SMC – 3rd March 2019
When I was at primary school we had a couple of big willow trees in the field within the school grounds. It was a huge attraction for us as children, where we were able to run inside and feel utterly invisible, as if into a magical world. It was also great for making things with: we would make baskets and and jewellery and a whole mini-market would appear in the summer with willow products, made by us and bartered among us children.
A couple of weeks ago we had the image from Jeremiah 17 of the tree with great roots thrusting out towards a stream where it would find food and nutrition and this being an image of those who trust God, never ceasing to bear fruit. We see this image once again in our Psalm, “the just will flourish like a palm tree and grow like a Lebanon cedar.” I just want to reflect on what this might teach us about our own discipleship.
The pairing of these two trees together, the date palm tree and the cedar, is an indicator of how reliable the person who is just will be. Both these trees are evergreen, the palm tree made to survive in dry conditions, the cedar big enough to withstand a storm. So there will also be with us a dependability: “let your yes mean yes,” Jesus says (Matthew 5:37); we shouldn’t have to say, ‘I promise,’ so as to be believed because it should be evident that we mean what we say. We are not to be tempest-tossed and knocked off our commitments whenever some trouble will come.
As well as being solid, the date palm tree so often referred to in Scripture was incredibly useful, the wood used to make boats, the leaves made sails on boats, the date fruit being made into honey, smaller sticks were made into baskets. It was a bit like all the different uses we had for the willow tree at my primary school. Every bit had a part to play, reminding us of the image St Paul has of the Church being the Body of Christ. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose … The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’ … The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (I Corinthians 12:18-22). Don’t write off any member of our church, don’t write off any member of Christ’s church throughout the world, don’t write off anything that looks insignificant in your own life. The Church is to use all whom God has placed in our community, just like that foundational miracle of the Church, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, where what was left over after feeding so many was not discarded but kept, twelve basket fulls (Matthew 14:13-21). Do not think, my friends, you have nothing to offer and remember that those minutes you do offer to God all build up to a glorious edifice of praise and worship.
One of the things these palm trees produced was honey and sometimes when the Bible speaks about honey, it is not about honey from bees but from the dates of these palm trees, a sort of date paste, I’m sure available at many a local shop. Almost certainly this was what was referred to when the people of God were promised “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). This was the hope held out before God’s people enslaved in Egypt and who were to cross through the Red Sea to freedom. The land was to be richer and more fruitful. At one point, Moses and Aaron sent out spies to look at this promised land, the land of Canaan, and they report that it does indeed flow with plenteousness and they bring back fruit to show it (Numbers 13).
How do we then testify to this generosity of God? Honey is sweet to the lips, indeed the psalmist speaks of honey and declares, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to me mouth,” (Psalm 119:103) probably referring to bee honey in this instance. But nonetheless we can still ask ourselves as we consider the great land God provided to the Israelites of old, a land flowing with milk and honey, we might ask ourselves what our land flows with at the moment? Maybe health, maybe loved ones, maybe a steady job, maybe a great prayer life, the chance to be at Mass more often, the grace of absolution from the confessional, something achieved, a catastrophe avoided. If not milk and honey, what has God in His infinite goodness filled your land with? And who have you told that you know it is plentiful because of God’s graciousness? When have your lips been sweet with singing His praises for all He has done?
We don’t know which tree our Lord had in mind when He used the analogy of the splinter and plank in our Gospel today: “Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own?” There’s a very good practical reason we shouldn’t judge each other, and that’s because we can never really see sufficiently so as to be able to make an informed decision. Our Blessed Saviour here surely uses humour to try to convey this point. Imagine the most critical person you can imagine, in your family or work or on the TV, and now think of them nagging or tutting at someone, and now remember they have a huge plank in their eye - it’s slightly comical. They can’t even see the person they’re blaming! Make sure it’s never true of you. For yes, one of the points of the analogy of our Lord is that we all have a splinter in our eyes, we have all sinned, we are all impaired in our ability and in the rightness of our judging anyone. Remember, the parable of the sinner and the publican (Luke 18:9-14)! There it is the sinner who, publicly and simply, without excuses or self-justification, says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” - he is the one who goes home knowing he has a place in the kingdom of Heaven. He’s living knowing he’s got the splinter in his eye.
So, the palm tree was multi-purpose like all of our talents offered within the Church; and it produced a sweetness that was a sign of God’s bountiful kindness to His people. The plank of today’s Gospel reminds us to be honest and open about our sinfulness. Well, what of the cedar tree? Its strength was famous and so its significant contribution to the life of the people of God was Solomon’s use of it to build the Temple some thousand years before the Birth of Christ (I Kings 5:6-10, 6:9-20). This was part of the joint operation between King Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre, who sent the cedar wood from Lebanon down to Jerusalem. Not only was it strong but it could be carved into decorations which adorned the Temple. What better tree could be analogy for the just man, the just woman, who is planted in the house of the Lord?
Lent is a time for a renewal of our spiritual strength. And as we arrive in Lent on Wednesday, we will then have only one tree before our eyes. St Peter in writing to the whole Church exhorts them to be mindful that Christ suffered for them: “He Himself bore our sins in His own Body on the tree” (I Peter 2:22). Jesus suffered for us. His tree of the Cross is what we are to keep before our eyes. On Wednesday we gather at one of the four Masses, at 7.30am, 9.30am, 7.30pm here or at 5pm at the Good Shepherd, and we have marked on our foreheads burnt tree, burnt palm cross, and the priest says to us that which God said to Adam, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Know what your Lenten observances will be that the Cross of our Saviour might be more visible in your life, its shame and pain and life.