August 01, 2008

Shrubs and Kingdoms

July 23, 2008
by Debra Dean Murphy
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” -- Matthew 13:31-33

It has often been pointed out that when Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a shrub, he is having a bit of fun with us. But finding the humor in the Bible isn’t something we overly-serious modern readers are very good at. We’re more likely to treat parables like this one as if they were folk-wisdom formulas for personal or group success. Think about sermons you’ve heard on finances (“your small gift, sown in faith, will produce a big return!”) or church growth (“if we’re faithful, God will make us grow!”).

This kind of life-application theology is well-received in our age of motivational-style preaching, but it is a betrayal of these texts’ deeper meanings and contexts.

Biblical theologian Ched Myers contends that the seed parables in the gospels illustrate vividly the struggle to make a living by dry farming the rocky soil of Galilee. And if the land’s unsuitability for agriculture were not challenge enough, wealthy landlords always extracted enough of the harvest to ensure that the farmer remained indentured to the land, strangling any prospects he might have to achieve even a modicum of economic security.

Against this backdrop of despair and injustice, the promise of abundance—and its fulfillment—is stunning, and amounts to nothing less than the “eschatological overflowing of the divine fullness, surpassing all human measure.”

This agrarian eschatology, as Myers calls it, has a specifically subversive function. The shrub that is the mustard plant in this parable is a deliberate lampooning of the great and mighty cedar tree, used by the prophet Ezekiel as a symbol of foreign domination. The birds that came to nest in the shade of the cedar’s branches (Ezek. 17:23) stand in for the alien oppressors that Ezekiel condemns as the epitome of imperial hubris.

In Jesus’ parable, God’s kingdom is like a shrub, a nuisance weed, really:an out-of-place, hard-to-control horticultural threat to the large, orderly garden that is empire. Not on a par with empire, though; not in any way comparable to its size, strength, or agenda; and not, alas, what many of Jesus’ followers would have wanted to hear, victims as they were of Rome’s imperial hubris.

Imagine being told that the kingdom you had been hoping for, that your ancestors had been praying for all these generations was not, in effect, a mighty cedar or majestic cypress, but was instead a scrubby weed that insinuates itself into its surroundings, altering the landscape, spoiling the environment. (We southerners might think of Kudzu here).

Then imagine being given new eyes with which to see this strange kingdom. Notice the birds in Jesus’ story: The birds which would normally have dedicated themselves to eating up any available seed now rest in its branches. Here is one of Jesus’ little “time bombs” (James Alison’s phrase), for what Jesus is bringing to existence, says Alison, “is something which will even be capable of offering hospitality to those who would have been its principle enemies.”

God’s ways are not the ways of empire;the way of the kingdom is the not the way of domination, retribution, scarcity, and enmity, but of shalom and abundance, of reconciliation and restoration.

We are told in Matthew’s version of the parable that the shrub did indeed grow to become a tree—a miracle in itself, given the plant’s less-than-impressive botanical properties. (In Mark’s version, the mustard plant remains a shrub, perhaps revealing something about that gospel writer’s concern to preserve the utter strangeness of the parable and indeed of the kingdom of God).

But in growing the shrub to the stature of a tree, perhaps something is being communicated to Matthew’s audience about hope. As Myers puts it: “The disproportion between the seed and the mature plant is meant to instill courage and hope in the small and fragile discipleship community for its struggle against the entrenched powers.”

For those who will consider this parable in worship this week, it’s worth remembering that it is something of a holy joke: our hope lies in something as seemingly unimpressive as a pesky weed. The absurdity of it all! But the coming kingdom Jesus proclaims depends on such foolishness, for the cross and resurrection toward which all the parables point and on which they all depend, have the final word and the last laugh.


Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:Orbis, 1988), 177ff.

James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (Crossroads, 1996), 81ff.

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