A tree by the waterside


Scripture: Psalm 1. Nigel Bunce

What is a tree by the waterside?  Psalm 1 describes the difference between blessed and ungodly folk.  A blessed person is like a tree by the waterside; their faith in God sustains them on life’s journey.

Trees by the waterside and the law of the Lord

The Book of Psalms speaks eloquently and timelessly to all of human emotions. Today we read Psalm 1. It contrasts the blessed (happy in modern translations) and the ungodly person. The blessed find delight in the law of the Lord.

That’s a thoroughly Jewish notion. That Israel should be eternally grateful for God’s revelation to them through the Law of Moses. So the blessed person avoids ungodly people. The blessed do not walk with the ungodly, taking their counsel. They don’t stand with them in the Temple doorway.

They don’t even sit and listen to people who gossip, so as to avoid contamination by them. Instead, they meditate on the law of the Lord “day and night”. Realistically, probably not 24/7, but the law of the Lord is their constant companion and guide.

Psalms are poetry

Psalm 1 illustrates the poetic devices used by its Jewish author. In verse 1, the righteous person does not walk with the ungodly, stand with them, or even sit with them. Each activity reinforces how blessed people separate themselves from the ungodly.

Profoundly, the psalm is a study in contrast. It challenges the reader: are you is moral, ethical, and pious? In a truly wonderful image, the blessed person is likened to a tree by the waterside. Israel is a desert country. That waterside image would be more evocative than for us in southern Ontario.

The tree by the waterside is continually sustained and refreshed by the water it draws from the soil. So also are blessed people, for the law of the Lord continually nourishes and refreshes them. That are spiritually fruitful, like trees that bear fruit “in due season”.

As the psalmist goes back and forth between the tree and the blessed person, he conflates the pictures of the fruitful tree, the prosperous person, and the lush foliage of the leaves that do not wither. I wondered what it would be like to feel blessed, or like to be a tree by the waterside in today’s world.

How does being a tree by the waterside make you prosper?

The psalmist saw the matter in Old Testament Jewish terms – “whatsoever he doeth, it shall prosper”. Presumably, this mode of thinking is that the righteous person’s flocks and herds will increase. Like today. We also tend to equate that blessedness with material possessions.

Yet we know that material success is not the inevitable result of a moral or ethical life. As the author Rabbi Kuschner wrote, bad things can indeed happen to good people. Material prosperity is largely a matter of good fortune. However, the psalmist meant spiritual or emotional prosperity.

That sort of prosperity means being comfortable in your own skin. It’s what Jesus called “loving your neighbour as yourself”. That sort of self-love means self-respect, not egocentrism. For, it is hard, if not impossible, to love and respect other people unless you respect yourself.

We don’t choose where we are planted

In the psalm, the tree did not choose to be planted by the waterside. But, it took advantage of the continual sustenance from the moisture in its soil. Hence, it bore fruit in due season and its leaves remained green and fresh.

So also with the person who finds themself in nourishing spiritual soil. They can draw on that nourishment and remain creative or fertile (figuratively!) even when the climate outside is unfavourable. They are comfortable in their own skin.

He doesn’t worry that others might see him as nerdy. She doesn’t worry about whether her breasts are too big or too small. They don’t concern themselves with a wrinkle here or an extra pound or two there, due to advancing years. Or whether they have the latest style of kitchen, or whether their car is old.

Contrast the ungodly

But woe to the ungodly person! The self-centred; the egotistical. It is not so with them. They are like chaff which the wind blows away. Imagine rubbing an ear of wheat or barley between your hands. The grains separate from the chaff.

The grains are heavier than the chaff. The wind blows the chaff away, leaving the grains behind. Almost like how the bad guys get “blown away” in action movies. The psalmist imagines the wind scattering the ungodly, like chaff, from the face of the earth.

But is the psalmist being unfair to those not planted by the waterside?

To the psalmist, the ungodly are utterly unimportant compared with the blessed. Like the chaff versus the grains of wheat. Yet, I worry that, perhaps the psalmist dismisses the ungodly too quickly. Perhaps it is the behaviour of the ungodly that is like the chaff which the wind blows away. Not the people themselves.

The psalmist does not consider where the ungodly were planted. The blessed live by the waterside – or, at least, they behave that way. The ungodly behave as if they were planted somewhere else – in the word-painting, as if they had to scratch a meagre living out of poor desert soil.

This echoes Jesus’ parable of the Sower. Whether the seeds failed to grow, or whether they made a fine crop, depended on where they were planted. We in southern Ontario have been planted in rich soil by a waterside. I guess that God expects a lot of us in terms of fruitfulness.

Today’s psalm and the recent federal election

To complete this homily, I thought about what Jan said last week. When she spoke about needs versus luxuries. I also thought about the election campaign. Party leaders made many promises. But many of them targetted narrow segments of the population. With, of course, the idea of attracting their votes.

Increases in OAS for seniors. Child care for those with young children. Assistance for first time home-buyers. These appeal to our greed and self-interest. Nevertheless, one person’s or family’s need is another’s luxury.

I hope that we can say that we voted like trees by a waterside. Realizing our blessedness. Not greedy, like the ungodly. But now, there’s a new (or old, depending on your point of view) government. So, let us pray for a new beginning in Ottawa.

One where the government listens to ideas from other parties. Where those other parties don’t automatically shout down every government proposal. I dream that all members realize that their task is to make every Canadian feel like trees that live by a waterside. Where everyone’s needs are met before luxuries for some. Amen.