“They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Matthew 27:28-29
“Religion is passionate, reckless, destructive, idol-smashing. It’s a martyr burning at the stake. It’s a crown of thorns and a cross.” Martha Ostenso
Thorn trees are a symbolic archetype that is found in every one of the People of the Book’s sacred writings. The description of thorns and thistles growing in a wilderness represents spiritual dryness, and alternatively the archetype of vegetative flourishing with flowing streams represents a state of spiritual fullness. For example, from the creation story in the Book of Genesis is the archetype of thorns and thistles being represented as the consequence of sin: “To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, You must not eat from it, Cursed is the ground because of your; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field” (v. 17-18). In contrast, Genesis 2 exemplifies the previous state of sinlessness by its description of flourishment: “Now the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden, with all kinds of trees…pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the Knowledge of good and evil….A river watering the garden flowed from Eden [with four headwaters]” (v. 8-10).
Similar contrasts are found in numerous verses in the remainder of the Old Testament, especially warnings given to the wayward idol worshiping Israelites. The purpose of the Old Testament prophets is to strongly admonish the Israelites of their sin, warn them of the impending punishment and/or destruction, a call to repentance, and beautiful metaphoric descriptions of flourishing spiritual life, with the blessings provided by God for those who obey His commandments. The Qur’an as well is enmeshed with visions of horrific punishment which will be poured down upon unbelievers on the Judgement Day, and splendorous descriptions of paradise and its many blessings for those who were steadfast in their submission to Allah (God). For example, Surah 34 describes Allah’s punishment of a wilderness replacement for flourishing gardens as a symbol of a city that refused to acknowledge Allah for their blessings.:
“There was a sign for the people of Sheba, too, in their dwelling place: two gardens, one on the right, and one on the left: ‘Eat from what your Lord has provided for you and give Him thanks, for your land is good, and your Lord most forgiving.’ But they paid no heed, so We let loose on them a flood from the dam and replaced their two gardens with others that yielded bitter fruit, tamarisk bushes, and a few lote trees. In this way We punished them for their ingratitude-would We punish anyone but the ungrateful?”
(FYI -for non-Muslims, the word, “We” is used in the Qur’an as the Archangel Gabriel speaking for God to the Prophet Muhammad).
Tamarisk bushes grow close together in a dense, nearly impenetrable thicket and is an extremely invasive plant that replaces natural vegetation and is a poor habitat for wildlife. The wild Lote tree is a spiny shrub with slightly edible fruit, but is contrasted with the cultivated Lote tree in other passages (56:27-31) such as this one:
“Those on the Right, what people they are! They will dwell amid thornless lote trees and clustered acacia with spreading shade, constantly flowing water, abundant fruits…”
Hover your mouse over each pic for its descriptive label:
Those “on the Right” refer to the pious believers who will dwell in paradise. Many of the descriptions of paradise in the Qur’an describe a place of flourishing and beauty. However, in the first passage mentioned from the Qur’an is the story of people who didn’t acknowledge or give thanks to Allah for their blessings, so are indicative of those who don’t submit to Allah or believe. Seen are the same archetype symbols of non-producing invasive plants that are not beneficial for animals or humans. When land is to be cultivated these plants are burned so that productive plants may be planted. The symbolism of the non-producing plants being burned is also characterized in this passage from Isaiah 33:10-12 where the prophet is admonishing and warning the Israelites for their ongoing sin:
10 “Now will I arise,” says the Lord.
“Now will I be exalted;
now will I be lifted up.
11 You conceive chaff,
you give birth to straw;
your breath is a fire that consumes you.
12 The peoples will be burned to ashes;
like cut thornbushes they will be set ablaze.”
The prophet Isaiah in chapter 32 expresses both the wilderness metaphor and the flourishing with the dividing contrast line of “Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high”:
For the land of my people in which thorns and briars shall come up;
Yea, for all the joyful houses and for the jubilant city.
14 Because the palace has been abandoned, the [l]populated city forsaken.
[m]Hill and watch-tower have become caves forever,
A delight for wild donkeys, a pasture for flocks;
15 Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high,
And the wilderness becomes a fertile field,
And the fertile field is considered as a forest.
16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness
And righteousness will abide in the fertile field.
17 And the work of righteousness will be peace,
And the service of righteousness, quietness and [n]confidence forever.
18 Then my people will live in a peaceful habitation,
And in secure dwellings and in undisturbed resting places;
19 And it will hail when the forest comes down,
And the city will be utterly laid low.
20 How blessed will you be, you who sow beside all waters,
Who [o]let out freely the ox and the donkey.
Isaiah beautifully captures the desolation before God’s Spirit is poured out, and the abundant flourishing afterwards. The metaphor and its representation are written in the same line, “Then justice will dwell in the wilderness…righteousness will abide in the fertile field.” The spiritual wilderness will be transformed by the implementation of justice, and fecundity will be seen because of righteousness. Walter Brueggeman writing in Journey to the Common Good, describes the wilderness/flourishing archetype as:
“Wilderness” is a place, in biblical rhetoric, where there are no viable life support systems. [Alternately] “Grace” is the occupying generosity of God that redefines the place.”
“The realm of Pharoah [is a place or condition] where everything and everyone is reduced to a commodity and so human worth is measured by productivity, gain, and control.” (Journey to the Common Good, Walter Brueggeman, p. 117)
“Pharoah’s Egypt was a zone of abusive scarcity in which no could ever be satisfied, joyous, or at rest.” (From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, Walter Brueggeman, p. 65)
“Anxious scarcity evokes no gratitude, but only exploitation and violence.”(p. 67)
According to Brueggeman, the places of wilderness is likened to the condition of slavery under Pharoah’s rule. The institution of government has a voracious appetite that feeds on it constituents. This is a structure that gives power to the rich, and oppresses all others. It is in a constant state of over-satiation that constantly reinforces its own power by selfishly only seeing to its own needs and wants by taking advantage of the powerless. The Israelites as slaves lived in a state of anxiety, just like the condition of anxiety we live in today. We are at the mercy of company owners who like ravenous wolves when their company begins to fail, lay off employees letting them sink with the ship, while they fly off with huge amounts of money, making profit off their own failure. For, sometimes the places of wilderness are initiated and found within a wealthy palace compound, and the land of flourishing within a poor person’s hut.
“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites.3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God,[a] but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” (Luke 22)
Jesus is in the temple with his disciples preaching and looks over to see a lone widow giving her offering. Think about her heart. She is poor, and doesn’t even hold onto the little that she has, and gives from a pure, loving heart for God. The wealthy meanwhile have given larger amounts out of their abundance and receive attention, popularity and status, while Jesus is the only one who notices her extreme sacrifice. Her sacrifice is worth more than all the gold in a rich person’s mansion. Her sacrificial giving comes from a place of flourishing that will be rewarded by a loving God who sees and acknowledges all true sacrifice.
“The matter is all the more urgent, I believe, because the immense force of empire continues its lethal enterprise, refusing to notice the failed fabric of social reality all around.” (Journey to the Common Good, p. 103)
The wilderness signifies a state of sinfulness that doesn’t allow for spiritual flourishing. The thorns and thistles take over the green productive plants, allowing the desert to form by drying up the life giving streams of life. However, God hears the cry of the oppressed. In Isaiah 41 is the promise of Yahweh turning the wilderness into abundance, “But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.” Just as God answered the cry of the Israelites under slavery by sending Moses to lead them to the promised land, here again is the same response to the sincere cry for deliverance:
17 “The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
19 I will put in the desert
the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
the fir and the cypress together,
20 so that people may see and know,
may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,”
And in 44:3-4:
‘For I will pour out water on [a]the thirsty land
And streams on the dry ground;
I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring
And My blessing on your descendants;
4 And they will spring up [b]among the grass
Like poplars by streams of water.’
“For you will go out with joy
And be led forth with peace;
The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
13 “Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up,
And instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up,
And [a]it will be a [b]memorial to the Lord,
For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.”
Habakkuk speaks to the injustice of the empire:
12 “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
And founds a town with [a]violence!
13 “Is it not indeed from the Lord of hosts
That peoples toil for fire,
And nations grow weary for nothing?”
According to Brueggemann, what brings flourishing is an “alternative reality” that is described and modeled by Jesus in the gospels. It is only this “alternative reality” than can release us from the bonds of fear, anxiety and scarcity. For,if we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves we are not loving God. And these are the most important commandments, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul, and the second is alike to it, love your neighbor as yourself.” God speaking through the prophet Isaiah (ch. 58) describes this “alternative reality”:
6 “Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
7 “Is it not to divide your bread [c]with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 “Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The [d]pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
10 And if you [e]give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the [f]desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.
11 “And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your [g]desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water whose waters do not [h]fail.
12 “Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
You will raise up the age-old foundations;
And you will be called the repairer of the breach,
The restorer of the [i]streets in which to dwell.
Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness to the promised land is a typology for the spiritual leadership of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad (phuh) leading their followers into the deeper understanding of how to live in the alternative reality to combat the darkness of the oppressive empire. The physical journey continues spiritually such that we are still on the journey of what Jesus called “the way, the truth, and the life,” and the Prophet Muhammad calls “the straight path.” However, the Jews expected their Messiah would physically overcome the oppressive Roman government, so didn’t accept the more humble Messiah who attempted to teach them how to battle darkness with the light of the Spirit. For example, this Messiah taught the Jews that when a Roman soldier orders them to carry their heavy pack for one mile (which the Jews perceived as oppressive, and hence looked at themselves as victims), to not just carry the pack for one mile, but to carry it for an extra mile. That extra mile changes their entire mindset to one of servanthood away from victimhood. But, because of the Jew’s unbelief, Jesus quotes from the Torah, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: `The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? (Matt 21:42-43) The temple of the Kingdom of God is not just being built by Jesus, but by all the Prophets including the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and true believers who fully submit to God.
“I suggest that it is the task of followers of this gospel in our society [but what Brueggeman fails to understand that it is the task of all monotheistic believers to love one another first, and then work together in unity to bring about the kingdom of God]–who live in the totalitarian regime of military consumerism with all of its hopes and violence and anxieties-to depart….the possibility is for life lived in an alternative frame of reference organized around a counter-loyalty.” (Journey to the Common Good, p. 102)
The empire is Goliath, and any attempt to battle the oppressive, unjust institution will result in failure. Jesus stated, “Repent, for the kingdom heaven is at hand,” for a new temple is being built, a spiritual temple which will reside among the earthly institutions to bring about flourishing in a dry land. Let’s revisit the cross for a moment, shall we? The soldiers place a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head and mock him as “King of the Jews.” It is surmised the crown was made from the Lote tree which is also called “Christ thorn.” The uncultivated thorn of wilderness, the thorn of scarcity, the thorn of a dry land with no living water, the thorn of desolation, the thorn of a place of injustice, the thorn tree of sin and unrighteousness, is twisted into a crown and placed on the One who provides an endless supply of living water, who brought an understanding of flourishing-who points us to the way out of the wilderness. The crown of thorns symbolizes the sins of the empire being placed on Jesus’ head. Remember, Jesus willingly sacrificed His life for God’s purpose: “And behold one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” This is Islam, or full submission to God. (Matthew 26:52-53)
The oppressive government, the fear of the Pharaoh, the anxiety of an institution that creates itself over the God who created it, destroys the one it fears. But, God, the Creator over all, resurrects the Christ – for no human entity can destroy God’s will and purpose. His will, will be done.
“…wickedness is a refusal to accept the good ordering of life given by the creator:
- Wickedness is to assume the continuing force of chaos, and so wickedness is to seek to amass whatever it takes-money, power, weapons, sex, and influence-to fend of chaos for one’s own interests.
- Wickedness is to assume that there is no reliable supply of abundant bread, and so wickedness is to seek a monopoly of bread at the expense of the neighbor.
- Wickedness is to imagine that rauch [the breath of God’s Spirit] belongs to us and not to God, and so wickedness is to practice hubris in order to maintain one’s own life and place in the world.
Wickedness, in sum, is the refusal of God the creator and the idolization of self as the center of reality.” (From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, p. 76)
The alternative reality is indeed, “neighborliness.” It is loving when we want to complain and hate. It is establishing resources for the poor and needy, and to stop holding on to our abundance because of fear. It is to stop pointing our fingers at the “others” and begin working together in peace. It is fully, deeply understanding that the monotheistic religions must reach out to each other first in love and acceptance. For it is up to us to flourish our dry land with the help of Allah’s Spirit. Just as the Qur’an states, we must transform ourselves first and then Allah will help us transform our communities and our nations. However, just as with the Israelites, there must first be acknowledgement of sins and repentance and then Allah’s incredible transformative flourishing and revival will occur. The “alternative reality” will reside within the physical reality of the kingdom of earth, to establish the kingdom of heaven.
However, because many of us live in a state of over-satiation we forget to acknowledge and thank Allah for all things-we lose our perspective as a mortal in front of the Creator of souls. Luke 12:19 describes it thus: “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods stored up for many days.; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’ ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will be they be?” Both Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) state we will not know when the Day of Recompense will come. In fact, Jesus admonishes that it will come like a thief in the night, so we better be prepared.
33 He [t]changes rivers into a [u]wilderness
And springs of water into a thirsty ground;
34 A fruitful land into a salt waste,
Because of the wickedness of those who dwell in it.
35 He [v]changes a [w]wilderness into a pool of water
And a dry land into springs of water;
36 And there He makes the hungry to dwell,
So that they may establish [x]an inhabited city,
37 And sow fields and plant vineyards,
And [y]gather a fruitful harvest.
38 Also He blesses them and they multiply greatly,
And He does not let their cattle decrease.
39 When they are diminished and bowed down
Through oppression, misery and sorrow,
40 He pours contempt upon [z]princes
And makes them wander in a pathless waste.
41 But He sets the needy [aa]securely on high away from affliction,
And makes his families like a flock.
42 The upright see it and are glad;
But all unrighteousness shuts its mouth.
43 Who is wise? Let him give heed to these things,
And consider the lovingkindnesses of the Lord.