Texts: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
Parables are (generally) neither allegories nor fables. They’re more like divine jokes.* Jokes play with our expectations and surprise us in order to entertain us. Like jokes, I think parables are intended to be entertaining; funny, even. Jesus isn’t talking to scholars or debating with lawyers, here; he’s talking with blue-collar people and using language that they would use with one another in their everyday conversations. It makes sense that he would connect with them through jokes and parables.
When parables make us laugh, we consider them harmless and allow them past our defenses and our prejudices where they can present us with new ideas we may not otherwise accept. But, of course, explain a joke—or a parable—is to kill it, to suck the life out of it. You all know that telling someone why a joke is funny only makes it less funny. And yet, in order to get Jesus’ joke, we have to understand it. That’s why my job today is so ironic: the sermon is supposed to help us understand this parable, but if I explain it, I kill the joke. Isn’t that funny?
When Jesus originally told these stories to people, he used ideas and images that would have been very familiar and recognizable to them. For example, when Jesus told these seed parables, he was speaking to people who were very familiar with farming. Even if they didn’t farm themselves, they lived in and amongst farm fields. They knew how to tell when the grain was ripe, and what people did when it ripened. They knew that no one in their right mind would intentionally sow mustard anywhere, because it grew everywhere. They also knew that although mustard does grow very large, it could hardly be called “the greatest of all the shrubs,” and it certainly is not a plant in which birds build nests. These twists are the punch line of the parable; but without understanding the way the parable plays with their expectations, the punch line sails right past us.
That’s why the lectionary gives us this little bit of Ezekiel to read today. The reading comes from a longer poem that is itself parable of sorts that Ezekiel tells as a comment on the political situation of his own time. In this parable, he uses a well-established image for God’s kingdom, Israel: a cedar. As Pacific Northwesterners, we know about cedars. They are tall, lovely trees with beautiful wood. Lebanon, north of Israel, was renowned for its abundant, high-quality cedar forests. When King Solomon built the first temple, he constructed it using cedar lumber from Lebanon. Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah and Zechariah all use cedars and other tall, majestic trees to represent the righteous of God, and God’s chosen kingdom, Israel.
Especially in this parable of Ezekiel’s, the image is repeated of a small shoot of cedar being taken and planted, eventually growing into a majestic tree, the way all plants grow. This growth is understood to be the work of God, and the image of the birds of the air taking refuge in its branches. All the way back in Genesis, God explains that God has chosen and set aside Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the world; the cedar, blessed by God to grow tall and strong, blesses the birds with shelter and safety.
So, okay, great; we get it. The cedar represents God’s kingdom; it starts off small and grows into something big for the benefit of the whole world. Mustard does the same thing, that’s Jesus’ point, right? Not exactly.
When Jesus begins talking about God’s kingdom being like a plant sprouting, his original Jewish audience may begin to think back to Ezekiel and the others and expect him to talk about God’s kingdom—Israel—as a noble cedar, or perhaps a strong oak or something similarly beautiful and imposing. Instead, Jesus says, “God’s kingdom is like the noble and mighty… mustard weed. It starts out small, but it grows into the grandest of pernicious vegetables.”
If the cedar is Israel, what is the mustard seed—is it Israel, or something else? If God’s kingdom isn’t Israel, then what is it? If the power of kingdoms is symbolized by the strength and height of trees, is the kingdom of God even a kingdom at all? These are all questions that Jesus’ parable might raise, questions that if he simply asked, might make them defensive or confuse them. But, wrapped in this humorous parable about a weed, they simply entertain… and cause us to ask what might otherwise be dangerous questions.
So now I’ve ruined the joke for you. You’re welcome. We can take it apart and analyze it until we’re blue in the face, and it will only get less funny. But maybe with some appreciation of the background, we can still learn something from it. Of course, it’s not just the past that helps us understand the joke, but also the future: the best part of this divine joke is not the punch line, but who’s telling it.
When Ezekiel originally told his story, the noble cedar represented the royal lineage of King David. The tender shoot plucked from the top was the current king. Earlier in his story, Ezekiel describes how the cedar shoot is plucked by an eagle (representing the king of Babylon) and taken into exile; but in the story we read, God takes the tippy-top cedar shoot and plants in on a mountain in Jerusalem. Ezekiel uses the image to promise the restoration of Israel and through that restoration, God’s blessings poured out to the whole world.
Jesus is David’s royal heir: God’s promised messiah, the very restoration that Ezekiel imagined half a millennium earlier; but just like the surprising mustard bush in his parable, he is not what people expected. The noble cedars of his time saw him as the invasive weed in God’s perfectly ordered garden. They planted him on a hill, alright. He sprouted from the ground and put forth his branches, but not at all in the way Ezekiel imagined. But you know what? Ezekiel’s vision came true anyway: in his death, God’s blessing was spread to the whole world. Under his outstretched arms, we come to find life and safety. The people who were waiting for a cedar found a mustard bush, so they cut it down. Now, when you cut down a cedar, that’s it: no more cedar. But when you pull out a mustard bush, you know what happens?
Some years ago, the folks from a local congregation in Pullman, WA decided to plant some mustard in the community garden on their church’s community garden in honor of this parable. They selected a corner apart from the other herbs and vegetables to plant their mustard seeds, not even knowing if they would sprout. Well, sprout they did, and the gardeners spent all summer fighting and wrestling the mustard to keep it from spreading beyond its allotted corner. It was with great relief that, that fall, they pulled up the old plants and tilled the garden under. But the next spring, before they had a chance to plant any new crops, the entire garden came up mustard.
That’s the joke, I think. Cedars are tall and noble, but they can be cut down. Mustard is nothing special, but like dandelions or shotweed or blackberry brambles, once it shows up, it’s there to stay. That’s what the kingdom of God is like; even crucifixion only encourages it. If in God’s kingdom death only encourages new life, what does that say to us when we encounter death and suffering? If Jesus is the nasty weed in the well-ordered garden, what does that say about the people we’d like to uproot from our own community? If the noble cedars in charge of our country and our economy are not what God’s kingdom looks like then where do we look to see God at work?
We may not be able to explain Jesus’ little joke about seeds, but we don’t have to. They take root and grow in us, we know not how. They keep creeping into our vacant lots and highway medians. But every time we see mustard, or scotch broom, or blackberries, we can think about God’s kingdom and be reminded that it’s always there, growing unnoticed until all of a sudden we realize that everything else has been pushed out to make room for God’s gentle reign of justice and peace—with plenty of spicy mustard and blackberry jam for everyone. And when the harvest comes, we will know to grab our sickles and get to work.