The meaning of the parable of the mustard seed seems apparent. What begins as the tiniest of seeds grows into a tree large enough to house the birds. The reign of God is like that. Small beginning. Big ending. A handful of disciples become a worldwide church. A few fishermen and women grow into a Christian empire. We are the world! Kind of makes your chest swell, doesn't it? Makes you feel important to be at the center of such a glorious, expanding kingdom. Well, that kind of triumphant kingdom is a world away from what this parable is all about. If we scratch beneath the surface of this parable, we will discover that God's reign is for the birds.
The odd thing about the parable of the mustard seed is Jesus' portrayal of God's reign as a tree. In Matthew Jesus doesn't say the mustard seed grows into a tall bush, which is what a mustard seed grows into, but rather a tree in which the birds make their nests. The mustard bush can reach a height of 8 to 12 feet, but it is still not a tree by any stretch of the imagination. So, why call the mustard bush a tree? In several places in the Old Testament the prophets spoke of kings and empires as being like trees. King Nebuchadnezzer had a dream of a growing tree, whose branches reached the heavens and upon whose branches the birds made their nests (Daniel 4). The prophet Daniel interpreted the tree as being the Assyrian king and his empire extending its sovereignty to the ends of the earth. The Assyrian empire grew through brutal violence and domination, forcing Israel into economic and political patronage. Israel was one of the birds nesting under Assyria's tree!
The prophet Ezekiel uses the image of a growing cedar with the birds nesting under its branches as a satire of the empire of Egypt, which fell like a chopped down tree and "upon its ruin dwell all the birds of the air" (Ezekiel 31). Ezekiel also told a parable of a twig which grows into a noble cedar and the birds nest in its shade. It has the same wording found in Mark's version of the parable of the mustard seed (Ezekiel 17). It would appear that Jesus is drawing his images of God's reign from these visions of mighty empires, particularly Ezekiel's parable of Israel as a mighty cedar growing to such a height as to provide a nesting place for the birds. The birds most likely represent the Gentiles, the nations, those not of the house of Israel; outsiders, heathens, pagans, people not like us God-fearing believers. What we have in the prophets is an end time vision of Israel growing into a powerful empire, which is benefactor to the nations of the earth. What a triumphant vision! And you can understand why Israel hoped to be a mighty cedar overshadowing the nations, when you remember how they had for so long been trampled under the feet of the nations. The kingdom of Israel dominating all the nations of the earth! What a hopeful vision!
A mighty tree growing big enough to shade the birds. That would appear to be a more appropriate image of a powerful kingdom than a mustard bush. A mighty tree would fit Western civilization's vision of becoming a powerful empire. Europeans have viewed the expansion of their cultures and empires as being of benefit to other peoples. On the other hand, those other peoples have experienced Western growth as imperialism, colonialism, and paternalism. The seed of our nation's beginnings grew into a tree and expanded its branches through violence and oppression of a people who were already native to this land. I remember reading a book entitled Missionary Conquest written by a Cherokee/Osage seminary professor. It details the exploits of Father Junipero Serra, among other early missionaries to the Americas. People in California know Father Serra as the Franciscan priest who in the 1700's scattered his missions like seeds across the landscape of California. I grew up near Mission San Buena Ventura and Mission Santa Barbara, two missions founded by Padre Serra.
In order for Christianity to grow into a mighty cedar early mission expansion in the Americas often took the form of forced conversions, physical violence, slave labor conditions, and cultural genocide. Father Serra's mission system was no exception. Native Americans were the birds who nested precariously in the shade of Spain's colonial expansion supported by the roots of the church's missionary work. The sad truth is that we still view Native Americans as the birds who should nest in the shade of our nation's branches, or should I say live on our nation's reservations. The triumphal image of a growing tree which shades the nesting birds is sadly reflected in the scenes of an African-American with lash marks on his back picking cotton on the plantation, an American sailor exploiting a young Philippino girl near the naval base, and a Christian missionary trying to expand the kingdom by passing off European customs and culture as the gospel truth. This sad parable of our kingdoms growing into strong cedars that overshadow other peoples and nations is for the birds!
What are we to make of Jesus parable about a mustard seed growing into a big bush for the birds? Jesus' image of God's reign is not of a mighty cedar, but a mustard bush. Get it? It's a joke! Really. It is a joke, a jab, a satire of Israel's triumphalistic visions of the kingdom, in the style of the prophet Ezekiel's satire of the kingdom of Egypt. Jesus compares the reign of God with the tiny mustard seed, which grows into a bush for the birds. The kingdom of God like a mustard seed? Not like a mighty cedar of Lebanon. A mustard seed becomes a pesky weed! The kingdom of God is like a weed?
It's a joke, a parody, a parable. Jesus is poking fun at the arrogance of the vision of God's kingdom as being a powerful, conquering empire. Jesus is transforming the lens through which we view God's reign. The haughty kingdom of force, violence, imperialism, and growth through dominance is not Christ's empire. It's not how Jesus revealed God's reign. Jesus revealed God's reign as being like a mustard seed that grew into a big bush for the birds. Mustard seeds and bushes are strange images for God's reign. As we have seen, a mighty cedar would have been a more appropriate image, or should I say what was expected. Then again, speaking of God's reign as being like a woman who puts a small amount of leaven in her dough was just as strange. Within Judaism leaven was a symbol of evil, something unclean which was purged from one's house. Leaven, like the mustard bush, is an odd image for Jesus to use of God's reign. What Jesus is doing in the parable of the mustard seed is subverting the expected vision of God's reign as an exclusive, triumphant kingdom with our people on the top in the end. In the same way, Jesus own life and mission were subversive of the hope of a coming kingdom of power and domination.
Jesus' life is itself a paradoxical mustard seed parable. The Messiah, ruler of all nations, comes to us as a tiny, vulnerable baby in a nesting place for chickens and cows. He gathers around himself a small rag tag group of misfits. His idea of growing a kingdom is by telling quirky little stories. Jesus expands God's reign by eating with Roman collaborators and sinners. The branches of Christ's kingdom are spread by blessing children and lifting up the weak. People look into Jesus' mustard seed face and say, "Is this the Messiah?" Like a baker woman, Jesus mixes into God's dough the unclean and those cast out of the house. The destitute, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, misfits, outsiders and enemies nest in the shadow of Jesus' compassion. The birds flock to the branches of Christ's kingdom!
Jesus' mission turns away from the hope of becoming a mighty cedar and grows into a bush for birds. On a desert mountain Jesus refuses the devil's vision of ruling the kingdoms of this world. Through the gates of Jerusalem he rides not on the snorting stead of a conquering king, but the lowly donkey of peace. The disciples look down at Jesus washing their toes and wonder, "Is this the Messiah? Is this the cedar of Lebanon?" Jesus gathers no Zealot army to overthrow Rome, but a small band who gather to pray in a garden, where he tells them to put away the sword. Jesus is nailed on a splintery tree to die a shameful death, crowned with royal thorns as an enemy of the state. And in the end one dirty bird nailed on a cross next to him pleads, "Remember me Jesus. Let me nest under the shadow of your tree."
Jesus reveals to us the reign of God in mustard seeds, bushes, and birds. It is a kingdom which begins with the small and insignificant, the forgotten and forsaken, and grows into a big bush for the birds, for outsiders, the left out, the other, for the multicolored robins and finches beyond the borders of our comfort zones. Jesus reveals to us a kingdom for the birds.
There was once a church nesting on the borders of our imagination. It was a little country church on the edge of town. The steeple stood tall and proud and the bushes were neatly trimmed to proper size. The outside of the church was whitewashed, and you might say the inside was also whitewashed. In a front pew sits Johnny next to his mother, Mrs. Lee. Both are first time visitors. Johnny is picking his nose and wiping it on his jeans. Mrs., Lee is nervously fiddling with her bulletin. Johnny is thirty five years old. His tongue is thick and his speech childlike. He looks out at the world through almond eyes and a fresh innocence as if seeing life for the first time. There were well-meaning family members and neighbors who said, "You should find someplace to put Johnny." They probably said that because they were uncomfortable being around Johnny, particularly that snorting laugh or saying things that didn't make any sense. It was these kinds of attitudes that brought Mrs. Lee and little Johnny to this new church to find some friends.
The church they visited on that first Sunday was a bit uncomfortable, at first. With broken smiles the members would greet Mrs. Lee and Johnny. After that they didn't know what to say. Some members were annoyed when Johnny would snort at the preacher's feeble attempt at a joke. They stared when Johnny said something bizarre to a visitor, a potential member. But, after Mrs. Lee and Johnny had come to church a few times, he seemed to blend in with all the rest of the people in church who were a little different----the elderly woman who just had to give you every gory detail about her goiter operation, the well dressed company president who wanted his name on a plaque for every gift he gave to the church, the twice-divorced woman with way too much make-up, the man who thought he could sing but hit sour notes on all the hymns, and all those members who were handicapped by their fear of newcomers and outsiders.
But...Mrs. Lee and Johnny kept coming back to that little church. It wasn't long before the people welcomed Mrs. Lee and Johnny as if they were just another member of this quirky church family. Later a bi-racial family who lived next door to Mrs. Lee and little Johnny came to visit after they heard about this odd little church. An African-American family was there on the day they repainted the church and had the fellowship meal. There was even that family that started attending with the son who was into, who knows what, with that god-awful purple hair and a nose ring. Oh, and I can't forget mention the impeccably dressed single guy who volunteered to go around and fix the wigs and do the make up of the women at the local cancer center.
Over the years the small church grew. Not in size or budget or building projects, or prestige in the community, for sure not in prestige. The little church grew from its small awkward beginnings as an exclusive enclave of people cut from the same cloth into an open community, which simply and unconditionally welcomed and loved, the best they knew how, whoever God sent their way. It didn't become a megachurch, an empire, a mighty cedar. Just a signpost along the way of something new..... like....a whole a new world. In the end that little church nestled on the edge of town became a nesting place for the birds.