The Mulberry Tree
Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year. Hb 1:2-3; 2:2-4; Ps 95:1-2; 6-9; 2 Tm 1:6-8, 13-14; Lk 17:5-10
Today’s Gospel image of a mulberry tree being uprooted and planted in the sea is one of the most astonishing conceptions in the Bible. The first reading assures us that a true prophetic vision does not disappoint and will press on to its fulfillment. Yet in the whole of Christian history there is not a single authentic record of anyone successfully telling any tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. How then are we to interpret this parable?
One possible interpretation is that Jesus is simply saying that those with faith will be able to do what seems impossible. Indeed, there have been those with faith, such as the saints, who have done what is apparently impossible throughout Christian history. Examples are great miracles such as raising the dead or converting the Roman Empire. Yet why doesn’t Jesus choose miracles like these as an illustration of what the faithful will achieve? For example, why doesn’t he say that those with faith the size of a mustard seed will raise the dead? His particular choice of a mulberry tree implies a deeper and more specific meaning.
A second, rather dark possibility is that Jesus is simply telling us that no one has ever had enough faith. Here the reasoning is as follows: the tiniest amount of faith is sufficient to re-plant a tree in the sea; no-one has ever successfully re-planted a tree in the sea; therefore, no one has ever had the tiniest amount of faith. However, although this interpretation is logically consistent, it is also unsatisfactory. It is hard to believe that Jesus would go to the trouble of giving us this parable simply as on going measure of how hopeless we are. Furthermore, it is hard to believe such a lack of faith has been true of the whole Church throughout the whole of her history. Despite the many failures of Christians, the Church has still cultivated many men and women outstanding in faith. So this second interpretation, that the miracle is a simply a kind of measure of the lack of faith of Christians, also seems wrong.
A third possibility is simply to reject the literal interpretation completely and look for its spiritual meaning. In fact, there are excellent grounds for rejecting the literal interpretation. For example, Christian miracles are always for some holy purpose and it is hard to see what holy purpose literally planting a tree in the sea would achieve. This kind of showy display of power over nature, like a spell out of Harry Potter, is something we associate with power hungry Gnostic magicians or certain corrupt scientific materialists today. By contrast, in the spiritual sense there is a perfectly coherent explanation of this parable, provided we understand the symbolic language of Scripture. The interpretation is as follows. God created the world, including mulberry trees, and God, the Word made flesh, sometimes makes use of such natural objects as symbols of supernatural realities we can understand under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Since God tends to be consistent in His use of symbols, and since wood is usually a symbol of the cross in Scripture, the use of a tree in this parable suggests an association with Christ. Furthermore, Christ names the tree as a mulberry tree, the fruit of which begin white and turn blood red when they ripen. Indeed, this red colour is sufficiently striking for the ancient Greeks to have had a myth that the mulberry fruit had been stained by the blood of two slain lovers. The association of this particular tree with blood therefore strongly suggests that the mulberry tree is Christ, the white fruit signifying purity and red fruit signifying sacrificial death. So what is the meaning of the tree being planted in the sea? For the Jews, the sea was a symbol of chaos, what the first reading calls strife, and clamorous discord. Therefore, the obvious spiritual interpretation of the sea in the Gospel is the pagan world of the gentiles, with their many strange, discordant and demonic gods. So I suggest that the spiritual meaning of the parable is as follows. Jesus Christ, the mulberry tree, which has being maturing for over a thousand years in the spiritual soil of Israel, will be uprooted and re-planted in the bitter, salt water chaos of paganism, the world of the gentiles. And there it will miraculously bear fruit until the appointed time, the return of the Jews and the Second Coming. So with this parable, Jesus is not giving us some bizarre image of the impossible, but a prophecy about what will subsequently take place. There were those, like St. Paul in the second reading, who had faith at least the size of a mustard seed to re-plant the Gospel in the chaos of paganism. And we as Christian gentiles in St. Ambrose this morning are the beneficiaries of their faith.
This is the big picture, but is there some final and more local lesson for our own lives? The image of the tree planted in the sea does, I think, suggest at least one important practical lesson. In my experience, the work of the Gospel sometimes seems fruitless under the best of circumstances, like a barren tree in good soil. By contrast, the work of the Gospel is sometimes miraculously successful under the worst imaginable circumstances, like a fruitful tree planted in the sea. This breaking of the link between natural conditions and supernatural fruitfulness is important for our spiritual maturity. By nature, we are unprofitable servants. If, however, we wait on the Lord and listen to Him, we will bear greater spiritual fruit than we could ever imagine. But we must do what He tells us.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 7th October 2007
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