The mustard seed and vulture kings

Wednesday

Mark 4:26-34

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Cedar trees in the Cedars of God nature preserve on Mount Lebanon, Lebanon.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

At least Mark properly calls the fruit of the mustard seed a ‘bush’. Matthew records Jesus saying: it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, and Luke also records that it grew and became a tree.” Why would they make such a mistake? Because this isn’t about taxonomy, it is about the promise in Ezekiel 17 of a righteous king.

Judah’s involvement in imperial politics went poorly for the nation. When Babylon rose to power and marched on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Pharaoh Neco came to Assyria’s aid to prevent Babylon’s domination of the region. Josiah, the righteous king in whom the author of Samuel & Kings puts his hope, marched out to prevent the Egyptian advance and was killed in the valley of Megiddo. Jehoahaz, the royal son, aged 23 and now become king, goes to submit to Pharaoh, but is seized and taken to Egypt as a hostage. Pharaoh installs his brother, Jehoiakim, on the throne. Jehoiakim wisely switches side when Neco falls to Nebuchadnezzar, but when the Babylonian invasion of Egypt fails – and Nebuchadnezzar must withdraw to quell a rebellion at home – Jehoiakim betrays his new master.

Nebuchadnezzar, however, deals quickly with the insurrection at home and marches back to Jerusalem and besieges the city. The help Jehoiakim expects from Egypt never materializes and the rebel king dies during the siege (a curiously timed and unexplained death). On taking the throne, his son, the 18-year-old Jehoiachin, surrenders. He is taken in chains to Babylon with a host of other captives from the elite families of the city, and Nebuchadnezzar installs his uncle, Zedekiah, as king. Ezekiel is among these first captives carried into exile in 597/6 BCE.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel, speaking on God’s behalf, are the lone voices of sanity, urging the king to submit to Babylonian rule. The royal prophets – the talking heads and tea leaf readers who dine at the king’s table – urge him to action, promising success, telling the king what he wants to hear. Zedekiah reaches out to Egypt for support and breaks his covenant/treaty with Babylon. But, again, Egyptian help does not materialize and Jerusalem, the monarchy, the temple and priesthood are all brutally and thoroughly destroyed. A second deportation begins Judah’s long exile.

Ezekiel embodies these troubling events in his parable of the great eagle/vulture* (Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar) who plucks a sprig from the Forest of Lebanon (the royal hall in Jerusalem) and carries it off to “a city of merchants” (Babylon). Then he takes “a seed from the land” (Zedekiah) and plants it in fertile soil where it grows into a vine – a vine, not a great tree; low, not exalted. But the vine does not send its roots towards the first eagle; instead it looks for strength and help from “a second eagle” (Egypt). And then, the prophet asks, what that first eagle will do? Will he not come and tear up the vine, rip up its roots, and leave it to wither beneath the hot desert winds?

The prophet’s fears are realized. But this word of doom is not all that the prophet has to say to us. God himself – not an eagle/vulture – will take a tender sprig and plant it on Mt. Zion where it will become a great tree in which “every kind of bird will live”. God promises a true king – not these rapacious vulture kings, nor the lowly vine, but a great cedar that shelters all.

This is why the insignificant mustard seed becomes a shelter for the birds. It is why Matthew and Luke call it a tree, lest we miss the allusion. This Jesus is the lowly twig become a great cedar. This Jesus is the shelter for all peoples. This Jesus is the promised ruler who will free God’s world from the vultures and provide a safe home for all.

*Note: the word translated ‘eagle’ also means vulture as can be seen in the allusion to shaved heads in Micah 1:16. (This Hebrew word is used also for a scavenging bird in Proverbs 30:17 and Hosea 8:1). The eagle is a noble national symbol to the United States, but an unclean bird to Israel.
Photo: By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Trees, parables, and the dominion of God

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Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon, Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919)

Watching for the Morning of June 14, 2015

Year B

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 06 / Lectionary 11

Perhaps the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the growing seed is a lazy and worthless farmer, sleeping instead of tending his fields, but though he sleeps, the seed wondrously grows and a harvest will come. Just so the mustard seed seems like nothing, but it will become a great shrub sheltering the birds of the air. Jesus may seem like nothing, now, a peasant preacher and wonder worker in a land occupied by a great empire – but the reign of God comes.

The parable evokes the promise of God in our reading from Ezekiel about a twig that will grow to become a great cedar in which “every kind of bird” will find shelter – the promise of a just king in whom all nations will rest.

And the image of the noble tree is taken up by the psalmist to declare that the righteous – those who show fidelity to God and to others – are like the noble cedar whose beautiful, aromatic wood lines the temple of God, and like the date-palm whose fruit adds sweetness and joy to life, year after year.

Enriching such reflection are the words of Paul in our second reading declaring that Christ “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In Christ the new creation is at hand, the dawning of God’s realm of grace and life, the reconciliation of heaven and earth.

The Prayer June 14, 2015

Lord of All,
your reign of grace and life moves towards its consummation
when all shall find shelter in your arms.
Increase in us faith and hope
that we may live and serve you with joy;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 14, 2015

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar.” – Building on the metaphor of the lowly vine planted by Nebuchadnezzar (the king of Judah) who broke his covenant with Babylon and brought destruction on the nation, the prophet proclaims God’s promise of a great cedar, a noble king, in whom all the nations will find shelter.

Psalmody: Psalm 92:12-15 (Appointed: 92:1-4, 12-15)
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”
– Those who are faithful towards God and others are compared with the long-lived and noble trees: the cedar that adorns the temple, and the date-palm that brings sweetness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 (Appointed: 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17)
“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
– All things have changed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The new age is at hand, the creation set free from sin and death, and those who are in Christ are part of that new creation.

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” – Jesus uses the metaphor of the sown seed growing towards harvest and the mustard seed become a great shrub to give insight into the mystery of the reign of God. What is now hidden moves inexorably towards its fulfillment.

 

Image: By Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919) (Hungarian) (Painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons