In our gospel lesson today, Jesus once again – as is so often his custom – draws on natural imagery to illustrate spiritual truth. Here he contrasts “good trees,” those which naturally produce figs and grapes, with “bad trees,” those which naturally produce thorns and brambles. A “bad tree” cannot produce good fruit; good fruit only comes from “good trees.” Similarly, Jesus says, one whose heart is good will naturally and without effort produce good fruit, while one whose heart is evil will naturally produce evil fruit. The point seems obvious. The metaphor is clear.
But there are two things to note: First, there is a difference between trees and people: A “bad tree” cannot stop producing thorns and brambles and suddenly begin producing good fruit. Because of the type of tree it is, it is incapable of bearing fruit; it can only bear thorns and brambles. But that is not the case with people. A person with an evil heart can be transformed into one whose heart is good. That’s a key difference. Someone whose life is oriented towards evil rather than towards God can change! The gospel is all about repentance, forgiveness, conversion of life, and reconciliation. Sinners can become saints – and they do!
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus offers us a stern warning regarding anger and the desire for retribution. He also offers us a corrective for that anger: to make peace with the one who has wronged us, or who we have wronged. The good news for us is that Jesus understands how limited we are, which is why in the Gospel lesson today we don’t hear him say that we will never fight with our neighbors or have disputes; but, he offers the way out. One of the great tragedies of being angry at our brothers and sisters is that there is a lot that we should be angry about in the world: we need to channel that righteous anger where it belongs, not project it onto our friends and loved ones.
Jesus’ warning that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” is very important here. The Pharisees and scribes are typically referred to by Jesus as being poor stewards of the kingdom of heaven, failing in their understanding of how they were meant to minister to the people of God. They had, in short, a limited and almost legalistic understanding of the sacred laws of God, in which the sacred covenant with God was more transactional than transformative. The words this morning from the prophet Ezekiel, seen in this light, are profoundly instructive for us today. The book of Ezekiel is deeply concerned with the people of Israel failing to live up to their covenantal relationship with God. As the chosen people of God, Ezekiel warned, like all the prophets before and after him, that the people would continue to suffer if they didn’t amend their ways and become true emissaries of the living God.
I know this is not a fair question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Had I asked you five minutes ago, to tell me the story of the birth of Jesus, my hunch is it would have gone something like this:
One day an angel appeared to a young girl and told her she with be the mother of God’s son, even though she was not yet married. Before her marriage, she and her fiancé travelled to the town where his family came from. Because there were so many people in town at the time, the only place available for them to stay was the stable at one of the local inns. It is there, she gave birth to her baby boy, whom they named Jesus. After the birth of the baby, some shepherds found them, and told them they had been instructed by some angels to look for the baby.
You get the picture.
The story of the birth of Jesus that is imprinted on our minds and in our hearts, is the story that Luke tells us. That’s the story of carols and hymns, stained glass windows, great works of art, and countless Christmas cards. That’s the story we think of when we think of Christmas. That’s the story we will hear in a few days’ time.
Hosea 10:1-3, 12
There is a new fence going up. So far it is just the posts. They are taller and more robust. The perimeter expands further, and—fittingly—it is beautiful. There is a new fence going up at the Monks’ Garden at Emery House. Everything grown there is given away. The first beets were just harvested; 100 pounds will be distributed this week at the Newbury Food Pantry.[i]
The garden is in partnership with Nourishing the North Shore. We provide the land and water. They grow, harvest, and distribute. We also host land for the Organic Community Garden. We Brothers share in Nourishing the North Shore’s mission: “to ensure equal access to healthy, local food to all members of the North Shore communities in a manner that builds community, fosters connection, and promotes dignity and self-reliance.”[ii] Food justice is expanding step by step in further work with local schools and with a bigger garden: mission in action.
A bigger garden could be used for exclusion and greed, to horde and squander. In today’s text, the prophet Hosea shows bad and good images. God’s people were like “a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” With more fruit, they built monuments to idols, like self-praise, ignoring God. “Their heart is false … The Lord will break down their altars, and destroy their pillars.”
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
The green vestments and altar frontal indicate that we have moved into what the Church calls “ordinary time.” But in spite of the change of color, we haven’t left the season of Epiphany completely behind. This is the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany and in just two weeks, we will conclude the season of Epiphany with the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration, in which the disciples see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ when they are with him on the mountain. So the theme of Epiphany – the revelation of the Divine Nature in the person of Jesus – is still present in our appointed readings for today.
Why, then, do we have this sober passage on fasting from the book of Isaiah? What does this passage on social justice have to do with Epiphany?
If we take a closer look at this passage and its context, we may begin to understand the connection between social justice and the revelation of the Glory of God.
Over time, the majority of biblical scholars have come to recognize in the book of Isaiah three distinct parts, which some have conveniently labeled “First Isaiah” (referring to chapters 1-39), “Second Isaiah” (consisting of chapters 40-55) and “Third Isaiah” (chapters 56-66). “First Isaiah” is sometimes referred to as the “real” Isaiah because it is grounded in the age in which the prophet actually lived. “Second” and “Third Isaiah” describe later periods and, scholars tell us, have been added to the original text. “Second Isaiah” is written during the time of Israel’s captivity and describes the vision of the New Israel which God was to establish after the return of the people from their exile in Babylon. “Third Isaiah” – from which today’s reading is taken – reveals that this glorious vision did not materialize as anticipated, and expresses the disappointment of God’s people. God had delivered them from their captivity in Babylon, but Israel had not been restored to its former glory, as had been expected. They were back home, but their home was in shambles. To adopt the campaign slogan of a certain U.S. President, how could they make Israel great again?
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’