Thorns

We’ve all regretted planting at least a few plants in the garden. Perhaps it’s an overly aggressive ground cover. Or the mustard plants that drop thousands of seeds before you can pull them. Or what about the mint that nearly took over the entire neighborhood? For me, my most troublesome plant in recent years has been an extremely thorny variety of blackberry bramble. It demands a good bit of painful pruning every year to keep it from taking over. But what makes it especially difficult is that it produces beautiful blackberries. This ensures that I’ll never quite be able to bring myself to remove it completely. But I have come to peace with this plant, in part, because it has become sacramental to me. It is a means by which God brings me His wisdom and grace.

The Bible talks about thorns quite often. That shouldn’t be surprising. Palestine, the context for much of the Bible, is a land overrun by thorns and other prickly, stinging plants, including nettles and thistles. There are at least 70 common varieties of plants that would represent this general category. I doubt anyone in the Bible world escaped childhood without numerous pricks and stings. In an agricultural society, thorns and thistles were quick to overrun ploughed fields if left untended. A few years without cultivation would result in a field filled with thistles (seeds carried in on the wind), berry brambles and other thorny fruiting plants (seeds carried in by birds). To reopen such a field to cultivation after a year or two required a good burning and then constant weeding to deal with sprouting seeds. Thorns and thistles brought people a great deal of work.

In the Ancient Near East, cultivation was most restricted during times of war and social instability. What is the point of planting food when an enemy will sweep in and take it? So in bad and unstable times, many fields went abandoned. Thorns and thistles thrived during times of economic hardship, drought, and war. They reflected a world in chaos, where people were unable to keep a grip on their livelihood.

It would have struck home when the Scriptures mentioning thorns were read. Thorns show up early in the biblical narrative as part of the curse laid on Adam and Eve for their sin: “And to the man God said, ‘Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat, the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return’” (Genesis 3:17-18). Ever since, thorns have been a sign and reminder of the disruptive and painful presence of sin.

The prophet Isaiah, among others, took up the theme centuries later, tying thorns to judgment:  “In that day of judgment the lush vineyards . . . will become patches of briers and thorns. The entire land will become a vast expanse of briers and thorns, a hunting ground overrun by wildlife. No one will go to the fertile hillsides where the gardens once grew, for briers and thorns will cover them. Cattle, sheep, and goats will graze there” (Isaiah 7:23-25). Sin would bring judgment and lead to the failure of agriculture. The breakdown of cultivation and the conquest of thorns are consequences of sin.

Jesus continued the connection by telling a story about how our hearts are like soils, and that some of our hearts are like a soil quickly overgrown with thorns: “The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced” (Matthew 13:22).  The sin in our lives and in the world around us can certainly keep us from making spiritual progress.

As we reflect on the season of Lent and look toward Christ’s suffering on Good Friday, should it surprise us that He was wearing a crown of thorns as He died? As He hung on the cross to redeem all creation from the destructive power of sin, Jesus was wearing the painful sign of sin’s curse.

“Some of the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into their headquarters and called out the entire regiment. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. They wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head, and they placed a reed stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery and taunted, ‘Hail! King of the Jews!’ And they spit on him and grabbed the stick and struck him on the head with it. When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified” (Matthew 27:27-31).

The soldiers who crowned Jesus likely considered it an act of clever mockery. But in the larger narrative of Scripture, we discover that Jesus was wearing  one of the most enduring symbols of our fallen, broken world. And by voluntarily wearing the curse of the Fall, Jesus overcame the Fall forever. He gives us hope for a new world and a new Kingdom.

The prophet Isaiah looked with hope for this Kingdom: “Come to me with your ears wide open. Listen, and you will find life. I will make an everlasting covenant with you. I will give you all the unfailing love I promised to David. . . . You will live in joy and peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands! Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow. Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up. These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name; they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love” (Isaiah 55:12-13).

And at the very end of time, the healing work of Christ on the cross will bear its final fruit: “Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations. No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:1-3).

Crown of Thorns

So the thorns in my garden remind me of many truths, because they are a sign of the sin that has shattered our world: Thorns and sin cause suffering to all who come in contact with them. Thorns and sin create a great deal of hard work. Thorns and sin deplete productivity in the garden and Kingdom. Thorns and sin may need to be burned out for a new start. And thorns bring to mind the suffering of Christ on the cross, an act that in the end will set us free from all brokenness and suffering.

Garden Tip: Live dangerously—plant some thorns! (This is NOT a suggestion to plant sin in your life.) I suggest blackberries or raspberries so you get some reward for your suffering. Thorny varieties of climbing rose can be wonderful, too. Shrubs like barberry are also excellent for a prick or two! When you are pruning these thorny plants, take a little time to weave a crown of thorns to hang on your wall. As you weave it, you’re sure to get stuck a few times. And as you see it hanging there, remember the destructive power of sin and the pain that the Christ suffered on your behalf in order to set you and the entire cosmos free.

And remember with the apostle Paul that sometimes thorns aren’t all bad, whether a besetting sin or a troubling infirmity. Either is evidence of our broken world, but such thorns help to teach us humility and dependence on God. Paul wrote:  “To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, . . . Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

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Sabbath

“So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

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As creatures made in God’s image, it is natural for us to look for ways to create and rule. The garden is one place we can live this out in concrete ways. Each winter about this time, seed displays and catalogs find my attention, and I begin to think about what to plant and how to organize things. This is a good exercise for the days of Lent, for it is a time to reflect on how we are doing as creators and rulers—as makers and keepers. In the beginning, God made this amazing garden planet that we call home, and then he instituted a day of rest. In later Scriptures he clarifies that the rest is a necessary gift to the land and all the creatures living in it, including ourselves. So as rulers in the garden, we need to think about what it means to institute Sabbath in all we do.

As with all of his laws, the Sabbath was given to the people for their own good. God created people, animals, and even the environment with particular needs. And all have been created with the need to rest. That need could have been provided for if humankind—those assigned the task of ruling the earth—had guided others to follow God’s example. But after the fall into sin, people in power came to abuse and enslave the poor and weak, driving them to exhaustion. The same was done with the animals and the land. And such is the state of the world today.

God gave His laws to provide direction and bring hope that there might still be a world of wholeness and peace—of shalom. Some of His laws called the people to love God above all else. Some of the laws called the people to care for others as they would care for themselves. The Sabbath law calls people to do both—to look up toward God in worship and out toward others with generosity. It also demands that we look inward, granting ourselves the chance to slow down and find our true Center.

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. . . . On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do. Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the LORD your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

“Plant and harvest your crops for six years, but let the land be renewed and lie uncultivated during the seventh year. Then let the poor among you harvest whatever grows on its own. Leave the rest for wild animals to eat. The same applies to your vineyards and olive groves. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed.” (Exodus 23:10-12; see also Leviticus 25:2-7, 11-12)

Why do we find God’s laws such a burden? Why do we come to obedience kicking and screaming? When the people of Israel failed to follow God’s laws, God asked Moses, “How long will these people refuse to obey my commands and instructions? They must realize that the Sabbath is the LORD’s gift to you.” (Exodus 16:28-29) All God’s laws—especially the Sabbath laws—are gifts that help us to learn hospitality toward God, toward others, toward our animals, toward the land, even toward ourselves. They are a means for finding balance, health, and wholeness in life.

Observing the Sabbath laws, like any laws, can easily be turned on their head, leading to ever new forms of oppression. This was hardly the original intent. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day made a great show of Sabbath observance and demanded the same of others—even of those who did not have the choices afforded the wealthy. Jesus was deeply angered by their misuse of the Sabbath.

The Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:24-27; see also Matthew 2:1-12; Mark 3:4)

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One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!” Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

But the leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.”

But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” (Luke 13:10-16; see also Luke 14:1-6)

If the law of Sabbath is a gift to teach us hospitality toward God, toward others, toward all God’s creatures, toward the land, even toward ourselves, we must ask hard questions: Are we accomplishing hospitality with all our decisions and actions, whether on the Sabbath or otherwise? Do our decisions and actions set others free, or are others enslaved by them? Do our decisions and actions lead to the oppression of others, of God’s myriad creatures, of the world he has created, of our families, of ourselves? How do our decisions and actions reflect the fact that God is ruling in our lives? Are we truly worshiping Him alone?

God wants us to find rest in Him and to offer rest to all whom we touch in this life. This day, look for new ways to find rest in God by embracing His law and His loving presence. Look for new ways to grant rest to others by cleaning a house, writing a letter, making a phone call, weeding a garden, giving  a smile or a greeting, cooking a meal, offering healing space. Be an instrument of God’s peace, and help others experience the benefits of God’s rule and presence. Be a part of God’s redemption in the world.

Garden Tip: Demonstrate the Sabbath law in your garden through crop rotation. Separate your garden into different sections or beds, rotating different kinds of plants from bed to bed each year. Different kinds of plants have different nutritional needs. By grouping and rotating them, you can enable the soil to recharge. This will also reduce the fungal and bacterial diseases and insect pests that tend to collect in garden soil used for the same crop year after year.

The traditional four bed garden is an excellent model for this. Divide up your vegetables into four categories: (1) leafy (lettuce, kale, salad greens [need +nitrogen]), (2) fruits (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash [need +phosphorus]), (3) roots (onions, garlic, carrots, beets [need +potassium]), (4) builders (peas, beans [these add nitrogen])/ cleaners (corn, potatoes). Then rotate the plantings through your beds in this order. This succession gives an organically fed soil the appropriate nutrients in successive years.

Add a fifth bed to the cycle and plant a cover crop (green manure) during the fifth year, allowing the bed to rest. The cover crop will keep weeds from taking over the fallow bed and add organic matter to the soil when it’s turned under. Use annual grasses like rye or, if you need an additional boost of nitrogen, a legume like vetch.

Ploughing

Although many of us find our work in the garden to be “rest,” since we do some sort of other work for a living, there is a great deal of physical work involved. There’s cultivating, soil preparation, turning the compost, weeding, watering, tending and pruning the plants, and harvesting, among other things. Work in the garden is the cause of a great deal of sweat and muscle pain. And for those who garden or farm for a living, it involves significant physical labor every day.

Over the centuries, farmers have found ways of sharing the labor of working their fields. Whether by having large families or by training oxen, mules, and horses to pull a plough, they brought whatever resources they could to support their effort. In our modern day, tractors and rototillers are often put to use.

Jesus compared the heavy work of ploughing a field to the spiritual life. In his day, the Pharisees had made the difficult task of following God even more difficult. They weren’t satisfied by the laws that led to demonstrating love for God and neighbor. They added numerous rules and regulations to their culture of spirituality. Following these laws grew into a competition for spiritual status, leading to a religion of external activity, with little concern for the issues of the heart. In short, it became a really heavy burden—a burden that God never intended for anyone to carry. It also led to isolation, as each person sought to be “better” than another.

Jesus came and simplified things to two great commandments (Mark 12:29-31), already known and clearly stated in the Hebrew Bible: Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus knew that if these two were followed, all the other details of God’s law would be fulfilled as well. But Jesus knew that following even this simpler law would not be easy in this broken world. So he not only offered a simpler law, but his own friendship and power to help those who would seek to follow it.

Ox Yoke

Jesus used the metaphor of the ox yoke to teach about the spiritual life.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The ox yoke attaches the oxen to anything that needs to be pulled, whether plough or cart. Most ox yokes are made to join a pair of oxen. Each pair of oxen was matched for size and strength, but there was normally a lead ox, one more experienced, that by its action would direct the younger ox on when to pull or stop. The lead ox knew what was going on. This relational training practice enabled farmers to sell one experienced ox, but keep the other to train up young oxen from among their bull calves.

When Jesus asks us to put on His yoke and learn from Him, He’s asking us to be the young ox in His yoke and to pull together with Him in His field. He knows when to pull and when to stop, so we need to stay yoked with Him. He knows the right direction to pull, so we need to stay yoked to Him. He has the strength to pull even when we are too tired to take another step, so we need to stay yoked to Him. He cares about us more than anyone else and will make sure we are eternally safe, so we need to stay yoked to Him.

Jesus wanted us to understand that the spiritual life is really about going on a journey with Him, and less about doing a long list of requirements for Him. If we are walking beside Jesus through the Spirit and pulling with Him in His field, any “requirements” will be fulfilled through our steps on the journey. Such is the law of love.

Garden Tip: Don’t try to do it all alone.

Justice Herbs

Mint

Everything we see and experience can become a messenger for God. This is especially true in the world of nature, since everything reflects its Creator in some way or another. For this reason, the garden is filled with reminders of important truths. This is even more true when our garden plants are used by the writers of Scripture, even by Jesus Himself, to illustrate truth. We saw this in the last post with reflections on the grapevine.

Today we turn to our herb gardens. Even the smallest vegetable garden usually has a few herbs for fresh seasoning, things like chives, rosemary, dill, basil, oregano, mint. Many of our gardens have dozens of such plants, adding layers and dimensions of scent, color, and texture. This is nothing new. Culinary and medicinal herbs have been important to gardeners for thousands of years, as we see in the words of Jesus.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from the mint, dill, and cumin in your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!”  (Matthew 23:23-24)

The herbs mentioned in this passage—mint, dill, and cumin—have long been common culinary plants in Palestine. The parallel account by Gospel writer Luke (Luke 11:42) includes the mention of rue, another common herb. As I tend my herbs, I let the plants remind me of the truth in this Scripture passage. (In fact, I often plant the mint, dill, cumin, and rue together as a particular reminder—my justice herbs.)

Dill

Jesus was pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. They went above and beyond in their tithing, giving to God even a portion of the income from their herb gardens. There was nothing wrong with this, except that they did it to demonstrate their religious superiority in the eyes of the people around them. All the while, they were turning a blind eye to injustice, even perhaps committing unjust acts themselves.

How often do we appear to do “all the right things,” even a few extra things, to look good in the eyes of our neighbors, while failing to do the really important things? Have we withheld mercy to an old friend who needs our forgiveness? Or have we forgotten to demonstrate the love of God to the people around us? The elderly widow down the street? Our parents, who now find it hard to clean the house or weed the garden? Those who are hungry, just on the other side of the village? Or the many needy and orphaned children in our neighborhood—town—nation—world?

Listen to these words from the letter by the apostle James: “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27). What good activities are we using to hide the fact that we are failing to do the really important things?

Rue

Garden Tip: Set aside some space in your herb garden to group together the herbs of mint, dill, cumin, and rue. Use them as a reminder to reflect on the ways you may be doing good deeds to get the attention of others, while failing to do the important things that God has given you to do. If you find yourself wanting, take steps to make a change.