Tree of Life

Pentecost 3
First reading: 1 Sam. 15:34-16:13; Ps. 20
Alternate: Ez. 17:22-24; Ps. 92:1-4, 11-14
2 Cor. 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 • Mark 4:26-34

In his parables of the kingdom, Jesus speaks with striking audacity. In the eyes of the world, he is a barely tested young rabbi, hardly known outside his native region. He has only a few followers. Most authorities who have encountered him are full of questions and condemnation.

And yet Jesus is certain of the great miracle at work in this kingdom God is founding through him. The seed is scattered and the harvest surely will come. It grows up, “he knows not how,” but the final vindication is certain. His kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed that grows, surely, into the greatest of shrubs, the birds of all nations flocking to nest in its branches.

Jesus’ words recall Ezekiel’s prophecy of the tiny seedling planted on the “mountain height of Israel.” In a day when the mighty trees come crashing down, God would begin anew. One tender twig would be plucked from the cedar’s top, and God would make it glorious. Israel would become a shelter for the birds of all nations. The whole world would come to share in her covenant, to worship her God. The people may be in exile, the temple in ruins, Jerusalem an abandoned heap. But God is not finished yet: “I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.”

These prophecies are botanical balderdash, at least on the surface. Cedars of Lebanon do not grow from cuttings, and a mustard seed, even in the best of seasons, does not become much more than an overgrown bush. Jesus and Ezekiel are really talking about another tree, the Tree of Life at the center of the garden, whose fruit is sweet with the power of immortality. It is the first tree, and the final one; and all God’s lavish grace is, in one sense, distilled from its abundant fruit.

The psalmist is delivered from his enemies, and he traces God’s grace sustaining his life. The righteous ones, who rely on God’s power, have a promised share in his triumph. “They flourish like the palm tree,” he says, “and grow like a cedar of Lebanon.” He does not just feed from God’s tree, but in a sense he becomes God’s tree.

The mustard seed, too, is not just a sign of the kingdom but an image of its King. The Fathers made much of Jesus’ particular choice of the mustard seed. Not only is it tiny, but pungent. When bruised, it releases its powerful smell. When Jesus is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. He will become the tree of life, raising up his own with him to glory.

We have nested in his tree. Our life comes from its branches. And because he has triumphed, the tree will surely flourish. St. Augustine, not above the occasional mixed metaphor, sings the praises of this tree, rooted in heaven, and spreading across the earth. “Our root is upward. For our root is Christ, who hath ascended into heaven. Humbled, he shall be exalted” and “he shall spread abroad like a cedar in Libanus.”

Look It Up
Read 2 Cor. 5:6-8 and Ps. 84. Why is our home in the tree?

Think About It
We hear Christ’s audacious promises as part of a church in severe decline. What is promised to us and what is not?


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