I’ve enjoyed tracking down the origins of our first two “Bible or Not” sayings: “The Lord works in mysterious ways” and “God helps those who help themselves,” neither of which are in the Bible. Today we have a phrase rather than a whole saying: “the root of the matter.” If you guessed that it’s not in the Bible, you are in good company; most people who returned their quizzes agree with you. But, this phrase is in the Bible. And, in fact, that’s about all I could find out about it. No interesting origins. No intriguing history. Just the fact that it was first recorded in the book of Job, Chapter 19, verse 28, in the King James Version of the Bible, which was published in the year 1611.
We can find roots all over the Bible. They are used as an image for how far something can reach, as we read in Job where God is described as covering the roots of the sea. Roots are an image for what is at the core of something, the way our phrase uses it. Roots are also a metaphor for our connection with God—a metaphor Jesus uses in the parable of the sower and that Paul uses to describe what connects us to the nutrients our faith needs to grow. And, we can glean one more image from our phrase as it was written in Hebrew: that the root of the matter can be a word.
You know the story of Job. His animals had been stolen or destroyed, along with the servants who were taking care of them. His children had died when their house collapsed in a great wind. Finally, Job’s body erupted in terrible sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Job had had a successful life on every level, but now every shred of that life had been erased: his material wealth, his large family and, finally, his healthy body—all gone.
Job had three friends who had heard about Job’s misfortune, and they came to comfort and console him. At first, they did exactly the right thing. They simply sat with him. For seven days and seven nights, they kept watch with him as he suffered, lending their silent support.
Then, they began to do exactly the wrong thing: they started to tell him their theories about why he was suffering. They wanted to get to the root of the matter of Job’s troubles, and all of them agreed that the root could be found in Job himself. Job was sinful, because all mortals are sinful, and God is taking corrective action. God is just, so Job must have sinned and, if Job will just repent, all will be well. Job is blaspheming by speaking angrily against God. Job is being punished for his sin, whatever it may be, and he should be grateful that he’s probably getting less than he deserves. Clearly, in his friends’ eyes, the root of Job’s bad luck is his own misbehavior, whether there’s any visible evidence of it or not.
Usually, when I read their words to Job, I get pretty annoyed with these friends. They seem so self-righteous and confident that they know better than Job what’s causing his troubles. But, in my better moments, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they truly did think that they could help Job to a deeper understanding of his suffering so that he could deal with it better. Maybe they wanted to guide him away from the anger and pain that were leading him to blasphemy. Or, maybe they just needed to explain Job’s suffering so that they could understand it and deal with it and, hopefully, avoid suffering the same way themselves.
By chapter 19, Job had had it with their self-righteous words. Whatever their reasoning, Job responds—sometimes angrily, sometimes defiantly, sometimes sarcastically, sometimes to his friends and sometimes to God. He lashes out at his companions: “If you say, ‘How we will persecute him!’ and, ‘The root of the matter is found in him’, be afraid of the sword, for wrath brings the punishment of the sword, so that you may know there is a judgment.” In other words, be careful what you say, because God is just, and (to paraphrase Jesus) the measure you give is the measure you’ll get back. In spite of everything, Job is certain of God’s justice, and he’s confident that it will be leveled against those who are making him feel worse, not better.
Helpful or not, we can see what Job’s friends are trying to do. If they can get to the root of Job’s suffering, maybe it can be used as a diagnostic tool to pinpoint why he is suffering and, hopefully, provide a way out. This is not a bad plan—for them or for us. When we’re going through trials in our lives, it can be helpful to thoughtfully consider the possible causes, because if we can identify the root of the matter, we may find a solution. If there is no solution, we may find that we can better accept the situation.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a trusted companion as our partner in this—someone who can point out something we’ve missed or guide us away from errors in our thinking. We need to be very careful, though, when we’re the companions. We don’t want to be like Job’s friends—getting to the root of the matter in ways that only help us feel better and hurt the one who’s suffering. Sometimes it’s best to do what Job’s friends started out doing: sitting in supportive silence while the sufferer works out the root of the matter for themselves.
So, our first way to approach our phrase is to understand the root of the matter as the thing that is at the very core of a situation. The next way is to understand roots as a metaphor for connection: our connection to God.
Jesus’ parable is often called “The Parable of the Seeds.” More recently, it’s come to be known as “the parable of the sower.” But, it could also be called, “the parable of the roots,” because healthy roots are as essential for a healthy faith as they are for healthy plants.
Most of you are far better gardeners than I am, whether what you grow is in a farm field or your backyard. But even I know that a plant’s health depends on the condition of its roots can be a diagnostic tool for evaluating a plant’s health. I know that if my potted flowers are dying, they probably are suffering from root rot and I need to repot them in drier soil. If my grass is starting to turn brown, soil fungus may be preventing the roots from getting enough water and I need to apply a fungicide. I know that the grass doesn’t grow well near my neighbor’s pine trees; the trees’ roots release chemicals that kill the roots of the grass. When roots are healthy, what grows out of them is likely to be healthy. But if the roots are diseased, then the stalks and leaves and branches above will wither and die. Getting to the root of the matter is an important tool for diagnosing the problem and finding a solution.
In Jesus’ parable, the seeds that fall on the path are either squashed underfoot or eaten by the birds; they never have a chance to develop any roots at all. The seeds that fall on rocky soil sprout and look good at first, but their roots can’t grow deep enough to reach the moisture and nutrients they need to grow strong. Their roots are puny and weak, and the first strong wind or rainy day uproots them. The seeds that fall among the weeds put down roots and sprout. They have the potential to be healthy and bear fruit. But, they have to compete for resources against other roots—the roots of the weeds. The roots of the weeds deprive the desirable plants of the space they need, and they hog the moisture and nutrients in the ground. They may even attack their neighbors by releasing poisons into the soil like my neighbors’ pine trees.
Jesus explained that people are the same way when it comes to nurturing the seeds of faith. Some hear about Jesus, but what they hear slides off, like water off a duck. The word of God never takes root in their souls at all; no root, no fruit. Some hear and get all excited at first, but it’s a passing fancy at best. All it takes is one big challenge in their lives and their newly-sprouted faith is washed away; they don’t have any strong roots to secure them.
Some are fortunate enough to hear the word in good growing conditions. There’s potential for them to develop the root structure they need for a living and growing faith. But, there are weeds that compete for available resources: weeds like apps and games and pastimes that divert attention. Weeds like the pursuit of a higher income or greater attractiveness or more of whatever symbolizes success. Weeds like a skeptical world that calls faith into question and, perhaps, a church culture that discourages asking hard questions. There are weeds of worry, and pain, and grief. The roots of these weeds vie for time and attention and energy, choking the life out of faith and jeopardizing its ability to bear fruit.
But, Jesus tells us, the seeds which fell on good soil produced an enormous crop. Their strong roots reached deep into the soil where nutrients and moisture enabled them to grow and bear good, abundant fruit.
Likewise, our faith is most fruitful when we have strong roots. We develop our roots in the rich soil of the community of faith. The roots of our faith are nourished by Scripture, strengthened in worship, enlivened in service, and freshened in prayer. In the plant world, roots not only release toxic chemicals, but they can also release beneficial substances. These improve the health of nearby roots, encourage fruitfulness in the plants above, and keep harmful weeds at bay. When the roots of our faith are healthy, we can encourage the growth of others, and we can help prevent the spread of harmful, invasive species—ideas and beliefs that have no place in a Christian life.
The question for each of us is, “What does my spiritual root system look like?” If we dig down deep into our faith, will we find strong and healthy roots, capable of producing abundant fruit? Or, are our roots small and weak, the victim of weeds and poor growing conditions? Worse, are our roots toxic to the faith of others? If we find that our faith is growing weak, or that the faith of others shrivels when they’re in our company, it’s time to check the health of our roots. as part of that check, we may need to do a soil test, to see exactly what our faith is rooted in.
The author of the letter to the Ephesians, whether it was Paul or someone writing in his name, knew exactly what kind of soil a fruitful faith needs: it needs to be rooted and grounded in love. Love is the soil that gives us the healthy roots that can withstand any trial. Love is what nurtures the roots that connect us to God, the ground of our being. For Paul, the root of the matter is the matter we’re rooted in, and the matter we’re rooted in is love.
I mentioned earlier that, as I was exploring this phrase, I didn’t find any curious facts or stories to share with you. But, I did discover one intriguing thing about it—something that gives us one more way to think about the root of the matter when the matter is our lives and our faith. I took a look at how our phrase was written in Hebrew, and here’s what I learned: the Hebrew word that the King James Bible translated as “matter” has more than one meaning. It can mean “thing” or “matter.” But, it can also mean “word.” Job’s phrase can be translated literally as “the root of the word.”
That too me back to grade school when I learned about “root words.” Do you remember those? A root word is what’s left after you remove all the endings and beginnings that have been added to it. There are no prefixes. No suffixes. It’s the foundation of a word—the part that holds its most basic meaning.
I wasn’t sure what grade I was in when I learned about root words, so I did a little research. Today, it looks like children learn about root words sometime between 3rd and 5th grade. But, I also found that they learn about prefixes and suffixes long before they learn about root words. They learn about all the things that clutter up the most basic word before they know the root itself.
We often learn about faith that way, too. We learn a bunch of prefixes and suffixes before we really grasp the root word of faith. These prefixes and suffixes can take the form of things like thinking the Bible can only be read and interpreted in one way. Or, that doubt is a bad thing, and we shouldn’t challenge even the things that confuse us or don’t make sense to us. We add the requirement to “be” a certain way before God will love us, or a sliding scale when it comes to sin, where some sins as worse than others (usually the ones we aren’t committing). We add the label of sin to some things that may not be, while turning a blind eye to things that clearly are.
One of the saddest conversations I ever had was with a woman who was a shut-in. I asked her if she would like for me to bring Communion to her home, but she declined. I thought it was because she didn’t want to inconvenience me. But as we talked, I learned that it wasn’t that at all. It was because she didn’t feel worthy to take Communion. A previous pastor (and I use the term loosely here) had added a prefix to faith. He had taught her that you should only come to the table if you “deserve” to come. I don’t know what condition would qualify someone to come to the table, and it’s certainly not what we believe in the United Methodist Church, but this woman had learned the pastor’s prefix all too well. She hadn’t taken Communion in years, and nothing I said ever changed her mind.
We add all these things to the root word of our faith, before we truly know the root word itself. The root Word of our faith is Jesus, God in human form, the Word made flesh. Before we add on a bunch of prefixes and suffixes, we need to truly know the meaning of our divine Root Word: that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. That’s the root of the matter for us. Jesus is the Word made flesh—our root Word, with all the prefixes and suffixes stripped away. Paul spoke of how our roots are grounded in love, and who is Jesus but love personified?
In your bulletin this morning, you have a drawing of a root. When you have a quiet moment, write Jesus’ name in the very center of that root. Then, write down the things that you’ve added to that root Word. You might write down standards of the past as a measure of what is good and bad, successful or unsuccessful, faithful or unfaithful—in the church, in other people, or in yourself. Maybe you’ll write down expectations of yourself or of others. Maybe you’ll note a simplistic view that you learned as a child but now keeps you from a deeper, more mature understanding. Maybe you’ll write down a sense of shame or guilt that creates a barrier between you and the salvation Jesus offers. After you’ve done that, draw a line through the things that hide our root word, who is Jesus.
For Job’s friends, rightly or wrongly, the root of the matter of Job’s troubles was sin. For the people in Jesus’ parable about seeds, the root of the matter of faith is the strength and health of the roots put down by those who hear the word of God. For Paul, the root of the matter is the love that we are rooted and grounded in. All these are important for us as well, but the true root of the matter for our lives and for our faith, here in the present and for all eternity, is a word. The root of the matter is the Word, God’s Word, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young