Preached at Benincasa.
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 4 th Sunday 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. At first, the reading doesn’t seem a lot more encouraging, nothing
more than a sort of a 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.”
I say this this way because the Jews don’t consider it part of their Scriptures, and most
Protestant denominations don’t either. But we 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
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,” she tells us. “Approach me you
who desire me and take your fill of my fruits.” 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, of hypocritical disciples. And of course, we also encounter
another such a beautiful tree in Psalm 92 which we read today, the Psalms being
another book in the Wisdom literature.
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 black and white 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 him 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?