by Father Mike Stubbs
When settlers first encountered what is now the state of Kansas and other parts of the Great Plains, they sometimes called this region “the Great American Desert.”
Compared to the eastern part of the United States, it received far less rain. Instead of forests, prairie covered its vast expanses. At the same time, a few rivers and streams meandered through it. On their banks, cottonwoods and other trees would often grow.
The image of a tree next to a river figures prominently in Sunday’s first reading, Jer 17:5-8. It holds up the example of the person who trusts in the Lord:
“He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”
This image of the tree planted next to the river contrasts with the image of the “barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.”
We might picture a tumbleweed out in western Kansas. That image stands for “the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord.”
These contrasting images, as different as black and white, as night and day, echo Psalm 1. It also employs the image of a tree “planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season; Its leaves never wither; whatever they do prosper” (Ps 1: 3).
One person who trusts in God and follows God’s will is contrasted with the person who turns away from God. This device of contrasting the two makes them stand out more clearly.
It is also the device that we hear employed in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 6:17, 20-26. Four beatitudes contrast with four woes, which describe those persons who, while apparently fortunate in the eyes of the world, are lacking in what counts with God.
Sunday’s first reading from Jeremiah anticipates the contrasting beatitudes and woes of the Gospel reading. Its vivid images help us to picture how those beatitudes and woes might play out in real life. It helps to open our ears and hearts to the life-giving words of Christ.
Those words are like the waters of a river that brings life to a tree planted on its banks.