Monday, June 18, 2012

Planting trees

The historical context for this morning’s reading from Ezekiel (17:22-24) is the alliance that Judah’s King Zedekiah formed with Egypt at the beginning of the sixth century BCE preparatory to revolting against his Babylonian overlords. The alliance fizzled when Egypt proved undependable. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, then exacted a heavy vengeance upon rebellious Judah. His army sacked Jerusalem in 587; he killed Zedekiah’s sons, blinded him, and then deported him, along with Judah’s leading citizens and their families, to Babylon.

The prophet Ezekiel was very unpopular in Judah. Perhaps King Zedekiah and his supporters even regarded Ezekiel as a traitor. Ezekiel repeatedly declared that God opposed Judah’s Egyptian alliance and would use Babylon to punish Judah. Judah should rely on God, not foreign alliances, for its security. Preaching and politics, as much as some hearers and preachers might dislike it, have been and remain inextricably linked. Furthermore, contrary to what advocates of positive thinking, possibility thinking, and the prosperity gospel claim, the word of the Lord does not always sound like good news to its hearers.

Incidentally, scholars debate whether this morning’s first lesson pre- or post-dates Judah’s Babylonian captivity, a helpful reminder that material in over half of the books of the Bible has a thematic rather than chronological arrangement.[1]

Thankfully, today’s reading from Ezekiel announces good news. God will bring Judah back to Palestine from exile, restore the Jewish kingdom, and reestablish the temple. The image of a cedar planted on high with birds nesting in its branches – Mount Zion, the site of the temple in Jerusalem – symbolizes this restoration, which the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle.

We rightly read Ezekiel as history. God fulfilled Ezekiel’s message of hope. But we can beneficially hear two fresh, unfulfilled words from God in this text.

First, from a vantage point more than two and a half millennia distant from Ezekiel, we can hear the good news that God intends to restore all creation, not just Israel. Ezekiel, along with the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, was instrumental in broadening Israel’s concept of God from being Abraham’s God to being the God of all people and nations. We continue moving on that same trajectory toward a rigorous, all-inclusive monotheism when we emphasize God's equal concern for the whole of creation, not just one nation or one species.

Although Ezekiel, Zedekiah, and the rest of sixth century BCE Judah probably did not realize it, the kingdom of Judah suffered from environmental devastation that adversely affected their quality of life. Archaeologists, historians, and scientists agree that the land God promised to Israel, a land purportedly flowing with milk and honey, subsequently suffered from severe deforestation as its population increased. Demand for firewood and building supplies caused this deforestation. Deforestation, in turn, caused soil erosion, made the land less able to hold moisture and therefore more arid and less productive, and altered the local climate.[2] The modern nation of Israel has produced an agricultural miracle in part by planting more than 240 million trees to reverse the deforestation.[3]

Ezekiel’s message is a poignant declaration of hope for our fragile island home. Working cooperatively with God, we can reverse ecological damage and restore the earth to health. This is God's plan, God's desire.

Second, Christians have long heard in Ezekiel’s words a precursor to Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32); some commentators on Mark’s gospel even suggest that Jesus taught his parable with Ezekiel’s words in mind. In an era before canning and refrigeration, food was not always as fresh as we expect. Because most people lived a subsistence existence, food, especially meat, was too precious to discard because of a little mold or rot. Salt was very expensive. Mustard, however, was affordable in first century Palestine. Its strong flavor and pungent odor could mask a variety of problems.

Mustard trees were native to that area; a fully-grown mustard tree that began as a seed the size of a pinhead could grow extend its branches over an adult on horseback and produce as many as half a million seeds. Furthermore, Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed points to an unstoppable contagion that commentators generally ignore. Once introduced into a garden, mustard, particularly wild mustard, easily dominates, quickly overrunning everything else.[4]

Too often Christians spiritualize the parable of the mustard seed, identifying God's Kingdom with a future reality not located on this earth. Yet Jesus and his early followers clearly expected God's Kingdom to develop in this world. The Kingdom is breaking into the present, right here.

A small action – using compact florescent lights instead of incandescent bulbs, switching to reusable cloth shopping bags from disposable paper or plastic, walking rather than driving, and so forth – may be the seed that grows into a tree that changes the world. Some of these seeds have already begun to sprout, including Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, the work of Interfaith Power and Light, the 2011 House of Bishops Pastoral Teaching on the Environment, and Nativity’s own Environmental Stewardship Ministry.
What seed are you planting?

[1] Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), p. 324.
[2] R.B.Y. Scott, “Palestine, Climate of,” Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), Vol. 3, pp. 621-626. W.L. Reed, “Forest,” Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), Vol. 2, p. 314.
[3] Jewish National Fund website, “Forest and Ecology,” accessed June 13, 2012 at
[4] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 65.

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