Nature in the Bible and the Saving of the Lost Sheep
3 November 2019
Readings: 2 Thessalonians ch.1, Luke 19 1-10
Ros Miskin, Reader
Recently I watched a television programme about children who were evacuated from town to countryside during the second War. Some of them were found places at a school run by the Quakers called the Yelland School. Observing the expressions of the pupils happily engaged in a variety of activities in the school grounds, I felt glad that they were being well looked after having experienced the upheaval of evacuation. I also noted though that there was one pupil, a Jewish boy, who I heard had experienced a rougher ride than the other pupils. In his early days at the school, whilst his fellow pupils played happily on the ground, he sat up in a tree. It was not certain why he did this but a possible explanation was that he needed to distance himself from the others to reflect on what had happened to him and come to terms with it in order to adjust to his new circumstances. This must have worked as I then heard that he fitted in well at the school thereafter.
So the boy climbed a tree with a purpose. The tree provided a setting for that purpose, which was to be healed.
In today’s Gospel reading we learn that Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, also climbed up a tree, in this instance to see Jesus, as with his short stature he was unable to see him at ground level. Here a tree features once more in helping to resolve a dilemma.
This led me to consider what trees mean in the context of the Bible and what they mean to us today. We could say that Zacchaeus made a good choice of tree as he climbed up a sycamore tree which symbolizes strength, protection, eternity and divinity. Yet in spite of this divinity Jesus calls upon Zacchaeus to ‘hurry and come down’ for, he says, ‘I must stay at your house today’. The tree has facilitated Zacchaeus being able to see Jesus but for him to receive salvation he must come down and welcome Jesus as a guest in his house. Salvation is to be found at ground level. Similarly, for the boy at Yelland school, he cannot stay in the tree forever but must descend in order to engage fully with those around him.
So a tree, from the distant and not-so-distant, past has been beneficial but in the course of our earthly life it appears that this is not the whole story. That is to say that we cannot count on permanently inhabiting a tree, as the animal kingdom may, in order to resolve our earthly concerns. To do this we have to engage fruitfully at ground level.
If, though, we go one step beyond consideration of our earthly existence into the bigger picture that the Bible story gives us, we can see that trees are very significant in our journey towards the Kingdom of God.
Of ultimate significance is the Tree of Life that first appears in Genesis in the Garden of Eden. To eat the fruit of that Tree would mean that Adam and Eve would know good and evil and ‘be like God’. Unfortunately, lured by the serpent, they disobey God’s commandment not to eat the fruit of that tree and are punished by the Fall from Paradise. If we look to the end of the Bible story at Revelation we read that God has not denied us the Tree of Life for eternity. In Revelation, the Tree is described in chapter 22 as being ‘on either side of the river of the water of life with twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the Tree are for the healing of the nations’.
I interpret this to mean that in spite of the Fall of Adam and Eve the whole Bible narrative is one whereby we are ultimately offered the Tree of Life, not in our earthly existence but in the heavenly realm. In the meantime we can turn to the trees for solace and to admire the beauty of nature, climbing them if needs be to get a better view or simply to explore as children do. Trees also play a vital part in the preservation of our climate. One instance of this is the current battle to save the Amazon rainforest.
Throughout the Bible story wood from the trees has represented both rescue, as in the Cyprus wood of Noah’s Ark, and worship as in the Acacia wood for the Altar of Burnt-Offering and the Ark of the Covenant as given in the Old Testament. Today in St Mark’s, we can see that our beautiful new glass door that we have blessed this morning is framed by lovely wood. Great skill and care is taken to produce items that enhance worship, not to mention the embroidery skill that has produced the magnificent red cope that we have also blessed today.
Staying with my theme of trees in the Bible, it is not all plain sailing. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus curses the fig tree that has no food for him when he is hungry. In Psalm 29 in a great storm ‘the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars’ and ‘causes the oaks to whirl and strips the forest bare’. I believe that the pinnacle of this turbulent relationship to trees in the Bible is the death of Christ on the wooden Cross. Only by his being nailed to the wood can we have the ultimate promise of the Tree of Life.
Returning to today’s Gospel reading we were given the connection between the ground and salvation. Zacchaeus is called upon to come down from the tree to be saved and the Cross is fixed to the ground for mankind to be saved. It is as though God does not want us to fly high to seek to be with him but rather for us to be grounded and communicate with him from that position in our daily lives. Psalm 23 comes to mind here where it is written: ‘he makes me lie down in green pastures’. There are of course special instances in the Bible when key figures are required to make an upward journey for divine purpose. Moses is summoned by God to go up to Mount Sinai to present himself to God and in Matthew chapter 17 Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on a high mountain and is transfigured before them. Then there is the ultimate Ascension of Jesus to heaven. For the most part, though, mankind is left in the Bible story to wrestle with relationships, war and justice at ground level.
What happens though when Zacchaeus does come down from his tree? Jesus says he must stay in Zacchaeus’s house. This is not popular with the crowd. As far as they are concerned Zacchaeus is a sinner, being a rich tax collector working for the Roman Empire. As such he is corrupt and not part of the Jewish community. Zacchaeus defends himself by asserting that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and if he has defrauded anyone he will pay them back four times as much. Here, Zacchaeus is attempting to save himself. The response of Jesus is that salvation rests with him as the Son of Man who has come to ‘seek out and save the lost’. He views Zacchaeus as lost as he is shunned by the crowd. The saving of the lost is a major theme of the Bible. A prime example can be found in Luke chapter 15 when we learn that the Pharisees and the Scribes are berating Jesus for conversing with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus replies that these sinners are like lost sheep that must be rescued from the wilderness. He adds that there will be ‘more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance’.
Zacchaeus is also saved because, Jesus says, he is a ‘Son of Abraham’ as the others are. He is the descendant of the common patriarch of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other religions. Then there is his name, Zacchaeus, which means ‘pure’ . As we are given in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God’.
So Zacchaeus is saved and we too have the hope of salvation through that simple wooden Cross to which the body of Christ was nailed to free us all from the bondage of sin.