Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
Last week we considered the need of God not just to tweak his ruptured world but to re-create it from scratch, but in this poem or parable from the prophet Ezekiel we see that in the meantime God is not above a bit of tweaking. This poem is about both the sovereignty of God, but also the continuation of the remnant of Israel after the time of exile which forms the backdrop for this oracle.
As humans we are very happy for God to act in what we would call ‘positive’ ways, but less so when things begin to go pear-shaped. Nowadays we have a Devil to blame for life’s disasters, but the fiercely monotheistic Jews were reluctant to allow anyone or anything apart from Yahweh any spiritual authority. Good and bad both came from the hand of God, and if his ways and purposes are inscrutable, we simply have to have faith that he knows what he is doing. He is perfectly entitled both to plant and prune, to make flourish and to make wither, to plant and to uproot. He is the one who reverses human fortunes by his mighty hand, bringing down rulers from their thrones, but lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich away empty, as Mary was later to sing. If my fortunes suddenly plummet, it might just be that I was a bit too rich, and a bit lacking in humility.
So Israel in exile had to accept by faith that what had happened to them was all somehow contained within God’s good purposes, just as we have to when life kicks us in the teeth. Believing that God’s will can contain our dark times is not, of course, the same as saying that they are directly his will for us: Christians do believe in evil, and, as we saw last week, in the consequences of sin. But this parable speaks also of God’s purposes beyond suffering. A nation which feels like a tree which has all but lost its life, rather like the Mediterranean cypress which I grew from seed but which doesn’t seem to like the Lincolnshire climate, can be encouraged by the thought that from the smallest cutting God is able to replant, and that in time new growth can result. A key word here, as any gardener will know, is the word ‘tender’ in v 22. The Hebrew rak means soft and pliable, both physically and of heart. It’s no good trying to replant woody stems, usually. Cuttings come from small and pliable sprigs, and it is the sadder but wiser nation which will be restored, just as the tough and rigid one had to be cut down and punished.
But the second motif, which probably guided our compilers to this somewhat obscure little passage, is that of the birds finding shelter, picked up in today’s gospel. It is the universality of bird-life which is striking here (‘birds of every kind’ v 23): in Mark 4 the point is the size of the tree growing from such a tiny seed, but Ezekiel may have a different purpose, reminding Israel once again of her vocation, which goes back to Abraham, to be blessed and to be a blessing. In God’s kingdom there is room for all; among God’s people there is a mission to all. Re-creation will happen, but the more people ready for it, the better.
Image: “Cedar Tree (7853418286)” by Smabs Sputzer from Stockport, UK – Cedar TreeUploaded by Kurpfalzbilder.de. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org