I love the desert. I loving going to the desert, hiking in the desert, photographing in the desert, and just being out there in the desert. I find its beauty to be subtle and alluring, though I do realize that for some, it’s an acquired taste. One of the reasons is the fascinating plant life which can be quite varied depending on the specific landscape and weather conditions. In Southern Utah, there are tall, strong, and beautiful Aspens and Junipers while places like Death Valley have mesquite trees and salt grasses, which are smaller and far more fragile. In areas where there are streams and a higher water table, the plant life grows stronger and taller. In places where there’s not much water, the shrubs are small and the roots are weak and shallow.
In the desert, it’s all about the water.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus notes the important differences between the poor, hungry, and weeping and the rich, full, and laughing. He does a good job making the point, but personally I’m more drawn to the visual in today’s first reading from Jeremiah. The passage contains a simple analogy comparing a bush that grows in a barren, sand-filled desert lacking water to a formidable tree that draws its nourishment from deep in the ground and through its considerable roots. According to Jeremiah, those who turn away from the Lord are the barren bushes while those who trust in the Lord have deeper roots.
Again, it’s all about the water… which feeds the plants. The questions for us are: what feeds us and how deep are our roots?
Jeremiah uses this simple analogy to suggest that we would do well to draw from our relationship with the Lord, which requires setting our roots deeply and firmly into the ground as opposed to grasping those things closer to the surface but which won’t ultimately lead to our strength, maturity, or happiness.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that those who pursue wealth, comfort, and short-term gain are living up on the surface and, like the mesquite trees and sage grass of Death Valley, end up ultimately being quite weak and fragile. But if we avoid these superficial pursuits in favor of something more lasting, such as our faith, then we can be more like the Junipers and Aspens of Utah – mighty and enduring.
It’s a pretty simple analogy. Harder, perhaps, is coming to grips with those things in our own lives that could be considered superficial, which we grasp at, and which will eventually turn us into the equivalent of a fragile, barren bush. Relying on God, surrendering to him, is the deeper water that strengthens us, but it’s often more initially satisfying to focus on what seems easier to reach.
I’m a big fan of visual reminders, having subtle cues in our day-to-day environments that nudge us to remember something important. Today’s reading from Jeremiah prompted me to find two of my photographs from the desert, one of a bush in Death Valley and another of trees in Southern Utah, and to place them where I can see them often. I want them to be a constant indication that my life will be better and I will be a more faithful follower of Jesus if I can forego the more superficial and immediate… and instead, focus on the deeper water.
It is a simple analogy. And it is also an essential truth that is worth remembering.