Saving Dates & Saving Souls

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The just shall flourish like the palm tree… They shall bear fruit even in old age, they will stay fresh and green…” (Psalm 92)

In the time of Jesus, forests of Judean date palms covered the whole region from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. This plant, the date palm, symbolized ancient Israel. When the scriptures call Israel “the land of milk and honey” we today think of cow’s milk and the honey of bees. But milk in the Old Testament is just as likely to be goat’s milk and the honey it refers to is usually the sweet honey of dates. By the 1500’s, human activity or changes in the climate had caused the Judean date palm to disappear. Because of that species’ extinction, the date palm plants grown across Israel today were brought over from California in the 1950’s and 60’s; they’re different in species and originally native to elsewhere in the Middle East. However, the Judean date palm was not to be lost forever.

The Judean Date Palm Tree Methuselah in 2018

During the 1960’s, archaeologists excavated the mountaintop palace fortress of Masasda built by King Herod the Great near the Dead Sea. There they found, preserved dry and sheltered in an ancient jar, a cache of date seeds which carbon testing indicates are 2,000 years old. These seeds were kept in storage at an Israeli university in Tel Aviv for forty years. Then, in 2006, an American-educated horticulturalist in Israel planted several of those seeds. To her and her colleagues’ delighted surprise, one sprouted. They named that plant after the oldest person in the Old Testament, Methuselah. Today it’s over eleven feet tall. After their success with Methuselah, they planted more ancient date seeds from Masada and the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and six new samplings have grown. They hope to pollinate one or more of the new female palms with pollen from Methuselah, which is male palm, eventually yielding the famous delicious dates of ancient times.

While the fruit of Judean date palms was celebrated for its sweet flavor and medicinal uses, its palm branches are also noteworthy. They were probably the kind of palm branches that the crowds waved and laid before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before he was killed, the day we call Palm Sunday. Jesus once lamented: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Jesus knew the history of the prophets as he entered Jerusalem – how God would send them to proclaim the right path to his people, usually urging conversion from their sins. Heeding the truth will set you free; but first, it may make you uncomfortable, defensive, and angry. God’s people typically resisted the saving message and derided, denounced, attacked, imprisoned, and killed the prophets. And then, the unhappy consequences the prophets had foretold would follow naturally and unchecked. Knowing how reluctant sinners are to listen and change, why did the prophets bother? And what was the point of it all when people so rarely listened? I suggest God’s prophets had three motivations.

One was to personally avoid God’s judgment themselves. In our first reading, the Lord warns the prophet Ezekiel: “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” The prophets did not want to be condemned for failing to do their holy duty.

A second motivation of the prophets was love, love for God and love for their neighbors. As St. Paul told the Romans in our second reading: “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… whatever other commandment there may be, [is] summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you were in danger, recklessly or unknowingly headed towards some serious physical or spiritual harm, don’t you wish someone would warn you? The prophets loved enough to try.

And a third motivation of the prophets was hope, hope that one day, perhaps many years later, the people they spoke to would be saved. The previously rebellious people, seeing their city ruined and their kingdom conquered as the prophets had foretold, would know that God had warned them and know that their next step should be to return to the Lord and walk in his ways. What motivated the prophets of old should motivate us as well, for many people go astray today.

Brothers… if a person is caught in some transgression,” St. Paul tells the Galatians, “you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit…” Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault (privately,) between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have (successfully) won over your brother.” And as St. James writes in his New Testament letter, “My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Fraternal correction isn’t fun, I know, but “admonishing the sinner” is a spiritual work of mercy you and I as Christians are called to do. Like the prophets, we are to place seeds, seeds containing the power and potential to yield sweet and healing fruit. Sometimes these seeds produce an immediate holy harvest through conversion. Yet we know our seeds will often be set aside, discarded, and forgotten; until, perhaps many years later after much desolation, these dormant seeds’ true and precious value is recognized, they’re allowed to sprout with deep new roots, and life that was once lost and dead is fully restored, producing good fruits again, to the joy of all God’s people.

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