Today’s gospel for the Daily Office is a very familiar one, featuring gates, a warning, and a lesson on trees. Like so many lessons of Jesus in the gospels, they seem to connect themselves into a group with the same focus, although with different metaphors. While we, as human beings, often use illustrations using an image that represents something else, we don’t always know what to call it. In our Education for Ministry (EfM) groups, metaphors are essential, both in the study of scripture and in learning to reflect theologically on an image, story, reading, quotation, movie, experience, or any of the many ways a reflection can be presented.
We are familiar with the images of the broad and narrow gates and how Jesus presents them. The wide gate, seeming to be the more comfortable, more pleasant way, is frequently the one which should not be taken just because it is more convenient and more enjoyable. To be a follower of Jesus, we should look for the narrow gate, the harder route. Jesus keeps reminding us that following him was, is, and always will be hard. The world generally takes the easy way, but Christians who practice their faith as Jesus showed them, will look to the promise of heaven in the future, not the simple, easy way here on earth.
That ties into the warning against false prophets. Like snake-oil salesmen, they promise us instant gratification, wealth, health, and comfortable living. The term comes from the period of the California gold rush, where purveyors of fake medications and tonics tried to peddle their wares in exchange for gold nuggets. It was exchanging something worthless for something valuable. Of course, enough people believed the salesmen and took the tonics (which often did no good at all or were eventually toxic enough to kill the person who ingested them). We still have snake oil salesmen, only ours try to sell us on bogus stock portfolios, dubious (if not unproductive) cures, and prognostications of coming events based on nothing but misinterpretation, desire for fame, or hope of profit. We seem to have a lot of those these days.
We then get to the botanical portion of the lesson, the good and bad trees, and where not to look for grapes and figs. These would have been very familiar images to the first hearers of Jesus’s lesson, and they would have seen the impossibility of grapes coming from thorns or figs coming from thistles immediately. They would have known that sometimes a tree doesn’t get enough nourishment from the soil or enough water to be absorbed by its roots and that it will not bear quality fruit. Rather than waste scarce resources trying to fix the tree, it is easier and more profitable to cut it down and plant a replacement in a better environment. The same goes for people who may have adequate growing conditions, but that might produce poor results from their existence due to their choices in life. Jesus equates good trees bearing good fruit with those who follow the laws of God, practice righteous living, and take Jesus’s lessons to heart, not just to be able to recite them but to use them in daily life.
On Facebook this week, someone (or some organization) had posted a chart of celebrities who had contributed significantly to help those impacted and afflicted by the COVID-19 virus. At the bottom, there were half a dozen or so well-known evangelists who had contributed nothing at all to help the victims. It may only be me, but I feel that these are people who say “Lord, Lord” but who may never see the kingdom of God because they have not done the will of God when it comes to helping the unfortunate. There will be people who call me judgmental or even unchristian for appreciating the contributions of those many consider “ungodly” musicians, movie stars, and the like while condemning the ministers who claim their call and mission is from God. There are many Christians who do contribute through various ministries but whose names we will never know, just as there are first-responders, medical personnel, garbage collectors, store clerks, and many, many others who work behind the scenes to make this time of the pandemic safer and more accessible, people who will be forever known only by their roles as carers. I have a feeling God will welcome them at the pearly gates personally because whether or not they were Christians or even an active member of another faith, God will recognize them as caring for God’s children, rich or poor, religious, or of no faith at all.
It always amazes me that Jesus could get so much across in so few words. It would seem to make them a lot easier to understand and follow; however, we so often seem to miss the mark (a very accurate translation of the Hebrew for “sin”). Sometimes we look to try to make understanding what appears to be a simple image into something complicated.
Still, if taking the narrow gate means wearing a mask, practicing safe distancing, or even remaining at home not just to save our own lives, but those of others who share the world with us, I’ll wear my mask and all that other stuff until next year or the year after. It’s one thing to trust that God will take care of me, but quite another to do what I want and think that God will put a bubble over me to protect me from my own foolishness or thoughts of my own invincibility. Like the bad trees, I can’t produce good fruit without a bit of work, some water, and soil enrichment.
This week, I’m going to try to be a good tree and not take the lazy or selfish way of being or doing things. I have my cat mask, and I will wear it proudly, not to protect me, but to protect others more fragile than me. It’s a tiny thing to offer up to God, but it’s so important right now.