June 14, 2015
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
Most things in life proceed according to expectations. The stoplight goes from red to green. The sun comes up every morning. And of course, many human patterns repeat themselves over and over. The rich get richer. The powerful become more powerful. In our lives, we are often trying to figure out the patterns and play along with them. Going against the grain is not usually rewarding, particularly on a one-way street. Yet God has a way of upending our reality, of turning everything on its head. He brings good out of evil, brings the dead to life, and tears down the mighty from their thrones. In this Sunday’s first reading from Ezekiel 17, we find God at it again. This time he is planting a tree, yet his planting goes against all of our human expectations.
Our reading is actually just the last few verses of a complex chapter. The entirety offers an extended and vivid metaphor for the downfall and rise of the God’s ancient people. Without going into too much detail about the biblical history, the basic facts are that by the seventh century BC, the kingdom had split and been reduced to just the land of Judah under the reign of David’s successors. Eventually Judah itself falls to the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, when Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed and the leaders of the people are exiled.
Ezekiel is writing during this period of exile. He is in Babylonian territory with many other Jews who have been deported from their native land. It is hard for us to grasp how devastating the exile was, but if we remember the significance of the Promised Land from Abraham on down, the agrarian nature of ancient societies and the fact that almost all of God’s promises to his people are tied to the land itself, we can begin to understand how disorienting it would have been to lose the land. It felt as though God had abandoned his own people and gone back on his promises. Ezekiel is speaking to this bereft audience, pointing them back toward God’s faithfulness.
Two Eagles and a Cedar
The prophet uses some strange metaphors in chapter 17 to explain the drama of the relationship between God and his people. He depicts two eagles. The first eagle represents Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon, who plucks a branch from the top of a Lebanon cedar (representing Jerusalem) and plants in a land of merchants, Babylon (17:3-5). The second eagle represents Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt toward which the vine grows in a crooked fashion (17:7-8). Ezekiel goes on to accuse the king and the people of oath-breaking, of offending God by being duplicitous (17:15-16). What this whole metaphor illustrates is a series of political moves.
The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, had sought to avoid a war by making a pact with the Babylonians. This ancient oath or covenant required that the inferior party send regular monetary tribute to the superior. It was a treaty that prevented war, but it cost Judah dearly. It seems that the name of the Lord was invoked in the making of this pact (see 2 Chr 36:13), so God is responsible for the enforcement of the oath. After things don’t go very well in Zedekiah’s relationship with Babylon, he tries to do an end-around. He seeks an alliance with the Egyptians, to see if they, as the contrary regional power, would protect Judah from Babylon (Ezek 17:15). The Egyptians make a new treaty with Judah, but once Zedekiah rebels against Babylon by withholding the tribute, Nebuchadnezzar attacks. Egypt is not able or willing to effectively protect Judah from attack and Jerusalem falls. (Although some of the defeated Jews flee to Egypt as refugees [2 Kgs 25:26]).
Ezekiel’s analysis is that Zedekiah bound himself by God to uphold the treaty with the Babylonians and that when he betrays them, he breaks his oath to God and brings on divine vengeance (Ezek 17:19-20). God takes the words of the oath seriously and enforces them. It sounds as if all will end in despair, but Ezekiel paints a portrait of restoration. God will not judge his people and leave them in exile. Instead, he will be like those two eagles. He will fly to the top of a cedar and pluck a branch. But rather than planting it in a foreign land of traders and merchants, he will bring it home and plant it on a high mountain—on Zion in Jerusalem.
A Cedar Full of Birds
From there, the little sapling will grow tall and noble. It will bear fruit and spread out its branches far and wide. Then birds will come and nestle in its branches. Originally, this metaphor of birds points to the Jews who had been scattered by the Babylonian exile who will be welcomed back to the Promised Land. God will rescue the powerless from the powerful, again overturning our expectations. Yet, by extension, the birds can point to all people who come to faith in God and are able to rest in the branches of the tree he has planted. In fact, Jesus nods to this metaphor when in this Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark 4, he mentions the birds that come to rest in shade of the branches of the mustard plant. The idea of the spreading tree leads Ezekiel to one final metaphorical flourish—that God will judge the “trees.” The nations will see the giant “tree” of Jerusalem and so acknowledge that Judah’s Lord is God. He then will bring about a reversal of fortunes: he will bring the high trees low and the low trees high. He will wither the green trees and make green the withered tree.
Ezekiel’s sweeping word pictures show God’s gardening at its finest. Yes, sometimes he lets the weeds grow, only to chop them down and burn them (Matt 13:30), but he also delivers redemption, restoration, a second chance. Though Zedekiah had gone against the Lord’s plan, God will be merciful to his people, bring them back to the land and green up their dry, thirsty branches. While perhaps too many things are predictable, God is not. He likes to turn things upside down and do the opposite of what we would expect. If our own trees are growing in the wrong direction, or if we feel like birds with no branches to rest in, the Lord himself might just redirect our path or provide us with a pleasant perch.