The ax is laid to the root of the tree

by Thomas Gumbleton

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Last Sunday when we were reflecting on the scriptures, we pointed out how John the Baptist in fact underwent a very significant kind of conversion as it became clear to him that he was to proclaim the good news about Jesus, and that he was to be one who would turn people from following him and those like him who were trying to reform the chosen people, to follow Jesus in an even more radical way. That understanding of John comes about because, in the Gospel as Mark presents it and then Luke follows after Mark, we find Mark and Luke saying, "The time has come; the reign of God is at hand. Change your lives. Believe the good news."

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-18

Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6

Philippians 4:4-6

Luke 3:10-18

Full text of the readings

But before that, John had been described by Mark as a voice crying in the wilderness. This was actually, as we know, a quote from the book of the prophet Isaiah in the 40th chapter. In that chapter, Isaiah simply says, "A voice cries in the wilderness." And then there comes a period, and he goes on to say, "Prepare the way of the Lord. Level his path. Prepare the way of the Lord." It's as though, well, what Mark and Luke do is they change slightly what Isaiah has said. Isaiah simply says, "A voice cries in the wilderness. -- period-- Prepare the way of the Lord." Mark and Luke make it as though John is that voice crying in the wilderness: "A voice cries in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord.' " He doesn't make two separate sentences. John is the voice preparing the way of the Lord.

In fact, that change from the way the text of Isaiah was used was discovered to be a change that had been made by the community of a group called Essenes, who were a reform-minded group of Jewish people who began to gather together in the desert and preach a very austere following of the ways of God according to the law of Moses. They lived this austere life in the desert and from that place in the desert, they thought of themselves as preparing the way of the Lord. It was this group of Essenes who actually first made the change in the text. Luke and Mark picked that up, so it sounds as though John is the one now, that is the voice crying in the desert, preparing the way of the Lord.

We take it as a new call, but actually it's this call of the Essenes, the desert reformers of whom John was almost certainly part. When you notice that slight change and that John now becomes the voice in the desert preparing the way of the Lord, we do not notice that in fact, John only discovers Jesus and discovers that Jesus is the one who is to prepare the way of the Lord, prepare the way for God to come into their midst. John, we have come to understand, is a voice, not just of a group of reformers in the desert, but he discovers Jesus as the one who is to now come into the world and preach this good news, which is how Mark starts his gospel, Jesus publicly proclaiming the good news, "The reign of God is at hand. Change your lives."

With that slight change then, as we listen to today's Gospel and when we understand this change that John suddenly discovers that this group of Essenes are not the ones who are to bring about the reform, there is another one; it's Jesus, and the reform is to go far beyond simply a reform of the covenant proclaimed by Moses, a covenant of God with the chosen people. It's something very different. That's why, in today's Gospel, when people start to ask John what to do, John gives them examples that would be changes in their way of acting according to the covenant, the law of Moses.

If you have two coats, give one to the person who has none. If you have food, do the same, do the same -- give it to others who do not have food. If you're tax collectors, well, you must collect no more than the fixed rate. In other words, no more of the inflating of the tax so that you get your own profit. What about soldiers? John says don't take anything by force or threaten the people by denouncing them falsely. He's urging the soldiers to a kind of moderation. But then when he speaks about Jesus, he understands that Jesus has come now with a whole new, radical way of changing, so John says that Jesus will preach in a way that goes far beyond the old covenant. "The ax is already laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." Produce now the fruits of a true change of heart and do not deceive yourselves by saying, 'We're children of Abraham and Sarah,' nor that we can depend upon this covenant that we've entered into as God's chosen people.

No; it's something radically new, what Jesus is going to proclaim and does proclaim, and as we prepare for this coming of Jesus into our lives, not just as the first Sunday of Advent suggested, at the end of time, when Jesus will return in the fullness of his glory; not just in the remembering of his birth at Christmas, when we recreate, in a way, in our imagination, the events that happened 2,000 years ago, but how God comes into your life right now and demands a radical change. This is what John is telling us today in the gospel, so during this season of Advent, we're not just looking forward, again, either to the end of time when Jesus will come again in glory, nor to his birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, but what Jesus does now as Jesus comes into our life at any moment, at every moment, God is present to us, is asking us to undergo radical change.

If we try to make concrete what that change might be, there are a couple of things that come out of current events that I think show us what we have to do, at least one aspect of the radical change, if we're going to live according to the way of Jesus who came, as he said, not to abolish the old law, but to fulfill it, to move beyond it: "You have heard that it was said of old, 'Love your neighbor, hate your enemy,' I say to you ..." and all of those ways in which Jesus said you have to go beyond what was said of old. "I say to you," this new way.

On Nov. 19, President Barack Obama wrote a stirring tribute in USA Today, the newspaper, to the most famous draft resister in U.S. history, Muhammad Ali. President Obama wrote about why Ali's photo hangs over his desk. He said, praising Ali, for "his unique ability to summon extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity, to navigate the storm and never lose his way." But then on Tuesday, Dec. 1, President Obama showed neither courage or strength, but the worst kind of imperial arrogance, what an empire does. He asserted our right, the right of the United States, to go into a deeply impoverished country.

If you look at history, from the time of Alexander the Great to the time of the Soviet Union to today, this country has made clear to the world's empires that it wants to have its own independence from those empires; it does not want to be conquered. On Nov. 19, President Obama praised Ali as "a force for reconciliation and peace around the world." But on Tuesday, Dec. 1, he reconciled himself with going to war.

Which is the radical way of Jesus? The way of rejecting war, the way that Muhammad Ali did. Here are words he spoke four decades ago, and President Obama says this is a hero for our times:

"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

"No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again, the real enemy of my people is here. ... If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years."

Here is a person who stood up, rejected going to war, stood up for the rights of the poor, of the oppressed and in his case, he points out, people of color throughout the world.

But we need to go even beyond that if we're going to be faithful to who we are as disciples of Jesus. It's so clear in the gospel message of Jesus that we must reject war, violence, killing. We simply have to say no to all of those things. Some years ago, Pax Christi USA (that's a Catholic peace movement), developed what the movement calls "A vow of nonviolence." It really sums up the radical message of Jesus, taking the ax to the roots, getting down to the root message of Jesus. Here's how that vow goes:

"Recognizing the violence in my own heart, yet trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, I promise to practice the nonviolence of Jesus, who taught us in the Sermon on the Mount: 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God ... You have heard how it was said, "You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy"; but I say to you, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In this way, you will be daughters and sons of God in heaven." Before God our Creator, before God our Sanctifying Spirit, I promise to carry out in my life the love and example of Jesus."

Now here is the message of Jesus that confronts us as he comes into our lives in this Advent season, at any moment of any day:

"I will strive for peace within myself and seek to be a peacemaker in my daily life. I will accept suffering rather than inflict suffering. I will refuse to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence. I will persevere in nonviolence of tongue and heart. I will live conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live. I will actively resist evil and work nonviolently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth."

Those words show us what John the Baptist meant when he said Jesus will come and take the ax to the tree. He will bring about radical, profound change. "I tell you, God can make sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah from the very stones, because the ax is laid to the root of the tree." That's being radical. We have to change profoundly.

That's the invitation that is given to us, the call that is given to us as Jesus enters our life during this Advent season, and at any moment of any day, Jesus is there calling us.

The other lessons today remind us that if we can respond to that call, we will find a joy and a peace. The prophet Zephaniah, in our first lesson, talking to a people who had just returned from exile and were in profound suffering, "Cry out with joy, daughter of Zion! Rejoice, O people of Israel! Sing joyfully with all your heart ... On that day, they will say to Jerusalem, 'Do not be afraid nor let your hands tremble, for God, your God, is within you.'" That's what happens when we begin to follow the way of Jesus. God is with us, within us.

Isn't that the same thing that Paul is saying? Remember, Paul is writing these words from prison, a very harsh, difficult imprisonment that he was experiencing, but he says, "Rejoice, rejoice in the Lord always. I say again, rejoice!" Why? Because God is near. Jesus is near. So then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. You will be filled with a sense of joy and peace if you can be alert and responsive to the God who is within you in Jesus.

That happens, not just at the end of time again, not just at that moment when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but that can happen in any moment and every moment of our lives. God is with us. We must be alert to God with us and within us and change our ways. Then the joy and peace of God will be ours and will never be taken from us.

[This homily was preached at St. Leo Parish, Detroit, Mich.]

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