Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture compares humans to trees far more often than contemporary discourse does.

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"El Fasher Hospital," image by UNAMID via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

October 26, 2014

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Commentary on Psalm 1

Scripture compares humans to trees far more often than contemporary discourse does.

Isaiah, for instance, warns the unjust that they will be “like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water” (1:30). At rumors of an invasion, Ahaz and his royal family “shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (7:2).

The Assyrians will dwindle so that “the remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down” (10:19; cf. vv. 33-34). But Judah’s leadership will regenerate as “a shoot … from the stump of Jesse” (11:1). Later prophets in the book of Isaiah said, “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree’” (56:3), and “like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be (65:22).

Other Psalms likewise compare people to trees. One says, “I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever” (52:8). Another claims, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (92:12), and goes on to speak of their powers to bear fruit even in old age. A third says that the children of the faithful will be “like olive shoots around your table” (Psalm 128:3).

This particular psalm compares the vitality and stability of those who follow righteous paths to the vitality and stability of trees growing in optimal soil, beside flowing streams. Because they are “grounded” in the right place, their leaves and fruit flourish. The wicked, by contrast, are imagined as dried, dead chaff blown abroad by the wind.

The psalm uses these images to describe two distinct paths that people may take — the path of followers of God, and the path of the wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers. But what in actual deeds and actions these two paths consist of is not told us in this psalm. Who exactly are the sinners, and which path are they treading? Where do scoffers sit, and at what do they scoff, so we can see them from afar and avoid them?

And most importantly, if the world is so sharply divided as this Psalm suggests between the righteous who grow like trees and the wicked who are blowing away like chaff, why is it so hard to tell, in real life, the good from the bad? Everything rides on discerning a point that the psalmist doesn’t at all spell out. It’s not as if any of our significant life choices came with clearly printed labels as cigarettes and packaged food do.

If we dig further into the book of Psalms, we discover that, even though the word “righteousness” often makes us think of “self-righteousness,” or at best of personal purity, the lines drawn between wickedness and righteousness in the Psalms have far more to do with social categories than with purity categories. In fact, when the word “righteousness” (Hebrew tsedakah) appears in parallel with a synonym in the Psalms, that parallel synonym is three times more likely to be mishpat, “justice,” than any other word. Being righteous, the Psalms say repeatedly, means being just.

That is to say, when the Psalms discuss the righteous and the wicked, they are not exactly talking about small personal virtues and vices. Psalm 72, for instance, describes in some detail the monarch who rules in righteousness and the moral order he wants to enact:

Give the king your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to a king’s son.

May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,

give deliverance to the needy,

and crush the oppressor.

Righteousness according to the Psalms seems to mean right dealings with people who may be very different from ourselves, whose lives we can hardly comprehend.

This Psalm says that those who are walking on the happy path “delight in the torah of God, and on God’s torah they meditate day and night.” Torah, which means literally teaching, points specifically to the laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai. These laws presuppose a public life in which people are beset by neighbors with their straying sheep and hungry mouths and court cases.

The other Hebrew Scripture reading for the day, Leviticus 19, demands, “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (verse 15), and even, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 18).

If righteousness is tied to justice, and the Torah is filled with exhortations to do justice, the path of the righteous is no easy road. The wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers are not just hoodlums tempting kids to smoke cigarettes behind the schoolhouse. Rather, the temptations are substantial and difficult — how do we know when our judgment is being swayed by deference to wealth and power? How do we know when we are loving our neighbors rightly?

To love God with all one’s heart is, in a sense, easy as long as God remains invisible and can be imagined in whatever likeness we find most loveable. It’s our neighbors, who diligently refuse to be like us, who are so difficult to understand, much less to care for, those intractable others, they are the real challenge. A challenge to our good intentions so tough that the psalmist reckoned it necessary to ponder Torah constantly, day and night, to carry it out.