Sunday, Feb. 17, is the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C). Mass Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1:1-4, 6; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26.
In Jeremiah’s oracle of judgment against Jerusalem (17:5-8), the prophet uses a sight familiar to his fellow Judeans to convey his message: Jerusalem is a solitary, barren shrub hanging on for dear life in a salty wasteland. With this image, Jeremiah draws on the visual experience of his interlocutors, many of whom would have seen such vegetation in their travels in arid regions south and east of Judea. Even today, if one approaches the Dead Sea from the west, one encounters every now and again a drab olive-green shrub growing in between deep cracks in the parched, brittle soil that crunches underfoot when walked upon. It seems almost miraculous that anything could grow there at all, and indeed, it is only possible given the evolutionary developments of these xero-halophytes (salt-loving desert plants). Despite these plants’ ability to survive, however, they do not produce fruit and remain quite small, never growing taller than a foot or two.
By likening Jerusalem to such a plant, the prophet offers a vivid image describing the effect of his fellow Jews’ radical self-reliance and rejection of God: They had transformed Jerusalem into a barren and lonely place (Jeremiah 17:5-6). They did this by rejecting God’s ways, i.e., the Law, and following instead their own way (e.g., amassing wealth and worshipping other gods), which they mistakenly thought would be their path to prosperity. This foolish behavior instead resulted in Judah being punished by God through the Babylonians: After many Judean cities were destroyed, Jerusalem was on its own, awaiting the final punishment of God — the Babylonian exile.
In sharp contrast to such rebelliousness, according to Jeremiah, the one who trusts in the Lord and clings to him is like a verdant tree that has a steady water source — such a one is able to withstand the heat of summer and still produce good fruit (Jeremiah 17:7-8). Though it might seem like it is possible and even desirable to choose one’s own way over God’s ways, in reality one’s life will end up like the solitary plant in a desert wasteland: small, pathetic and barren. Moreover, the ability to eke out such an existence on one’s own is merely an illusion. Just as the desert plant still depends upon a hidden source of water for its life, so, too, the one who rejects God still depends upon him in ways that are unseen.
Jeremiah’s message is re-contextualized by Jesus’ preaching on true beatitude (Luke 6:20-26), wherein he addresses the reality of illusory human experience. While it is indeed true that one who rejects God’s ways is a barren bush in a desert wasteland, and that one who clings to God is a verdant and fruitful tree, this reality is not always immediately apparent to us. Indeed, many who fervently live the Gospel still suffer the barrenness of sorrow, distress, humiliation and poverty in their lives. Yet Christ assures us that those who suffer in such ways are in reality truly blessed inasmuch as these privations lead them to cling to God all the more closely. As followers of Christ, we are called to recognize the wisdom of this prophetic insight taken up by Christ and to seek not self-determination and material prosperity, but intimacy with God, which comes from recognizing our utter dependence upon him who is the source of all.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C