can be protective in nature. (Should I run into a burning house? Should I listen to the person with a gun? Etc. – Yes, these are extreme examples, but they make the point.)

The problem with judging is that we usually make ourselves out to be better. We have seen that to some extent throughout Romans with the Jews considering themselves as better because of their place as God’s chosen people. But in today’s passage, Paul corrects the Gentile believers in the church for thinking that they are better.

When we think of ourselves as better, we are usually playing a zero-sum game. I will say more about this later, but if we are to live by the Spirit, indeed, if we are to live in the Spirit, then we cannot have that sort of attitude.

While people will make judgments about others, those who are part of God’s Kingdom, that is, the Church, must refrain from judging those in the church under false premises. That is, we are to correct a brother or sister when they stumble, but we are not to consider ourselves better than someone because we have been made equal before God by God!

So, why did Paul change his focus from the Jew to the Gentile in this portion of the letter? Why did he feel he needed to correct the Gentiles after spending most of the letter correcting the Jew? Let’s look at Romans 11.11-24 to see what was happening in the church at Rome.

This letter was written to the church at Rome. As I have said countless times, the church was made up of Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. At the beginning of the series, I mentioned that it was possible that the Gentiles started the church (primarily) because of the persecution against all who had a Jewish background and them being kicked out of Rome. So, some commentators see most of Romans written mainly to the Gentile audience (because they “controlled” the church), but I see it as written primarily to the Jew (because of their being “chosen” and Paul’s continual reference to how they clung to the Law). That Paul has been writing to the Jew has been particularly noteworthy in Romans 9 and 10, and arguably in the first 10 verses of Romans 11 (using Elijah and Paul’s own heritage as examples).

But in Romans 11.11, Paul shifts his focus to addressing the Gentile – at least for the moment. In Romans 11.1, Paul rhetorically asked if God had rejected His people. The answer was an emphatic “No.” Now, in Romans 11.11, the question is if Israel’s place with God is lost forever? Again, Paul refutes the idea.

But why?

The answer is arrogance, but before I elaborate from Scripture, let me share an example. Have you ever been a part of a group and been chosen over someone who you thought might have been chosen first? Or perhaps you were playing a game and won the game and then rubbed it in (or even taunted the other person)?

Well, that is the situation in Rome. As we will see, such a response is a very immature and incomplete understanding of what it means to follow Christ. And yet, I would suspect that, in some way, we are all guilty in some way at some level.

So, Paul asks the question about the Jews being lost forever. And he answers the question the same as the previous one – No. As one commentator said, “Israel’s rejection is neither total (Romans 11.1-10) nor final (11.11-32).” (1)

But the Gentiles apparently thought the rejection was final. In verse 12, we see that the rejection of most Jews (i.e., not the remnant, v. 5), at this time (v. 25, which we will cover next week), has allowed others to experience the riches of God’s grace. The Jews were to be a light to the nations (which would have shared God’s grace with others), but because they did not live up to that purpose, God has rejected them for a time, so that others (i.e., the Gentiles) could still receive what God had for them.

And the reaction from the Gentiles was “God has now chosen us and rejected you!” We see the premise of this clearly in verse 19, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” In other words, the Jews were put away from God so that the Gentiles could take their spot.

Again, that is arrogant. And it is not only Gentile arrogance, it is person arrogance. Notice the word “I.” This “I” is not Paul, but someone who is making the argument to Paul. Paul has never been to Rome (1.13-15), so he is likely not addressing a specific person, but his words here are in the singular, not the plural. (Recall that I have frequently said that most instances of you in the NT are plural, as in the idea of “you all” (or y’all, for those in the South), but here is an exception.

So, this person is saying, God rejected the Jews and chose ME instead. That is arrogance! Paul even chastises this person in verse 18 not to be arrogant because even if the person is now included in God’s plan, that person is not the source of God’s plan. That is, s/he is not the root, but merely a branch.

And Paul goes on to say that what removed the Jews from being branches was a lack of faith (v. 20). And what allowed the Gentiles to be grafted into this metaphorical tree was faith (v. 20). The lack of faith in God that was the issue for the Jews was really a matter of pride (arrogance) that they, as people chosen by God, had in themselves. Paul warns the Gentile not to make the same mistake or else this person (and any Gentile with a similar mindset) could just as easily be rejected by God.

In between the two ideas I have shared, Paul shares that God does have a plan, and if the world was enriched by the temporary rejection of the Jew, we should consider how much of God’s blessing will be experienced when God restores His people (vv. 14-15). Based upon Paul’s general writing, we can conclude that Paul likely means the blessing at the end of time when we will no longer be on this earth as we know it, but instead will be with God. In the meantime, the Gentiles should live lives that make the Jews jealous of what they are missing. This is jealousy with a good intent, not evil. That is, Paul wants the Gentiles to live in such a way because of their faith that the Jews want what they cannot have by their works. I will come back to this idea in a few moments.

Now, admittedly, I have said a couple of things in the last minute that may cause any of us to scratch our heads. I don’t have time to dive deeper here, but you can get more clarification in the daily videos this week. In Monday’s video, I will attempt to address the question, Can God really reject someone who is following Him? he short answer is “No,” but again, I encourage you to watch the video. Another matter is whether not not God will save all Jews. Again, the answer is No, not apart from faith, but I will address this idea in Tuesday’s video. (On Wednesday, I will share more about the metaphorical tree.)

But I want to turn our attention towards three principles in this text.

First, as I mentioned, Paul hoped the Jews would be jealous enough to want what they did not have. As I said a moment ago, that can begin with people observing how we live. They can watch and notice something different and want whatever it is that they think is different. But we cannot separate the voice from the action. If someone emulates exactly what another person does, they may learn (over time) to do it perfectly. But that will not lead to salvation, because it is only what is done (i.e., works). And Romans in general (and Romans 10, in particular) is clear that faith comes by hearing (v. 17), not by watching, and certainly not by doing (as Paul has repeatedly said). Furthermore, having someone watch might make them better at something, but it is belief (in the heart about the resurrection) and confession (through the mouth, that Jesus is Lord), by which we are saved (Romans 10.9-10). So, lifestyle evangelism is not enough. We must verbally proclaim the message of Christ.

Second, Paul’s words in Romans 11 do support the idea of perseverance. I do believe in the idea of “once saved, always saved.” I believe that idea is supported through the doctrine of adoption and the idea of becoming a child of God. But the idea of perseverance to the end is also scriptural. Thus, we can’t just walk an aisle, say a prayer, get dunked in some water, and believe that is good enough to spend eternity with Jesus. Those ideas may represent the ceremonial start of our time with Jesus, but just as a wedding does not make a marriage, neither does an “I do” to Jesus and a baptism make a follower of Christ. Again, I will say a bit more about this idea in Monday’s video.

Third, and finally, I want to talk about the misperception of the Gentile in today’s text. That misperception is similar to the misperception of the Jew that Paul has addressed previously. And it is a misperception that still exists today. That misperception is that of a zero-sum game.

I mentioned this idea at the beginning, but more deserves to be said, particularly related to this text. The Jews thought they were God’s chosen people. The Gentile Christians in Rome apparently thought that they had replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. Many Christians today often think of themselves as better than others (even other Christians) because they go to church, read their Bible, etc.

Each of those ideas may have some degree of truth in them. But the problem is that being chosen, or being better, does not mean that one group (or person) has won and another has lost. That is the nature of a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, some goal is defined, some rules are created, and the person, group, or team that accomplishes the goal first or better is the winner. Everyone else is a loser (at some level).

But with God, those who follow are all winners. Only those who choose not to follow are losers. The blessings of God (the riches of God, v. 12) are not meant exclusively for one person or group – they are meant for all of Creation, but are ultimately available for all who choose Him. But we often operate as if we believe that inviting someone else to participate, will cause us to lose our portion. In fact, Jesus taught the exact opposite was true (the parable of the sower for instance, with 30, 60, and 100 fold returns).

Furthermore, it is not a competition of one group over another. Notice that in Romans 11.17, Paul said that the Gentile was grafted in and SHARES in the nourishing root. The Gentile does not get the root to himself or herself. It is shared. And that sharing means by Jew and Gentile – at least the Jews and Gentiles who believe.

See, the better game, is the infinite game. An infinite game sees endless possibilities and wants to include everyone so that everyone can get better. An infinite game is not about winning and losing, it is about being ahead or behind, with a goal of helping everyone to get, or be, ahead. It is not giving in so someone else can win (that is still zero-sum, even with good intentions). Rather, an infinite game is about knowing that participation is a key to helping others get ahead so that everyone can benefit.

The infinite game does not bring about arrogance, because the goal is bigger than being victorious, it is about making everyone victorious in some way. The Jew had missed this. The Gentile was missing this now. We are missing this now.

Paul warned the Gentile before it was too late then. His warning can serve us as well today. Of course, when we are dealing with salvation, we are not playing a game. It is not only life and death – it is eternal life and eternal death. And so, we should definitely not want to look at ourselves as victorious with others experiencing defeat. We should desire to get everyone involved and engaged knowing Jesus, loving Jesus, following Jesus, and serving Jesus, so that we can all celebrate together – not just as victors now, but as children of God, with God, for all of eternity.


I began this message with a brief story about the small village of Le Chambon in France. That village and story may be foreign to you. However, it is a story of an infinite game. It was about sacrifice and service and showing what living in the Spirit really means. But another story is told that may be somewhat more familiar to you. That story is of a man named Oskar who worked to save approximately 1000 Jews by employing them in his factory. The man’s full name is Oskar Schindler, and the story is captured in the movie Schindler’s List.

What you might not know, however, is that Schindler was honored by the planting of a carob tree at Yad Vashem (where the Holocaust Museum is located in Israel.) Furthermore, Schindler is buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. What is fascinating about that last fact is that Schindler was a member of the Nazi party. As such, he is the only Nazi buried there.

The point is that people like Oskar Schindler and the people of Le Chambon did not think in terms of self-winning and self-losing (at least, not in the end). Rather, they saw people who were different and people who were in need and helped. Very specifically, these Gentiles (whether believers or not) helped Jews; they did not think of themselves as better than them (again, at least not in the end).

Likewise, we are to help others and help them to not only see the presence of Jesus in our lives, but to hear the message of Jesus from our mouths. Some who do this may be known (like Schindler), others will not be (like the people of Le Chambon), but we all have a responsibility to love and serve others, and particularly our fellow brothers and sisters in the church – even when they are not like us.

What’s Next?:  Who’s your one (plus one)?

(1) Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 683). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.