The Tree in its Vigor

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent: Jeremiah 11:18-20, John 7:40-53.

Today we observe two men of God in their prime: the prophet Jeremiah and Jesus Christ. As strong as they are in their relationship with the Father, they are besieged by the evil that walks among humanity. Despite being the living embodiment of God’s Truth, the peoples’ response was, “Let us destroy the tree in its vigor.” We should certainly take note of this historic violence against God’s anointed ones, not because we fear to repeat it (after all, Jesus is the final prophet), but because it presents us with a perspective on God’s chosen way to operate in humanity. This perspective, coupled with the Christ Event in its fullness, should prompt us to quicken our steps to the Lord, keep our lamps trimmed and burning, for the Lord will come like a thief in the night and we must be upright and ready. The reality is that we live the Last Times, the final age before the Judgment, and if we do not pay attention to all that has been given to us (scriptural revelation and the gift of Christ Himself), then we are dooming ourselves as surely as the chief priests and Pharisees who conspired against Christ.

Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem (Jeremia op de puinhopen van Jeruzalem), 1844, Horace Vernet | Wikimedia Commons.

Jeremiah is as simple yet as troubled a soul as there can be. Simple in that he is the model of fidelity to the Lord, doing his will without question and delivering difficult prophecies without sugar-coating them. There is no guile, no politicking. Yet he is troubled in every other way. He concisely shares his state of affairs in today’s reading: “Yet I, like a trusting lamb led to slaughter, had not realized that they were hatching plots against me.” People mock him, imprison him, beat him, conspire against him, and he is emotionally ripped up because he sees what lies in store for Judah and mourns their intractable defiance of the Lord. No one listens during his entire ministry and indeed the nation is destroyed as the Babylonian Exile begins.

Jeremiah gives us a look into the evil hearts of his enemies: “Let us destroy the tree in its vigor; let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will be spoken no more.” I note two things about this. First, there is a reaction against his strength in the Lord — they recognize that he is at the top of his prophetic game, a “tree in its vigor.” This is the reaction of the prince of this world to the presence of holiness. Second, this reaction is so forceful that it seeks the utter destruction of the prophet. It is not enough to kill him, but to ensure that “his name will be spoken no more.” They want to not only destroy the man but the divine truth that he has brought into the world. This erasure enables the devil to work without opposition. Satan preys on our base instincts and works through us to destroy truth and beauty.

But we cannot be sucked into dualism, a worldview that pits good forces against equivalent evil forces like a version of Star Wars. That is a heretical teaching that the Church has stamped out many times in her history. This is why the lectionary includes the final verse of today’s first reading: “But, you, O LORD of hosts, O just Judge, searcher of mind and heart, Let me witness the vengeance you take on them, for to you I have entrusted my cause!” This is not just a message that good will win out in the end. What it shows us is that Jeremiah has been blessed with a tiny glimpse of the divine intelligence, enough to show him that God has a great plan for humanity in which his lifetime is just a fraction of a breath. He knows that there will be a “vengeance” against evil at some point and he is asking to witness it. I don’t think this has been included just to make Jeremiah look like a vengeful guy, with evil in his own heart. No, that’s completely inconsistent with who we know Jeremiah to be. Enraptured in the divine vision, he longs to see full justice restored for humanity — this is the Kingdom of God — and he wants to be present for it (which he will, indeed, after Jesus resurrects). But God’s plan is that evil is allowed to act upon humanity in Jeremiah’s age. He could stop it, but He doesn’t. Why? This is the great question that so consumes people bothered by suffering in the world. Why are we left to be vulnerable to evil?

There is something greater going on. Let’s remember that God asks nothing of us that He does not also ask of His Son.

Looking at today’s gospel reading, Jesus experiences much more success in planting Truth and the Word in the world (of course!) — He converts countless people to Himself, and in today’s reading we hear several proclaim that He is “the Christ.” But perhaps the greatest mystery (and point of beauty) in God’s plan is how delicately He enters into humanity, allowing for personal sovereignty of will rather than eradicating all evil and opposition in a forceful application of the divine will. So, the great drama of our God’s self-willed vulnerability unfolds. The conspiracy of those supposed to be His greatest defenders, the upholders of divine law, is shown in its awfulness.

What is so interesting here is that we do witness a type of scriptural/religious tyranny, but on the side of the Jews. This is a great contrast to our Lord’s refusal to be a divine tyrant. The Jews have painted themselves into a corner: “The Christ will not come from Galilee, will he?” They have fetishized scriptural accounts and their huge corpus of rabbinic teaching to such an extent that rather than being open to the Lord in the world, they have narrowed and perverted their expectations. This is what I mean by a religious tyranny, where it is not God speaking to them, but their manmade understanding of religious teaching that looms over them and determines their reactions to Truth in their midst. They are specific: “Does not Scripture say that the Christ will be of David’s family and come from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” And it is worth noting that so much of the Jewish tradition at that point was concerned with restrictions — what you cannot touch, cannot eat, cannot say, cannot do. By living only in the restrictions and not in the life-giving love that God calls them to, they lose their autonomy to respond to Truth in their midst. 

Annas and Caiaphas (Anne et Caïphe), 1886-1894, James Tissot | Creative Commons, courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

The result? We are told, “So a division occurred in the crowd because of him.” God is allowing us the space to see for ourselves, to contrast the freedom of belief in the Truth with the constriction of fetishizing the trappings of truth. God is creating for us the opportunity to make a choice of our own free will, to decide to come to Him or, alternatively, reject Him. 

When the guards return empty-handed to the chief priests and scribes, they are mocked: “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed.” Note how the leaders of the religious tyranny operate in darkness, in mockery and deceit. They show their narrow-minded clutching at scraps of prophecy by saying the crowd does not know the law. How ironic, since Jesus tells us He is the very fulfillment of the law! At stake here is the true meaning of “knowing.” The priests and scribes have filled themselves with book knowledge and the grammar of  restrictions, which they wield like weapons of power. But God presents Himself to us so that we can know Him as a person, and this knowledge is used as a salve for humanity. The “knowing” God is calling us to is always completely wrapped up in the personhood of Him and the personhood of humans. He takes the form of a human to show us that when we open ourselves to Him, we are also opening ourselves to each other. Godliness is absolute openness to knowing each other fully, not judging, not forcing our will or the other’s, but knowing and accepting. When this “knowing” is joined with loving, then we are on our way to the Kingdom.

Nicodemus, who came timidly to Jesus at night to get to know Him better, is the one Pharisee who is on the Way. He slows the Pharisees’ frenzy by challenging them to adhere to the spirit of the law — to not condemn before hearing someone first. Having started his own journey of knowing, he brings both truth and humanity back to the scene of these circling sharks. They spit a mocking comment at him before we hear the end of the episode: “Then each went to his own house.” How fitting that these men filled with worldly knowledge and power plays disperse, alone. They do not “know” God or humanity, which draws us together, not apart.

Today, we encounter a contrast of visions. First is the worldly vision of the religious leaders who wield their knowledge as weapons to divide humanity. Second is God’s plan for humanity as revealed through His “trees in their vigor,” marked by gentleness and a personal knowing that heals and unites. The worldly vision is all-too-familiar; we see it in force to this day in our governments, businesses, and even families. The second has also been laid out for us to see plainly. We’ve had access to this amazing perspective on God’s personhood and plan for 2,000 years. We have no excuse, we cannot plead ignorance, and we cannot expect that God has more to reveal and more prophets to send. The Church has always insisted that we are living in the End Times, the last period before Christ will return for the Final Judgment. This Lent, let’s all realize that the time is now, there is no other. 

Head of Christ (c.1648), Rembrandt | Wikimedia Commons.

I want to finish with a reminder of why everyone was a-buzz in today’s gospel reading. In the verses just prior to our reading, we learn that it is “last day of the festival, the great day,” which is known as Hoshana Rabbah. This is the last “day of judgment” in the Jewish calendar when they process around the temple seven times and have a great temple service, imploring the Lord for a bountiful year ahead. On this last day of Hoshana Rabbah, the priest makes a great show of the water libation as an appeal to God to provide water for the people in the year ahead. It is at this time that Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:37-38).

No wonder the crowd is amazed! Jesus, as if in answer to the priest’s prayer, tells the people to come to him for living water. He is establishing that He has God’s power of restoration for the people. The Jews must make a decision: will they accept and follow the Messiah in their midst or reject Him? 

Will you?

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