+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I’m sure we’ll all be familiar with trees in the bible. In the first place there is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis. At the end of the bible, in the Book of Revelation, there is also a tree, the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. In between there are many trees, some well-known, others less so. If we stretch the definition a little, we can include the burning bush; there is also the fig tree cursed by Jesus; Jonah has his gourd; cedars regularly feature in the bible, sometimes specifically the cedars of Lebanon, often used as an image of beauty and pride. And of course the Cross is sometimes itself referred to as a tree.
In Psalm 92 we find an image which we find in other psalms, that of the righteous flourishing like a tree. The psalmist references both palms and cedars, the mightiest of the trees. “Such as are planted in the house of the Lord, will flourish in the courts of our God” may refer either or perhaps both to the Davidic king whose palace adjoined the Jerusalem Temple, and the gathered worshippers themselves.
The prophecy of Ezekiel uses trees in a different way: the Lord is promising a restoration of the fortunes of Israel, following the Babylonian exile. He promises that the Lord will take a shoot and plant it in the mountain heights of Israel, and that it will grow and flourish, and all sorts of birds will live in its branches. The high tree will be brought low, prophesies Ezekiel, and the low tree brought high; the green tree will be made dry, and the dry tree will flourish. All the trees of the field shall know that the Lord is God. The trees stand for the kingdoms of the world, and the tender shoot that will grow and flourish is the people of Israel.
The birds in the branches are particularly interesting. Christians throughout history have often stereotyped Judaism as a narrow and chauvinistic faith only interested in its own. This idea clearly has a lot to do with the anti-Semitism that has blighted so much of Christian history, and the supposed insularity of Jewish communities surely has more to do with the effects of anti-Semitism than with anything intrinsic to the Jewish faith.
Because if you read the Hebrew scriptures carefully, it is clear that there is a universal element in Judaism: the Jewish people are to witness to God in the world, and there are many prophecies, particularly in the prophecy of Isaiah, of the nations of the world coming to worship God in Jerusalem. I think it is possible that the Ezekiel’s birds and winged creatures may belong to the same tradition: the people of Israel will grow and flourish like a great tree, offering shelter and hospitality to many others.
Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed shares much with Ezekiel’s prophecy. There is the same sense of God doing unexpected things, a sense even of a sort of topsy-turvyness about God’s purposes. But Jesus takes it a step further by comparing the kingdom of God not to a cedar or a palm, nor even to a small cutting taken from a great tree, as in Ezekiel’s prophecy, but to a mustard seed. It isn’t even the seed of a tree, but rather of a large shrub. Jesus’ choice of the mustard seed in particular may be even more subversive: first century Jews did not grow mustard in their gardens, but rather harvested it in the wild. Because of its rapid growth, and its ability to self-seed, and could easily become a nuisance, a vigorous and persistent weed.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Something small that produces vigorous growth. Something that can be irritatingly persistent and hard to get rid of – this has certainly been the experience of just about every ruler that has ever persecuted Christians. Something that sustains not only its own life, but also provides shelter for the birds of the air.
The parable of the mustard seed is a difficult one to relate to because of the situation of the church in 21st century Britain. For the first Christians the image of something growing rapidly from a small seed was an obvious image of hope, and seems to have corresponded to the reality of the remarkable spread of the gospel through the eastern Mediterranean in the generations following Jesus’ earthly life.
But for us it is very different. Rather than something that starts small and grows quickly, the church seems to be something that starts large and shrinks slowly. And whilst none of us can be happy about declining church attendance and the declining influence of the Christian faith in our society, this parable reminds us that size isn’t everything. This parable reminds us that small things can have a big impact. This parable reminds us that growth can come from unpromising beginnings. And it reminds us that God’s ways do not necessarily conform to the common-sense expectations of human beings.
The mustard tree may not be as grand as the cedar, but it provides shade and protection for the birds of the air. And there is something here too about growth and the Kingdom of God. For in the parable of the mustard seed, growth is not an end in itself; the growth of the mustard tree is not the end of the story. As with Ezekiel’s tender shoot, the mustard seed grows and puts forth branches, so that “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade”.
So the Kingdom of God is about the mystery and the joy of new life, the Kingdom of God is about unexpected growth, and the Kingdom of God is also about new life that in turn welcomes and sustains and protects new life. “The birds of the air can make nests in its shade”. This is a powerful image of welcome, of hospitality, of protection. And it is welcome and hospitality and protection, and it is the nurturing of new life and new disciples, that are the signs of the Kingdom of God and the marks of authenticity in the life of the church.
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit