This week’s blog briefly explores the image of a ‘tree’ in the lectionary Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 17.22-24), Psalm (Psalm 92.1-4, 12-15) and Gospel (Mark 4.26-34), and links it to the metaphor of ‘new creation’ in the Epistle, 2 Corinthians 5.6-10.
Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
The grove of Cedars of Lebanon, near Bcharre, north Lebanon, surrounded by the wall built to protect them at the instructions of Queen Victoria.
There’s a much loved Jewish story about trees that is worth sharing:
One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, ‘How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?’
The man replied, Seventy years.’
Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
Trees have an important role to play in the biblical story. They are there at its beginning and at its end. Along with other plants trees are the first living things created in Genesis 1 (verse 11); then of course the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil play a prominent role in Genesis 2 and 3. And the tree of life appears once again in the glorious final chapter of Scripture, ‘with the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations’ (Revelation 22.2)
The title for this week is taken from a wonderfully evocative verse in the Book of Job:
‘There is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease’ (Job 14.7). I am reminded of that when I look at a very small olive tree planted in a pot in our garden. We bought it about a decade ago – some years back we thought it had perished during a cold Dorset winter, but then, almost like a miracle earlier this year it started to bud and sprout again.
Our olive tree come to life again.
The words from Job in turn act as the title of a fascinating book I came upon a number of years ago by Kirsten Nielsen, which explores the tree as a metaphor for the people of God in the Book of Isaiah. It is a rich image which holds together the different sections of the book, and speaks into the relationship between God and the people. The ‘blindness’ of the people means that the tree is cut down – yet even so ‘the holy seed is its stump’ (Isaiah 6.13). And so then we discover that ‘a shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’, (Isaiah 11.1) and the metaphor winds its way through the rest of the book until we are promised in Isaiah 61.3 that the people will be named ‘oaks of righteousness’ and in Isaiah 65.22 ‘like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be’
Trees are the images that connect this week’s Gospel with the set Old Testament reading from Ezekiel, and in fact also with the Psalm. Although Mark 4.30-32 speaks of a mustard seed bush and Ezekiel (and the Psalm) of ‘cedars’ – the passages are linked by the way both Mark and Ezekiel speak of how ‘the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’.
The comment reminds us of the importance of trees as gift – gifts that benefit others. Not only of course the birds who find shade there but, as we are increasingly realising in our contemporary world the wellbeing of all of creation. It has recently been suggested that tree planting on a really large scale could be very beneficial in terms of combatting global warming. That may indeed be the case. I appreciate the fact that Jewish tradition allots a particular day ‘ Tu B’shevat (late January or early February) on which it is considered a duty to plant trees. It would be interesting to develop a comparable ‘tree planting’ day for Christians, indeed I suspect some churches have already done so. Trees, in fact, take us to the heart of the Christian message – in more ways than one.
For, to return to the story with which we began, trees help to remind us that we ourselves are not the centre of creation. We are called to plant trees, not for our own personal benefit, but for the wellbeing of future generations. I remember Rowan Williams suggesting years ago that one vital reason for ecological commitment on the part of Christians is because we have a duty towards the welfare of future members of the Body of Christ. In taking actions that will not benefit ourselves personally we are indeed witnessing to the vision of ‘a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5.17) which is characterized by generosity and love.
Fred Kaan’s imaginative hymn ‘Were the world to end tomorrow’ catches something of this. Its final verse offers quite a stark challenge:
Pray that at the end of living,
of philosophies and creeds,
God will find the people busy
planting trees and sowing seeds.
Of course there is another reason why trees are an appropriate metaphor for ‘new creation’. For it is deeply embedded within Christian tradition, theology, music and poetry, to draw a link between trees and the life, ministry and especially the death of Jesus Christ. ‘The tree of shame was made the tree of glory and where life was lost there life has been restored.’ There are a number of exquisitely beautiful songs that reference this image: one of them – ‘Jesus Christ the apple tree’ Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree — Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge – YouTube is quite well known and part of the Anglican choral tradition. However less familiar to many Anglicans is the stunning hymn by Erik Routley – one of my predecessors on the staff of the World Council of Churches, which begins with the verse,
There in God’s garden stands the Tree of wisdom,
whose leaves hold forth the healing of the nations.
Tree of all knowledge, Tree of all compassion,
Tree of all beauty.