When God creates all things good for human beings, a specific tree is mentioned: the Tree of Life (Gen 2. 9). It is put in the middle of the Garden of Eden: this garden planted by God (Gen 2. 8).
At the pivot point in the history of humanity is the Tree of the Cross, the life-giving tree.
History comes to an end as the Tree of Life is again mentioned. At the very end of time, it flourishes, perhaps as a group of trees, on both sides of the River of the Water of Life which flows from the Throne of God (Rev 22. 1 – 3). This is in the Holy City of the New Creation.
All through the Bible there is mention of trees and they are often used in familiar stories and events, in poetry and prophesy. They play a part in the story of redemption. In this set of reflections various aspects of trees (some admittedly fairly tenuous) will be examined. Hopefully this will lead to further thought or investigation on the part of the reader.
In general a chronological or historical approach will be used but some freedom and flexibility may also be applied if deemed appropriate or expedient.
This theme has been chosen to take us through the Trinity season because the liturgical colour for this season is green, evoking thoughts of new life, flourishing and hope.
‘My beloved had a vineyard’ [Isa 5. 1]
While not technically a tree, the vine may usefully be considered in this set of reflections. On the north side of St George’s the window opposite the main entrance (near the seventh Station of the Cross) features a vine winding its way up from the bottom and climbing right to the top. This window describes the ministry of Jesus.
Israel is often described as a vine: ‘a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit’ [Hos 10. 1], which God ‘brought out … of Egypt’ [Ps 80. 8] to grow and flourish. God planted this vine ‘from the purest stock’ [Jer 2. 21] but it did not always produce good fruit. Those who did follow the way of the commandments God gathered ‘as a vine the remnant of Israel’ [Jer 6. 9].
The vine and the fig tree were associated with a time of peace: during the reign of Solomon each person sat under his vine and fig tree [1 Kings 4. 25]. Prophesies of the end times also used this motif: ‘they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid’ [Mic 4. 4]. Community was also expressed: ‘On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree’ [Zech 3. 10].
A lack of fruitfulness indicates a time of human perversity. The people fail to follow the commandments: ‘Your children have forsaken me, and have sworn by those who are no gods’ [Jer 5. 7]. God’s judgement follows this kind of behaviour: ‘I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard … I will make it a waste … surely many houses will be desolate…’ [Isa 5. 1 – 10].
As we have already seen (Broom, 10), King Ahab and his wife Jezebel caused problems for Elijah but others were victimised by him as well. Naboth had a vineyard near king Ahab’s palace. Ahab decided that it would be a good place for a vegetable garden but, as Naboth pointed out, this land was his ancestral inheritance and so he was not willing to give it up. Jezebel could see that Ahab was miserable because he could not get what he wanted so she paid two villains to denounce Naboth, saying that he had cursed the king. The punishment for this was death by stoning: Naboth was stoned to death. When Ahab learned that Naboth was dead he seized the land.
Following this incident Elijah was sent by God to prophesy against Ahab. Elijah told Ahab what God’s punishment for his and Jezebel’s behaviour would be: ‘the dogs will also lick up your blood’ [1 Kings 21. 19, 23]. Then Ahab ‘tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh’ [1 Kings 21. 27]. Because he humbled himself God rescinded the punishment on Ahab but disaster was still to come to his descendants.
The idea of the vineyard portraying Israel in Isaiah [Isa 5. 1 – 10] is taken up by Jesus as he tells a parable. A landowner had a vineyard which he leased to tenants but these tenants refused to hand over his share of the produce. The owner sends some servants to collect but they are killed and so he sends more who are also killed. The owner reasons that the tenants will respect his son but they do not and they kill him as well. The landowner decided that he will have to put to death the tenants and find new tenants who will give him the harvest he is due [Mat 21. 33 – 41; Mark 12. 1 – 9; Luke 20. 9 – 18]. Those who heard the parable realised that Jesus was talking about them as the tenants so they kept a close watch on Jesus and tried to trap him.
Speaking of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus describes the situation of a landowner who hires labourers from early morning to late in the day to work in his vineyard. At the end of the day, the land owner pays the same wage to each of the workers regardless of when they started. Jesus makes the point that whenever a person decides to turn to God, that person may enter the Kingdom. He explains that people should not be envious because God is generous [Matt 20. 15]. This parable may also be related to the story of Jonah and the shady bush (11).
In both the parables Jesus’ message is ‘my Father is the vine-grower’ [John 15. 1]. Israel has until now been described as a vine but Jesus is the true vine [John 15. 1] and he explains how abiding in him makes a person a branch. Good branches bear fruit because they are connected into the vine and they abide in Jesus’ love.
Risen Lord, you are the true vine
and we are the branches.
By your Spirit, produce the fruit of love, joy, peace,
and patience in us for others to taste and enjoy.
Prune all selfishness from us
and fill us with your love.