Texas Mountain Cedar. Image via Image Archive for Central Texas Plants
Cedar is a tree that’s considered a nuisance in these parts. It’s an invasive species not native to the area, and it releases a chemical into the soil that prevents other types of trees from growing. They take up an unusual amount of water, and put out an unusual amount of pollen that leads to sneezing and other allergy-related problems. And so everyone is always working on trying to get rid of cedar as fast as it can grow up. There was a group of people around here that everyone called the “cedar choppers.” It was a derogatory term, sort of like apple knockers in Illinois, because these people were poor and transient. To be a cedar chopper meant that you were poor, and uneducated, and probably up to no good. They were not welcome anywhere. They lived in tents in the woods. For money, they would offer to remove the cedar from someone’s land, hence the name, “cedar choppers”. They would chop the cedar and take it home, using it for firewood or selling it for money.
They lived out in the woods in tents, they cooked on fires, and of course they cooked with that cedar which they chopped. And so they all always smelled of cedar smoke. Their young children would get on the bus to go to school, and suddenly the smell of cedar would fill the bus, and everyone would know that these people were cedar choppers, unwanted, unwelcome, and probably up to no good.
They were marked. And they were marked by the smell in a way they couldn’t escape. And because they were marked, other children didn’t treat them as well, for the prejudices of their parents rubbed off. And so the children of cedar choppers were isolated and ignored, and they grew up with few opportunities except to chop cedar and smell funny and be called names.
This is a tragic story about the persistence of inequality in our society. The classes to which we are born often leave markings that stay with us long after we’ve left the fires of our hearths. We are judged for the poverty of our parents, for the lifestyles of our neighbors, for the ways that we cook our food. It is neither just nor kind, but a sin that we perpetrate on each other as often every time prefer people who seem like us, hire people who look like us, love people who dress like us, and watch movies about people who act like us.
Jesus showed us a different way, however. There were many groups like the cedar choppers in Ancient Palestine. All sorts of people were shunned by those of good society. Indeed, the Pharisees had very specific laws and codes about who they could eat with, and had intense debates among themselves about the relative strictness or leniency of these laws. Table fellowship wasn’t a trivial issue for them either. Whereas for us, someone might say, “Go to dinner with him, listen to what he has to say, what harm can it do?” Such an expression of insignificance regarding eating a meal with someone would not have existed during Jesus day.
To eat with someone was to establish relationship with them, to give them honor and respect. As explained in Ched Myers’, Binding the Strong Man, for them table fellowship involved a guarantee of peace, trust, or kinship. And so everyone in ancient society was particularly careful about who they ate with, who they were associated with, to whom they gave their kinship and trust. Everyone except for Jesus, of course.
In Mark 2, Jesus goes up to a man who was not to be associated with. Someone who smelled like cedar. And he says to Levi, a toll collector, who was despised by Pharisees and peasants alike, “Follow me” And Levi follows him. And that night they dine in Levi’s house, with other tax collectors and other sinners, and Jesus extends his kinship to them, his trust to them, that they are welcome at the feast of salvation, free to accept eternal life.
The kingdom of God is like cedar smoke that fills the bus in which we sit, alighting on each of us, marking us as recipients of peace that passes all understanding, trust in the one who keeps us from falling, kinship with everyone, no matter how smelly.