In today’s Gospel reading we learn of John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness of Judea, calling upon people to repent and be baptized by him, confessing their sins. Yet when the Jewish leaders, known as the Pharisees, appear, John dismisses them in their attempt to be baptized by him. He says that they cannot be baptized until they ‘bear fruit worthy of repentance’. It is not enough to claim Abraham as their ancestor; they must repent first. This is a sharply worded attack on them, followed by a vitriolic statement that if they do not repent ‘they will be thrown into the fire’.
The root of this conflict with the Pharisees that prompts John’s call to them for repentance, is that they did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, authoritative in the law, possessing divine authority and one, by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, who had risen from the dead. Since they had failed to do so, John declares that they are ‘a brood of vipers’ who are in danger of meeting their end. Using nature as a vehicle for his vitriol, John warns them that as they are as fruit, unworthy of repentance, the axe is lying at the root of the trees that bear this fruit; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Nor, John warns them, will Jesus allow them to continue as the wheat will be gathered into the granary ‘but the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire’.
The sentence in this narrative that stands out in my mind as being the most savage is: ‘even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees’. It is sad when a tree is cut down and, as we know from the current battle to save forests all over the world, the loss of trees does not help us towards a better climate nor encourage the continuance of certain species of wildlife. There was a magnificent London plane tree that stood in the rear courtyard of my block of flats which was cut down and we then lost a magnificent manifestation of nature which was helping to keep pollution at bay.
Why then, with all that trees provide for us, would Matthew use this aspect of nature, albeit that we do not have to take his words literally?
To find the answer let us go back to the very beginning of the Bible, where we find Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They are told by God that they can eat freely of every tree in the Garden but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they shall not eat, for in the day that they eat of it they shall die. Unfortunately they do not obey God but choose to obey the serpent and eat of the fruit. By this act of disobedience they are expelled from the Garden and left with all the pain and hazards of life to be engaged with. This can be summed up in the words ‘Paradise Lost’.
As we journey on through the Old Testament, there is, in spite of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a positive relationship with trees. Sometimes beneficial, as Noah is able to create an ark from cypress wood to save him and his household and animals from the flood. The Ark of the Covenant with God with his people was made of acacia wood, as was the Altar of Incense for worship by the Israelites on their journey from Sinai to the promised land. Yet once we get to the New Testament, the clouds gather. In Matthew’s chapter 12 Jesus attacks the Pharisees in the same manner as John did; if the fruit is bad, the tree is bad and the Pharisees will be held to account for every careless word they utter on the Day of Judgement. In chapter 21, having cleansed the Temple in a rage against the money changers, Jesus continues to be wrathful as he makes the fig tree wither that has not provided him with something to eat.
This stormy relationship comes to a head when Jesus is put to death on the wooden Cross, sometimes referred to as a tree. When he has breathed his last the curtain of the Temple was torn in two and ‘the earth shook and the rocks were split’. This great moment, though, was not the end of our journey through the Bible with trees. Not the end because in his death Jesus is paving the way for us to get back the Tree of Life that Adam and Eve lost sight of. He is able to do this because, as Isaiah describes him, he is ‘a shoot from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. This shoot, Isaiah tells us, will have the Spirit of the Lord on him and he will be there for the poor and the meek and in the end ‘the wolf shall live with the lamb’.
Success is revealed in the Book of Revelation when we know that the Tree of Life has not been lost to us. It is on either side of the river of the water of life that flows through the New Jerusalem. The Tree will produce its fruit each month and the leaves are for the healing of the nations.
Thus it is that the Bible begins and ends with this Tree of Life and that demonstrates that God’s covenant with us is a promise that can never be broken. No axe can fell it nor storm up root it. It will help us to remember this when we go through the storms of life and keep in mind the rainbow that symbolises this covenant which is the symbol of hope for us all.