Take a moment to absorb the beauty of the artistic image of the trees above. What do you see? What do you notice? If I told you that this painting was somehow connected to discipleship or being formed in our faith, how would you interpret each part of it?
Now, read Psalm 1 (v. 1-3):
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Happy—or perhaps “blessed,” or maybe even “flourishing”—are those who listen to God’s Word: who know it, who follow it. They’re like trees with deep roots, connected to the source of Living Water. Nurtured by its power and love, they stretch tall and grow strong, producing fruit that is beautiful to the eye, delicious to the tongue, and sustaining to the stomach. Yet, the fruit is not for the trees. It’s plucked from the branch and eaten by bugs, birds, animals, and humans—just as the oxygen the trees produce is breathed in by living things other than the trees themselves. These trees are full of life: their leaves don’t wither and they’re counted as prosperous—or perhaps “blessed,” or maybe even “flourishing.”
Happiness, blessing, and flourishing. We’d all like to know the secret to attaining these. For so many of us, it’s the ultimate reason we seek relationships, job advancement, the thrill of travel, the comfort of home, the latest technology, even our spirituality. And, while I don’t claim to have the key to some hidden knowledge, I think the psalmist is pointing us to a way of life—a way to happiness, blessing, and flourishing. The poet writes: “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
We don’t hear the words “delight” and “the law of the Lord” together too often. If you’re anything like me, you may associate “the law” with a list of strict rules found somewhere in the Old Testament. Or perhaps you think of “the law” as judgment and the opposite of grace, like some interpret the letters of Paul to be. But here, the psalmist attributes flourishing like life-giving trees to those who actually delight in the law of the Lord.
It just so happens that today’s other lectionary passage talks about the law of the Lord (Deuteronomy 9:25-10:5). In this episode of the Exodus journey, Moses walks down the path of Mount Sinai with “the Law” in his hands. On two stone tablets and in the handwriting of God are the infamous Ten Commandments. And there it is—the list of strict rules about things we should and shouldn’t do: the center of the Law, with all its judgment and lack of grace. Except…
Except the psalmist is so persuaded that those who delight in the law of the Lord are happy, blessed, and flourishing. That they’re like an old, oak tree in all its majesty, whose roots can be seen peeking through in the nearby pebbled creek, and whose branches are home to a couple of scurrying squirrels and a family of singing birds. So, what’s the secret? How does a list of rules turn into a life-giving and delight-full source of blessing?
In the first line of Psalm 1, we receive a hint which leads us to another place in Scripture where a list of rules turns into a life-giving and delight-full source of blessing.
Psalm 1:1—“Happy/blessed/flourishing are those who…” (originally in Hebrew)
Matthew 5:3ff—“Blessed/happy/flourishing are those who…” (originally in Greek)
In the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7, Jesus Christ himself interprets the Law given to Moses by God, and in doing so, he actually makes the list of rules even stricter. Jesus proclaims: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times”—basically saying, “You know what the Old Testament law demands.” And then, he declares: “But I say to you…” That is, not only should you do that, but go even further and do this.
In Matthew 5:17, Christ tells us that he hasn’t come to get rid of the Law, but to fulfill it! It turns out that these lists of rules are not meant to be constraining and judgmental, but instead, they teach us how to live a life that honors the way God created the world to be. The Law—the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, other parts of the Bible, and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ himself—point us toward shalom: peace, wholeness, and the ultimate flourishing and blessing of all. In the Ten Commandments, we can see an ethic that maintains God at our life’s center and also sets other people as our equals, honoring their God-giving humanity in how we treat each other and others’ belongings. In the Sermon on the Mount, we witness how Jesus redefines the Law, doing so in ways that only further the possibility of the flourishing of every person and all things.
So, perhaps the psalmist is right: those who listen to God’s word, who know it, who follow it, they are flourishing. They are like trees who are rooted in the life-giving waters of Christ, who grow fruit for others to eat and produce oxygen for others to breathe by the power of the Spirit, and who are counted as blessed, happy and flourishing because of the ways they live into God’s vision of shalom for this world—all by delighting on and meditating in the law of the Lord.
Thank you to artist Mariah West for the beauty of her incredible piece on trees and discipleship, and for Dr. Kristen Johnson who commissioned her to create it.