Monday, October 8, 2012

God the Gardener, IV: Pruning and Weeding

John 15
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes so that it will bear more fruit.

The Word I have spoken to you                  Pruning branches
                                                                                    Cut off fruitless
Cut back fruitful

The pruning instrument in the parable is the Word Jesus spoke to his disciples.  What this means to me is that Jesus and his teachings are how we understand what God wants from us, how God views us, and how we are to view God.  I think of how translators of the Bible tend to start with a Gospel, often Mark, believing that Jesus is in fact the central story and interpretive principle for those becoming Christians and all who are Christian already.  When we allow what Jesus said to reshape our actions and hearts, we will be ready to interpret the rest of the Bible well.

These next parables are from the Old Testament. They suggest that when God stops pruning, God is ready to turn the vines over to natural forces and consequences.  So we’re glad for pruning that helps us become useful and healthful producers of fruit for the good of other people—just dealings and right actions toward others.

Isaiah 5:3-6
You who live in Jerusalem, you members of Judah, judge now between me and my vineyard. What more could I have done to my vineyard than I did?  Why, when I looked for grapes, did it produce only stinkberries? Now listen; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove the hedge around it and animals will eat it up; I will break down the wall around it and animals will walk over it; and I will destroy it. I will not prune the vines, nor dig around them.  I will let briers and thorns grow up in it.  I will also command the clouds not to rain on it.  For my vineyard, the vineyard of the Lord of hosts, is the house of Israel; the members of Judah were my pleasant plant.  I looked to them for just dealings and I found bloodshed and oppression; I looked for justice and right actions and found cries of distress.

Joel 1:12
The vine is dried up, and the fig tree droops; the pomegranate, the palm, the apple, all the trees of the field are withered, because joy has dried up among the children of Adam.

Joel 2:12-13, 22
Therefore also now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning; tear your hearts and not your clothes, and return to the Lord your God, who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, greatly kind, who himself laments the harm done…Do not be afraid, animals of the field; the grasslands do spring, the tree bears fruit, the fig tree and the vine contribute their plenty. 

What can we learn from these pruning parables? 

The pruner is God.  The pruning is done because of God’s love for us and desire for our good. And refusing to be pruned has negative natural consequences.

Therefore, we can ask ourselves these questions: What makes an event in our lives a “pruning” event? It’s hard to imagine a pruning event that doesn’t have some sense of an avenue of behavior or thought cut off.  We won’t or can’t do something we might otherwise have done.  What makes this pruning rather than vandalism in our lives, I think, lies in our attitude toward the event. 

How can we lean into God’s intention for us in these events? I think turning toward God and moving in closer to God is the first step.  Even if we are angry about the pruning, communicating honestly and frequently with God keeps us close.  I remember clearly a time when I was deeply disappointed and angry with God. I sat in church with my head down, reminding God of how angry I was and how unfair God was.  I felt in my heart (and it was nearly audible) God saying, “Lift up your head and look at me.” I wouldn’t do it, just like an angry child.  I felt that God lifted my chin, and said, “Look in my eyes. What do you see there?”  I could see only love.  “I see only love,” I said. This changed everything in my attitude and heart to this day.  I want everyone to have the same experience of God—look into God’s eyes and you will see love.

How will we know the pruning has been helpful? My observation is that pruning is helpful when we end up trusting God more, listening to God and others more before acting, and doing the good God tells us to do more readily.

Here’s another parable, this one about weeding.

Matthew 13:24-30
Jesus told them another parable (right after Sower)

The Kingdom of heaven is like this:
A man sowed good seed in his field. One night, while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. When the plants grew and the heads and grain began to form, then the weeds showed up. The man’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, it was good seed you sowed in your field; where did the weeds come from?”

“It was some enemy who did this,” he answered.

“Do you want us to go pull up the weeds?” they asked him.

“No,” he answered, “because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the weeds and the wheat both grow together until harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn.”

Matthew 13:36-43
When Jesus had left the crowd and gone indoors, his disciples came to him and said, “Tell us what the parable about the weeds in the field means.” Jesus answered:

“Good sower=Son of Man (Jesus)
Good seed= people who belong to the Kingdom
Weeds=people who belong to the evil one
Bad sower=devil
Harvest=end of age

“The Son of Man will send out his angels to gather up out of his Kingdom all those who cause people to sin and all others who do evil things. Then God’s people will shine like the sun.”

The Old Testament provides a context for this parable in Leviticus 19:19: You shall keep my statutes. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.

These are part of the purity laws for the ancient Israelites; many believe one purpose of these laws was to separate the Israelites from all other peoples who did not follow Israel’s God. If the Israelites were concerned to be pure, they must have spent a lot of time removing weeds.  It would indeed be seen as the act of an enemy to deliberately sow another kind of seeds in a field meant to be pure. 

So the Levitical context explains their energy to remove the weeds in the parable, the “mingled” seeds, but the owner says no, let it wait until later.

What we can learn about the Kingdom of God from this parable is that Jesus is not a worrier. He does what God says to do, and he knows there will be a time to set all things right.  In the mean time, we can let people grow and see how they turn out.

For the Jews, this was likely a warning similar to the new wine in new wineskins—that the Kingdom of God was not a continuation of the system of Judaism but a fulfilling and completing of the law, which Jesus summed up as loving God wholly and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  The day of the Kingdom dawned with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Another possibility is that Jesus is not surprised or stymied by the messiness of the church, universal or particular.  Jesus knows that weeds are also growing, that within the church community are those who do not bear fruit, do not do the things Jesus said and says to do.  Jesus gives them time and reminds us to let Jesus do the judging.  My own denomination has frequently disowned folks who were “weedy” in the denomination’s perspective—people who performed music, people who joined the military, people who married non-Quakers.  It’s not one of our best sides, and it reflects the zeal for purity that uproots the good with the bad. Clearly, we need to tell people who harm others (or themselves) to stop it, and we need to take steps to protect the vulnerable.  However, it takes time to see whether people are moving toward God or away from God, and telling people to stop harmful behavior is not the same as judging the condition of their hearts with regard to God.

Personally, I have thought that I often don’t even know what needs to be weeded or pruned. Some of the aspects of myself that I think of as liabilities may in fact be seen differently by God; same with what I think of as my strengths. It is a great comfort to have Jesus in charge of these things.  My main energy can be spent listening and doing what I’m told.  When I do this, I lean into Jesus, follow close behind him, and he can help me become who he wants.

Matthew 6:28-34, Luke 12:27-31
And why worry about what you will wear?  Look how the wild flowers grow. They do not work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers.  It is God who clothes the wild grass—grass that is here today and gone tomorrow, burned up in the oven.  Won’t he be all the more sure to clothe you?  What little faith you have! So do not worry…Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what God requires of you, and God will provide you with all these other things.

Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31
Let the fig tree teach you a lesson. When its branches become green and tender and it starts putting out leaves, you know summer is near.  In the same way, when you see all these things, you will know that the time is near, ready to begin—you will know that the Kingdom of heaven is about to come.

The Kingdom of Heaven is where God is King.  God’s will is to bring reconciliation between the whole earth, including humanity, and God’s own self.  Jesus came to make this clear to us and to show us how it looks to live in harmony with God our Father.  God gives us the beauty of flowers, the clothes that show we are in the right place in our spirits.  So we do not need to worry, we need not to worry.  Live into the promise here that Jesus gives—small beginnings signal great awakenings.

To sum up:  Abide in Jesus, seek first God’s kingdom, don’t fear, do what God says to do.  That’s the secret to God’s gardening.

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