When Ezekiel was about 30 years old, his country lost a war to the Babylonians. It was their policy to keep their conquered nations under control by bringing some of their best and brightest to Babylon, more or less as hostages. Ezekiel and his family were forced to travel over the desert to the east, to the great city of Babylon. He would live the rest of his life in the ghetto there with the young King Jehoiachin and the other transplanted Jews.
Ezekiel would receive God’s call a few years later as he is meditating on the banks of the Chebar River in Babylon. His ministry would last through the somewhat ambiguous decade in which he and some others were already in Babylon, but many of the Jews still in Judea were planning and executing a rebellion led by Zedekiah. This would bring on the final catastrophe, when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in 586. Ezekiel was trying to forestall this disaster by encouraging his people in Judah to cooperate with the Babylonians and not attempt to get free by violence. His words, of course, went unheeded.
He was telling the leaders of his people what they did not want to hear, which is what the prophets seems to be doing most of the time. The people in those days, like people today, believed in the notoriously un-biblical notion that God helps those who help themselves. Nothing could be further from the Spirit of the Scriptures. But still we seem to think that God is somehow our assistant, who responds positively to our agenda, and works to make what we want to happen.
Ezekiel is called by God to make it clear that God will not deliver the people in any way that restores or vindicates the former regime in Jerusalem. Human action will not save the people. But still the people should not lose hope or abandon their faith. God will deliver them. It will just be done in God’s way and God’s time.
The kind of redemption the people want is that the political and military machinations of those left in Judah succeed. They had ideas like making an alliance with Egypt, or simply rising in armed rebellion. Ezekiel advises them to forget about these approaches. Any deliverance that gives credit to human leaders is bound to fail. And revolt will only make the Babylonians more angry, and more violent in their repression of the people. Which is what happens in 586.
This part of Ezekiel’s book sort of sums all this up. Chapter 17 starts with a complicated parable, which is basically a warning against resisting Babylonian power. Ezekiel agrees with his predecessor, Jeremiah, that Judah made a covenant with Babylon which cannot be broken; and that in any case it is God’s will that the people be subjected to Babylonian rule for a time. It was the consequence of the people repeatedly falling into injustice, which was the result of following the tempting gods of economic growth, like Baal, which the other nations around them worshipped.
But verses 22-24 are sort of a re-configuration of the parable indicating the promise that God will redeem and liberate the people.
Back in the first parable, in verses 3 and 4, the top of the cedar tree represents the exiles, led by the king. The exiles were the top of Jewish society. Their conquerors cut them off and took them to “a land of trade,” “a city of merchants:” Babylon. They don’t figure in the parable after that.
Here in the second parable, though, we find out that this top of the tree will be planted back in Jerusalem, which is “the mountain height of Israel.” In other words, the exiles will return. And of course, they do.
But the new planting that emerges from this topmost sprig from the old tree will grow and “become a noble cedar.” Now, this is evidently no ordinary cedar. Ordinary cedars cannot grow roots from a cutting, and they don’t bear edible fruit. This is a special, God-blessed and super-endowed, symbolic cedar.
It will “bear fruit,” meaning that it will not be just majestic and beautiful, but it will nourish people. It will be a source of wisdom. This may be said to have happened as well. The exiles returned to Jerusalem and reestablished Judaism on a new foundation of the newly edited and completed Torah, and the spiritual disciplines of keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath. They also built synagogues in every village so the people could gather and study God’s Word. And they would eventually rebuild the Temple as well. In this new regime people could be spiritual fed much better than before.
This super cedar tree would also provide a home for “every kind of bird,” and “winged creatures of every kind.” What this tells us is that rather than stay a parochial religion for one little nation in the Middle East, the new manifestation of Judaism is supposed to embrace and welcome everyone. It will be a fulfillment of the promise God gave to Abraham way back in Genesis, about how his descendants will be a blessing to all nations.
Unfortunately, although God does perform a stupendous miracle and the Jews do go back to Jerusalem, this part of the vision did not happen when the exiles returned. In fact, the restored nation and religion was arguably even more closed and limited than the earlier version. They made it their business to be pure and separate, even to the point of oppressing the people of the land, many of whom were non-Jews shipped in by the Babylonians to occupy the land.
It would take another 500 years for this part of the prophecy to be fulfilled, and it would be fulfilled by two more Jewish prophets. Their names were Jesus and Paul. In fact, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that the time is fulfilled, that is, the time that has had to elapse before this part of Ezekiel’s prophecy, and other prophecies, could be fulfilled is now over.
Therefore, we Christians hear this passage as referring to Jesus the promised Messiah, who finally does come and welcome all people into the family of God. He becomes the final revelation of Ezekiel’s great cedar tree that becomes a source of wisdom and a home for all peoples. And he becomes the final revelation of God’s inexorable plan for turning human systems and projects upside down.
“I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.” And in Jesus this of course is exactly what happens. It is prophesied again by his mother, when she sings that famous hymn about how God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
This is the part the returning exiles didn’t get. They thought they had to impose righteousness and justice on the people by coercion and regulation. But after 500 years of this strategy Jesus comes along and points out what a failure it has been in making people good.
What the leaders don’t realize is that true greatness emerges from the low tree, and true life shines from the dried up and practically dead tree. I think Ezekiel is saying that the new, reformed version of Judaism will not have leaders like the kings before. It will not be about these high trees that lord it over people anymore. Neither will the people be led by the prosperous green trees. In other words, power and wealth are not sources of authority in the newly reestablished faith. Rather, authority will emerge from the low, the poor, and the excluded, even the diseased, the suffering, and the dead.
Because if Ezekiel learned anything from his experience dealing with military commanders and their plans, it is that this kind of power corrupts and separates someone from the God who lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud. When left to their own thinking they engage in suicidal rebellions that cause the deaths of thousands. Ezekiel sees that God is giving up on trying to work through kings and powerful, wealthy people.
But for Ezekiel, and later for Jesus and his apostles, it is all about God. God is a God of miracles. God does the unlikely and the impossible. It is God’s amazing and unexpected action that brings the exiles home, not the self-serving and disastrous rebellions of their leaders, which only drew down horrific suffering on the people.
Ezekiel’s vision has yet to be fully realized, even today. We’re still choosing our leaders from the wealthy and powerful, even in the church.
Lately I have had occasion to reflect a good deal about the nature of leadership. I have been increasingly astounded and disappointed by the leaders I have known in society and in the church. Those who make themselves high trees of power and/or green trees of wealth have mostly shown themselves to be corrupted, disastrous leaders. Too often they preach a message intended to stoke our fear and anger, and we blithely and even enthusiastically follow them into war, debt, injustice, inequality, ecological catastrophe, and economic collapse… and then we get to pay the price!
The church, after simple beginnings where leaders were chosen based on God’s call, eventually degenerated into an institution dominated by often corrupt, monarchical bishops. Today we’re still trying to get over the “CEO” model of ecclesiastical leadership, which has been instrumental in snuffing out the work of the Holy Spirit for about 60 years now.
But around the edges of the church something else has been happening, an alternative understanding of leadership that listens to the low trees and the dried up trees, the people at the bottom who do the work and with whom God identifies in Jesus Christ.
Jesus insists that this is what the Kingdom of God is like. It is like seed scattered on the ground that somehow sprouts and grows seemingly on its own. “The earth produces of itself,” he says. There is no central executive office telling seeds what to do. There is no seed-king giving orders that the seeds have to obey. There is no command-and-control hierarchy for seeds. They just know because that’s the way God made them. This knowledge of how to live and grow is embedded and encoded within them. Just as he says the Kingdom of God is within us. It is God who brings the growth, emerging from within us. We mainly just have to get out of the way.
Just as with seeds, God places within each of us the ability to grow in the Spirit. This law, says Paul, after Jeremiah, is written on our hearts.
The days are coming and are now here when we will not need leaders. The only leaders we can use now are those who will continually remind us that we do not need leaders. We will realize that Jesus Christ is our only leader, the only Head of the Church. Compared to him we are all on the same level. We all look to him to lead us, by his Word and Spirit in the gathering of his disciples. We have different gifts and different responsibilities in the body of Christ. But we have only one Lord and one Head.
The Protestant movement of the 16th century will have at least one lasting legacy and that is “the priesthood of all believers.” God gives each follower sufficient authority to be a follower. Our access to God is direct. We have no need of leaders to function as “middlemen.” God works in and through the gathering of these different perspectives and gifts. If an institution appears to require someone to take special charge over others then it is probably too big to be faithful.
Under Jesus’ vision, which is a development and fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision, it is up to each individual believer to find within themselves the presence of the Kingdom of God. We each have to find our own specially calling from God and identify the gifts God has given is to fulfill this calling. This happens when we gather together in community to hear and respond to God’s Word, Jesus Christ.
This community necessarily reaches out to and welcomes and embraces every category of person. It does not exclude or reject anyone. In fact, like Jesus, it makes a point of locating and drawing in the most unlikely and different people.
And there is a responsibility here for each one to listen for God’s Word by reading Scripture, and participating in the Sacraments, and praying regularly, and gathering with other disciples to discern God’s will together.
For in the end, we are the noble cedar tree. We are the ones who bear fruit and grow. We are the ones who were low but now have been lifted up. We are the ones who were dried up and dead, but now have engaged in new life. Ezekiel prophesied about us. For Jesus Christ is the top-most branch that now blooms and grows, and spreads its blessings across the whole creation. And we are the heirs of his promise, his family, his body on the earth.