“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.