I have mentioned a number of times before the advice a friend gave me on reading Jesus’s parables: look for what doesn’t make sense. However, this presumes something crucial: that I know what does make sense. Just like with jokes, one needs to know the baseline in order to spot the punchline. One needs to know what’s expected in order to be surprised.
Today’s parable of the mustard seed perhaps requires a bit of botanical knowledge, but more importantly, one has to know some scripture. Fortunately for us, a clue to the scriptural background is given in the first reading. However, that clue itself requires some background. Our first reading itself is a riff; it needs the rest of chapter 17 of Ezekiel to make sense.
Chapter 17 of Ezekiel is an allegory of the political situation of Israel trapped between two heavyweights, Assyria and Egypt. Ezekiel describes Israel first as a mighty cedar. However, the top of that cedar is plucked by an eagle, that symbolises the might of Assyria. The eagle carries the top of the tree to Babylon. This refers to Nebuchadnezzar taking the leaders of the Hebrew people into Babylon and leaving behind a vassal state.
The vassal state is then depicted as a low, creeping vine. Israel’s situation is formalised by its entering into a political covenant with Assyria. Such a covenant usually would have been executed under the name of each country’s god. So, Israel would have promised obedience under the name of the Lord.
The next part of the story is that Israel in its compromised situation decides to turn to Egypt. It decides to seek help from the other mighty regional power. However, Ezekiel prophesises that this endeavour will fail and lead to destruction. Ezekiel states that in turning to Egypt, Israel has despised the covenant and therefore despised the oath it made in the Lord’s name. It has therefore denigrated the Lord’s name. Israel’s real problem, therefore, is not its pitiful political situation, but that it has ignored God or worse committed idolatry by seeking salvation other than from God.
In fact, the alliance with Egypt fails when Nebuchadnezzar returns and destroys their combined armies. This in turn leads to the destruction of the First temple, which is the subject of another major vision in Ezekiel found in chapters 8 and 9. This is the vision of the glory of the Lord leaving the Temple ahead of its destruction. This departure of God from the traditional place of God’s presence seems to have two implications. First, that God has condemned Jerusalem. He has given it over to its enemies. But, secondly and as important, God will not leave his people. The glory of the Lord in fact goes ahead of the people into exile. God once again judges and leads. This then is the background to our first reading, At least part of it.
Our first reading comes at the end of chapter 17, after the failed political machinations have been recounted. After Israel has been destroyed and all its leaders taken to Babylon, we have this vision. God takes a fresh twig from the top of the cedar, and plants it. God will take a remnant of Israel, plant it on a high mountain. Perhaps one can understand Sinai to this high mountain, and therefore we might also understand here a renewal of Israel’s covenantal closeness to God. God’s action and Israel’s closeness to God will turn this tiny twig into a mighty cedar.
Not only then will Israel be great again, but we hear that all the birds of the air will next in its branches. This symbolises all the nations of the earth, all the gentiles, finding their true home within Israel. And so, the pattern of history continues. Israel who only exists because it is called by God, ignores the very source of its life – its fidelity to God’s word, and therefore is destroyed. God judges Israel’s fidelity. However, God is merciful and Israel has a future, precisely, because it is God’s people and therefore makes present God’s name to all the earth. And God acts to protect God’s name so that there is hope for creation.
So, chapter 17 of Ezekiel describes the worldly action of Israel as a supernatural disobedience. This supernatural disobedience – its infidelity to the covenant, its taking the Lord’s name in vain – is the cause of its destruction. But this then sets the scene for God’s mercy. God will not be dictated to by politics. Assyria and Egypt are nothing compared to God. God is all powerful.
So, what does this have to do with the gospel? What does this have to do with the parable of the mustard seed?
First, it seems clear that Jesus is referring to Ezekiel when he mentions all the birds of the air finding shelter in is branches. Jesus obviously knew Ezekiel well. So, he seems to be making the comparison. However, as soon as the comparison is made, the strangeness is manifest. Birds can shelter in the branches of a mighty Lebanon cedar, but they can’t really in those a mustard bush. A mustard bush is basically a weed. No farmer would sow this in the ground. If such an action wasn’t illegal in and of itself, it at least does not seem anything like God taking a cutting from the top of a great cedar.
Perhaps then our gospel is a zooming in on our first reading. Chapter 17 begins by zooming in on power politics and revealing it as, more often than not, idolatry. And idolatry is always dead religion, one that kills its followers. But then at the end of Chapter 17 we zoom in on God’s action, hidden amongst the world’s actions. God is still working to provide humanity with life and a home. Perhaps the first parable in today’s gospel is a recapitulation of this message. God is always working, but this work is mostly hidden.
Perhaps, though, the parable of the mustard seed is a further zooming in on this hidden action of God. Yes, the seed is underground and working in ways we do not understand. But it is also hidden because it is not where we would normally look. God is working in the weeds of our lives. The kingdom of God is being built precisely not where the eyes of the world are looking. God is not found in power. We should not be looking for the meaning of history in the actions of whatever superpowers dominate the news, be they America or China, or Google or Facebook, or beauty or prestige. God is working in the privacy, in the secrecy of real life, the life we know does not match up to the world’s standards. The life we don’t want people to see because it might be shameful or ugly or even just boring. Everyday honesty. Everyday mercy. Everyday holiness.
And if we look at when the Church has grown and grown sustainably, it has looked like this. Weeds making room for birds. It has been people with nothing giving all they had. Those with no room making space for those in need. It is the lowly shrub and not the towering tree that has been the credibility of the faith. This is what wins hearts, precisely because it mirrors the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He lived in a corner of the empire and died early. Nothing to speak of. Yet we know he is the Word of God.
Let’s pray then that we continue to look for God where God tells us he is found. Not in the mighty but amongst the lowly. And let’s pray for the faith to know that God’s judgement on the world is not the end of the story. The name of God is Jesus, Jesus who is love, and he always puts us first.