March 3 Homily: The Fruit-Filled Tree of Resurrected Wisdom

March 2, 2019 at 11:12 am | Posted in Catholicism | 5 Comments
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I am in the habit of going up to Benincasa, the splendid lay Catholic community on West 70th Street in Manhattan, for a liturgy on the first Sunday of each month. I love the people who live there–Jimmy, Sean and Karen–and the many others who join them for various events. People take turns preaching the sermon as part of the first Sunday liturgy, and it happens that I am giving the homily tomorrow, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. I am sharing it with you here. (Participants in the liturgy engage in a discussion after the sermon, hence the question at the end.)

Reading 1: Sirach: 27: 4-7

Reading II: 1 Cor. 15:54-5

Gospel: Lk 6:39-45.

So for the past five weeks, since the 4thSunday in Ordinary Time, we have been reading about Jesus’s ministry in Galilee, and about his recruitment and preparation of disciples to share in that ministry. And for the past two weeks, Jesus’s instruction of the disciples and of the others who have been following him has been quite inspiring. First we had Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, telling us not just that the poor in spirit are blessed, but that the poor themselves are. Then last week, we heard Luke 6, in which the disciples—and we—are urged to love our enemies. The great New Testament scholar Fred Craddock argues that the exhortation in the middle of that passage: “…love your enemies and do good to them…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” is the essence of the Christian Gospel.

Without some context, this week’s reading may seem a good bit less inspiring. Jesus is calling on the disciples, and us, not to think too highly of ourselves: don’t be a hypocrite, don’t criticize others when what you are doing is as bad or worse. If you lack discernment, the person you are leading is going to fall into a pit along with you.

Before becoming too discouraged by this, though, it’s helpful to bear in mind here that Jesus has his reasons for leaning harder on his disciples—and on us—than he has been doing. The end of his Galilean ministry is in sight and soon Jesus will be on his way to Jerusalem and the crucifixion. In the Gospel this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, he will continue to urge his disciples to avoid hypocrisy as he does here—pray and give alms in secret, not in order to receive praise. And next week, he will be leaning on himself to resist temptation as well, going into the desert for forty days to fast and pray.

But even now, it’s not all entirely discouraging, because at the end of this week’s Gospel Luke begins to talk about trees. Now admittedly his discussion of the trees is a bit more black and white than some of us may find entirely helpful: bad trees, bad fruit. And the crucifixion itself will take place on the wood of a tree in six weeks or so. But trees also produce good fruit, as Luke goes on to reminds us,

We actually already encountered this tree-based flash of hope in today’s first reading, taken from the Book of Sirach, —even before Jesus begins warning the disciples about hypocrisy in the Gospel reading. At first, this  earlier reading doesn’t seem a lot more encouraging, nothing more than a sort of prelude to the Gospel’s discourse about hypocrisy: just as  the refuse remains after a sieve is shaken, and what comes out of a person’s reasoning shows who she is, so the fruit of a tree —good or bad—discloses the kind of cultivation a tree has received.

But the Book of Sirach, sometimes called the Book of Ecclesiasticus, is, at least according to the Catholic Church, part of the Wisdom literature of the “Old Testament.” But the Jews don’t consider it part of their Scriptures, and most Protestant denominations don’t either. But Catholics do. And one real advantage to including Sirach in our Scriptures, and thus in the lectionary, is that it includes some theologically important, and beautiful, passages about Sophia, the female figure of Wisdom who vastly expands our vision of God. And one of the most powerful representations of Sophia/Wisdom in the Book of Sirach is Sophia as a tree.

So just after this passage in Sirach in which we encounter a fairly limited representation of a tree, one that only bears good fruit if it is cultivated properly, we hear of the glorious Sophia who has ”taken root in a privileged  people,…grown tall as a cedar on Lebanon, as tall as the rose bushes of Jericho…I have spread my branches like a terebinth…Approach me you who desire me and take your fill of my fruits.” (Sirach 24:1-14).The author of the Book of Sirach knows well that with Sophia much more is possible than sieves full of refuse or the bad fruit of bad trees or, for that matter, from hypocritical disciples.

Indeed, in a few weeks Luke’s Jesus himself will move on from his sermon to the disciples about good and bad fruit to a far less binarized parable, this one about the owner of an orchard who orders his gardener to cut down a fig tree because it has borne no fruit for three years. But the gardener convinces the owner to give the tree another year so he can cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.

And then just before the Last Supper, Luke’s Jesus tells us an even more inspiring  parable, in which, just as we know that summer is near when  we see the fig tree and every tree in bud, so when the disciples see the things happening that Jesus has been telling them about—signs in the sun and moon and stars, the clamor of the ocean and its waves, –we will know that the kingdom of God is near.

So when Luke goes on later, in Acts, to speak multiple times of Jesus who was slain and hung on a tree, he knows very well that there is more to expect from trees than death and fruitlessness. And so should we, as our Savior, the fruit of the tree of the crucifixion rises up before us on Easter morning.

Let me conclude with a question. At this time, when the dead wood of the cross seems to be everywhere:  with  the Trump administration demonizing our Latinx sisters and brothers and tearing their infants from the  breasts of their mothers; when that same administration, by abandoning crucial treaties, has moved the nuclear doomsday clock closer to midnight than it has been since 1953; and when the United States has withdrawn from global climate change agreements, thus moving us even closer to environmental catastrophe than we already were, what are we to do? What, for you, is the route from the dead wood of this cross to the fruit-filled tree of resurrected Wisdom?

 

 

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