By the Rev. Victoria Larson
Preaching texts: the RCL’s texts for Advent 3C
“Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The tree-thinning analogy winked up at us coyly, and the Barn Geese went for it. We had gathered virtually to review our Advent texts, and some rabbit holes are just too inviting to go unexplored.
Justin noted that the thinning of trees is unquestionably good forestry practice, contributing to the flourishing of the remaining trees. Katie, Linnéa and I agreed that the destruction of tiny defenseless seedlings and perfectly good trees feels counterintuitive.
The prestige of the practice of thinning rested with Emily, whose husband runs an actual farm and who could therefore be depended upon to remind us of the good it could do.
But Em offered no such defense. “This is one of Dan’s least favorite chores,” she said. “It’s tedious and feels wrong.”
“Precisely!” we all shouted in absolute agreement. We turned our attention back to the gospel text.
John’s words still showed on our screens, obstinately unaffected despite the unanimity of our analysis. Scripture’s changelessness is a terrible vexation at times.
I suspect there is a reason for our distaste for John’s allegory. We preachers have too often heard or read interpretations of this verse that ascribe fruitlessness to human beings who do not behave in God-pleasing ways. Rather than condemn the behavior alone, such interpretations derive urgency from the Messiah’s imminent arrival, and insist on using verses such as these to condemn people. The cost of such fruitlessness, such interpretations suggest, is cutting off certain people from the spiritual community.
Which seems terribly at odds with God’s grace, forgiveness, and insistence that Jesus is sent not to condemn the world, but to save it.
It’s more fruitful (yep) to consider that the fruited and unfruited trees both grow within each of us, and John’s urgency is not directed toward certain individuals, but toward everyone, calling us all to reveal to ourselves the patterns of behavior, habits of thought, and spiritual practices that undergird our daily choices. (A preacher could consider drawing on the community’s practice of confession to illustrate that this work is a regular part of our Christians lives.)
This lens throws a different shade of nuance on John’s reaction to the soldiers and the tax collectors who ask for his advice. We could go ahead and say that those folks were lost causes, machinery in a system too broken to be repaired or redeemed; soldiers functioned on extortion, tax collectors didn’t have much of an income if they didn’t overcharge people, and both served as oppressive tools of the Roman military and economic occupation of Israel.
Yet–getting back to this thinning analogy–John doesn’t tell the soldiers and tax collectors to rip out the whole garden of their careers; he tells them to uproot the greed, corruption, and extortion that underlie their actions. He’s reminding them of the qualities that please God: justice and mercy, fairness and compassion, integrity and generosity. John’s analogy calls us to make a choice about what values to pull up and which ones to let flourish, because one cannot feed them all.
Maybe the soldiers and tax collectors think that they’re getting off light from the man who only moments before compared them to a brood of vipers. But the life to which the Baptizer is inviting them is a lot more costly and more complicated than it seems at first glance. If the soldiers and the tax collectors engage with John’s advice—if they uproot greed to let integrity flourish instead—then the Spirit will inevitably draw them into more costly sacrifice for its sake. She may even lead them into active resistance against the forces that oppress their neighbors as they discover that those forces have been oppressing them too.
This reversal lies at the heart of the song “Cuando el Pobre,” written by Spanish priests José Antonio Olivar and Miguel Manzano after the Second Vatican Council. The lyrics resonate with the liberation theologies of the twentieth centuries, evoking Jon Sabrino’s claim that the poor are a privileged channel of God’s grace.
As Linnéa notes in the Hymn Commentary: “The melody of the song folds sorrow and hope into a single breath,” describing people who refuse to be mastered by that which is oppressing them. They resist those forces by actively choosing against the qualities that are supposed to define them: “the poor are generous; the thirsty share their water; the wounded offer healing.” The song offers an image of those who embody John’s advice: surrounded by scarcity, they have chosen to nurture abundance; trapped by pain, they have chosen to heal.
It’s worth noticing the song’s implicit claim that we can’t see “God walking our way” in isolation: the actions described in the song are only possible in community. We need one another—and in particular, we need the perspectives of the “least among us”—in order to encounter God’s presence.
“Cuando el Pobre” opens up several possible avenues for the preacher to explore the gospel text. You might consider inviting your folks to confront the question, “What is threatening to master us?” and complementing it, “How is God calling us to resist its oppression?” The song begs us to remember that these are not questions for individuals, but for community. It’s when we’re walking alongside one another that God reveals Godself to us.
As preachers, it’s important to name that the work of thinning the forest of our habit, beliefs, and values, is not salvific. It is only that we are called to it, and as John promises, if we don’t get around to it, the One who is coming sure will. Our Spirit-led choice to engage in this work now prepares the way of the Lord, smoothing the highway in preparation for his advent, revealing how deeply the world needs the fullness of Christ’s grace, mercy, and healing.