Shake the Tree
A person I knew always used the expression; “Shake the Tree.” It was his way of saying, when you believe you have used up all your options and exhausted all the opportunities you see, its time to shake the tree to see what else falls out of it.
In Africa that could be advantageous because if you were in the veld and you were hungry and you shook a tree, you could be rewarded with wild fruit. On the other hand, you could shake a black mamba out of the tree.
So often we believe that there is nothing new to be learned when, in fact, the shaking of the tree might yield interesting results.
This is a metaphor that can help us in understanding Jesus too.
In the time of Jesus it appeared as though the religious establishment had total control over issues of faith. The spiritual elite interpreted God to the people. They claimed that they alone were the intermediaries between God and the people. For people living in that time it was easy to simply accept the status quo, but Jesus taught that sometimes, you need to shake the tree, to challenge the established thinking and practices, even the old traditions, in search of truth and meaning.
When Jesus shook the establishment, much fruit was gained from his life and teachings. But quite a few black mambas were also shaken out of the tree.
Our story from the Mark Gospel tells us how Jesus progressed on his journey from the muddy waters of the Jordan, where he had been baptized by John, to his first public appearances and the beginning of his ministry among the poor, rural people of Galilea.
Today’s story sets the tone.
Jesus walks by Levi (also known as Matthew), a hated tax collector. Tax collectors were a class seen to be collaborators of Rome. The tax collectors were known to be extortionists who would overcharge the people and pocket the money for themselves. They were deemed ritually unclean, and thus banned from the Temple service. To even associate with one would render you unclean and unfit for participating in the Temple service—the equivalent in our times of being banned from entering the church because your presence would defile everyone gathered here.
Jesus calls Levi as his disciple, then enters his home and sits down for a meal with him. This would be the equivalent of one of us inviting Riverheads most prominent drug-dealer into our church and offering him a position on the church council.
Let’s digest that one for a moment.
These actions of Jesus caused total consternation. Just imagine, for a moment, how the story of the drug-dealer would spread through the Riverhead community. Imagine the reaction of law-enforcement officials. I am sure the Conference would send someone to ask us what’s happening here seeing that the press and TV was making this a big story.
In any case, it’s a metaphor we can lots of fun with.
But the important thing here is what Jesus achieves by “shaking” this tree.
The first thing to happen is that Levi’s life is changed forever. This story, as told in some of the other gospels, tells how Levi admits to the wrongs he had done and makes the commitment to make right his wrongs by paying back everyone he had stolen from.
But not only that.
This meal, at which many of Levi’s fellow-tax collectors were present, changed their lives too. They, too, reversed their fraudulent dealings, and committed themselves to a new life.
Through this scandalous act of dining with the tax collectors Jesus achieved what the most pious religious leaders could never achieve. Not only were the lives of the tax-collectors changed but their communities were also changed.
By shaking the tree of the religious tree of the status quo this event foreshadows what might happen when we no longer follow the rules of convention but begin to step outside the box and trust God for the rest.
One of the post-biblical stories tells us that Levi became not only an apostle of Jesus, but that he travelled to Ethiopia and Egypt where he died a martyr’s death when Hircanus, the king, had him killed with a spear.
The result of Levi’s work continues to this day with Ethiopia and Egypt’s continuing Christian communities.
Through his radical departure from the status quo Jesus set off a chain reaction that has brought light and opportunity to millions of people, through the work of Levi.
To shake the tree yields results. To abandon the traditional way of doing things often leads to great breakthroughs.
For this Jesus was scandalized by the establishment. Yet, his response was that he had come to minister to the sick, and throughout his ministry we see how he non-conformation to established expectations saved the most vulnerable of society; the poor, the sick, the stranger, the outcasts.
But when you shake the tree of established ideas and traditions you are sure to shake out a few snakes too. This Jesus experienced as the established order began to plot against him. But not even the cross stopped him from achieving his goal of showing us what it is if we are to accept our own mission to help create the kingdom of God, “here on earth as it is in heaven.”
What might this story say to us today?
Let’s all think about how we could interpret this story. Here are a few thoughts just to get us thinking.
Has the practice of faith become for us, a dull, uninspiring journey with few challenges and even less inspiration? What is it that we can do to help affect the change that needs to bring the fire in our bellies to work for God as truth-tellers and examples of caring that could change the hearts of even the most unacceptable among us?
How can we change our own life to be more inviting, especially of those who have been written off as lost causes?
What part of our religious practices and traditions would we need to let go to become relevant to the people of our community so they may be able to fully embrace God’s love for them?
At the same time, let us celebrate the love of those who laid the groundwork for us to be here today—for those who maintained this institution—for those who remain loyal to the path of Jesus, walking in hope and keeping the faith.
Let us not forget that to truly walk this path could be detrimental to your health. Tradition has it that most of the apostles of Jesus met their end in a violent way. There is a cost involved when we take on the toxic traditions and values of our times. But the results bring new life and open new paths of meaning.
May the love of God overcome our fears and even in some cases, our traditional faith practices. Amen.