Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.’

– Amos 7:14 (NRSV)

There’ve been almost no pictures of my vegetable garden in August. The most productive time of the growing season is also its most shabby. The weeds have taken over the formerly pristine paths — though the sourgrass and chickweed are rather nice to walk on with bare feet. My tomato plants have fared the worst, looking like rows of plucked chickens. Their lower halves were purposely picked clean of leaves, like a sort of disease firebreak, in an attempt to slow down the inevitable blight that will try to claim them before the frost finishes them off. If you are thinking this all sounds rather morbid, you aren’t far off. I’ve often thought of the vegetable garden as an edible memento mori — instead of a still life with a skull, you get jars of tomato sauce!

More than once, while pruning the plants, I realized I was talking them through it, like a doctor would talk to a small child. When I say talking them through it, I mean it literally. I don’t know if I hoped somehow they would be less traumatized by the process if I explained it, step-by-step, but there I was, all by myself, pruners in hand, explaining the situation to my tomatoes. That, or COVID-induced isolation has finally taken its toll … it’s a toss up. 

Weirdly, whenever I am performing plant surgery, I think of Amos, particularly how he described his vocation. Sent by God to warn His people that things were about to get real, Amos was told by the priest in charge, Amaziah, to go prophesy somewhere else. Like any self-respecting farmer, he said, pride a little hurt, “I’m not a prophet! I’m a shepherd and a fig-cutter.” Many versions translate that last part rather awkwardly as “sycamore dresser.” Makes me picture a stage-hand trying to stuff an actor into a tree costume during intermission backstage. Ficus sycomorus or the sycamore fig, is still grown in the Mediterranean today, and fig-cutting (or puncturing as that Hebrew word is also sometimes translated) is a technique employed since ancient times to hasten the ripening of the hard, green, inedible fruit.

God loved His people so much that a professional fruit-ripener was sent, prefiguring His mercy. Sin left us on this side of Eden, and, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get past the inedible stage. God sent another, cut, pierced and punctured, in our place, also with a clue built into His name, Yahweh saves, or as we know Him, Jesus. The One by Whose “wounds we were healed.”