Sunday, April 4, 1995

Location - Cleveland
Bible Verses - Isaiah 5:1-7
Luke 5:1-17

And now the axe is laid to the root of the trees: so every tree that does not bring forth

good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.

Luke 3:9

Beginning with the tree of life in the Garden of Eden and ending with the tree of life in

the Holy City, we find in the Bible trees or other plants as images of the human soul. In

the Old Testament there is the parable of the trees asking for a king and there is the

first Psalm, in which the righteous individual is compared to a flourishing tree planted

by rivers of water. In the New Testament there is the classic parable of the Sower, and

there is the fundamental image of the seed that must fall into the ground and die if it is

to bring forth fruit.

In both Old and New Testaments, there is the specific image of the vineyard as a specific

image of Israel. The eightieth Psalm perhaps puts it most clearly: "You brought a vine out

of Egypt; you drove out the heathen and planted it." Isaiah told how the Lord had prepared

the ground for this vineyard: "He fenced it, and gathered out its stones, and planted it

with the choicest vine." Would anyone miss the reference when Jesus described the

householder who "planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it?"

In the parable in Matthew, the householder goes away and leaves the vineyard in charge of

an overseer who mistreats his servants and ultimately even kills the householder's son. In

Isaiah's image, the vineyard itself turns bad. Instead of bearing good grapes, the vines

bear wild grapes.

The two images are saying much the same thing. If we were to put it in modern terms, it

would be very much like the message John Glenn got when he looked back on earth from

space. First he was struck with the beauty of the planet, and describes how he felt the

presence of Divinity and knew with extraordinary certainty that earth was not the product

of random chance. Then he was overcome by an awareness of the way this gift was being

misused, how on the surface of the planet people were killing each other, lying to each

other, stealing from each other, and polluting air and water.

John Glenn followed up on this revelation. He did not, though, become a political

activist. Rather, he came back with the conviction that nothing could save us except a

radical change of mind and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in an effort to learn

how to transform human consciousness. This was his version of "laying the axe to the root

of the trees."

It is hard not to share Glenn's vision in some degree. When we think of how much we have

that we could not possible make for ourselves, of the fertility of lands and seas, of the

intricate processes that provide us with air to breathe, of the richness of plant and

animal life and the apparently endless usefulness of the mineral kingdom, it seems little

short of incredible that we should be causing each other so much misery. We are indeed

called to do something. In fact, there is so much to do that it is hard to know where to


In the fifteenth chapter of John's Gospel, the image of the vine is taken a step further,

and we are offered two different and complementary approaches. We find Jesus saying, "I am

the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear

fruit he takes away, and every branch that bears fruit he prunes so that it may bear more

fruit." Sometimes radical "surgery" is necessary, sometimes less drastic means are called

for. Sometimes the axe must be laid to the root of the tree, sometimes it is enough to

prune the branches.

How does this translate into more literal language? The root of the tree or the vine is

what lies under the surface, what we cannot see. In the words of Jesus, "For out of the

heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses,

and blasphemies" (Matthew 15:19). The heart, the fundamental intent, is the root of our

actions. If this is corrupt, then no matter how attractive the fruit may be from the

outside, it will be bitter or even toxic within.

The most striking and painful example of this in my own experience came when I was in

graduate school in the early sixties. One of the departmental secretaries wanted very much

to do something for the civil rights movement, and went to a widely publicized open

meeting. She came back close to tears. She had gone up to one of the "headliners" of the

movement, whose name I have fortunately erased, and had simply been dismissed as

insignificant. This individual was too full of his own importance to recognize her as a

fellow human being.

Or again, in researching the origins of the Parliament of World Religions of 1893, I was

struck by the optimism of the close of the last century. Electricity was just coming into

its own, the railroads were bringing untold natural and human resources together, and

intelligent people honestly believed that the next century would see the end of poverty

and injustice. There seems to have been no awareness of how deep are the roots of that

poverty and injustice. They are not simply factors of how much we have. They are factors

of how much we want and what we are prepared to do in order to satisfy our wants.

The attitude of the eighteen nineties seems naive now, in twenty-twenty hindsight. Two

world wars, genocide in Europe and the Far East, decades of cold war, and our present

epidemic of nationalistic violence seem to have dealt a mortal blow to any such optimism.

A century from now, though, we may look just about as naive, just as determined to believe

that we can make things better by changing the system--that we do not need to change


To translate the image from John's gospel into simple terms, when intentions are basically

good, pruning will work. We can pass wiser laws concerning pollution or gender equality,

and they will provide guidance and support to people of good will. They will to some

extent restrain us when our intentions are not good; but in that case we will be actively

searching for some other way to get what we want. We will never invent a system that is

cleverer than we are.

There was a great deal wrong with the world in New Testament times. The Roman Empire, like

the Greek empire of Alexander before it, and like the Persian and Babylonian and Assyrian

and Egyptian empires before that, was built by outright naked aggression. Smaller nations

might fight back, but one hears no voices of moral outrage, no one saying that territorial

conquest was ethically wrong. Contemporary liberation theology is profoundly uncomfortable

with the view of the history of Israel offered in the Old Testament, with the story of

these people coming in and conquering the land of Canaan by military force.

Historical sources outside the Gospels indicate that in New Testament times, the high

priesthood was as much a political as a religious office, and that it often changed hands

by assassination. Judea was occupied by Roman troops, and any hints of resistance would be

ruthlessly repressed. The system of taxation invited corruption. "Enterprising" Jews would

contract to deliver stated amounts to the Roman government, and then would be licensed to

collect as much as they could. These were the "publicans" of the King James translation,

the collaborators, the hated quislings.

In the face of all this, Judaism had the promises of the prophets that eventually the

kingdom of David would be restored. Devout Jews "had a dream" with deep roots in their

tradition. There would come a descendant of David, a Messiah, who would free the nation

and establish justice. The greater the oppression, the greater the injustice, the more

intense would be the messianic hopes.

Then the Messiah came; but he was not a military leader or a political reformer. He was an

absolute, uncompromising realist. Pruning would not work. Things were too far gone for

that. There would be no deliverance unless the axe was laid to the root of the trees. We

have to learn to love each other. There is no room for self-righteousness or resentment or

envy or self-indulgence or greed or callousness or pettiness or any of the impulses that

prompt us to try to gain at the expense of others.

At a conference on Russian spirituality I attended a couple of summers ago, one of the

Russians put it quite vividly--and it seems, prophetically--"Every time we change the

system, the bad guys are first in line." He was right. Something has to be done not simply

about how "the bad guys" behave, but about "the bad guys" themselves. This leads directly

to the very first work of Jesus's initial message, namely, "Repent," or, to reflect the

overtones of the Greek more clearly, "Change your mind," "Turn your attitude around."

There are voices in our age, as in any other, that see this message as naive. "You can't

change human nature." "Once a crook, always a crook." These are the voices of cynicism

rather than of realism, though, because realism must recognize that some individuals have

changed. Black Islam has reached out to convicts and turned their attitudes and their

lives around. The success rate is not high, but it is real. Alcoholics Anonymous has been

instrumental in turning attitudes and lives around. Again, there are no guarantees of

success, but there are successes. Fundamental changes can take place.

There is only one change, though, that really carries conviction, and that is the change

in oneself. There seems to be a certain futility in taking on guilt simply because one is

a member of a group that can be regarded as privileged--white male, for example, or middle

class, or American. I suppose one could stop being middle class or American, but do not

see how that would help anyone. Everything points to one unwelcome conclusion, that I need

to uncover the ways in which I am intentionally one of "the bad guys." I need to look at

the ways in which I enlarge myself at the expense of others, even though I may have

learned to do this in socially acceptable ways.

At a recent clergy breakfast in Boston, a Catholic priest from the Philippines described

his work with the poor, his efforts to help them take initiative and responsibility and

become less dependent on government. One of the local clergy noted that this sounded

alarmingly like right-wing solutions to social problems. The big difference, though, was

only suggested. It makes all the difference in the world whether some one is saying "You

should do this" or "We should do this." It is the difference between accepting

reponsibility and passing the buck.

We look around ourselves and see a great deal that is very wrong. How much of it has roots

in our own hearts? Jesus offers another telling image--how can we take the speck of dust

out of another's eye when there is a two-by-four in our own?

It is a simple kind of equation. The roots of injustice are in human hearts. I have

primary responsibility for one heart--my own. Obviously, I must not spend my whole life in

introspection, but if I neglect the root of the matter in myself, what hope is there that

I will really help the world? How deeply has the civil rights movement been wounded by

those who have tried to make a profit from it? How deeply is the cause of women wounded by

those who see it as a road to personal power? How deeply is the church wounded by those

who use it for ego-gratification? And which of us is ready to cast the first stone?

Perhaps it is no wonder that we turn to pruning the vine, to trying to improve the system.

To face the roots of the problems is truly daunting. Jesus referred to it at one point as

taking up the cross. He spoke of laying down life itself, and that is exactly what it

feels like. But the Gospels are the evangel, the good news that fundamental change is

possible. We are not trapped forever in a futile effort to outwit ourselves. Human society

can really become more just, more thoughtful. Each one of us can become a living testimony

to that news.

"When his disciples heard it they were absolutely amazed and said, `Then who can be

saved?' Jesus looked at them and said, `With mortals this is impossible, but with God, all

things are possible.'"


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