“With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” Jesus asks. With a garden perhaps, where the weather is perpetually mild and lovely things grow, and creatures great and small live together in peace? Or can we compare it with a city of great splendor, through whose open gates the nations of the world enter, carrying their gifts to celebrate the feast of life?
Can we compare the kingdom of God to nature in its awesome grandeur minus the things that frighten us, or to a global culture where the injustice and pain of history have been redeemed? With what can we compare the kingdom of God?
The task before a small committee, meeting for the first time on a July afternoon in 1776, was much smaller. The thirteen colonies had just declared their independence from Britain, and now these United States needed an official national seal. Three men met to select a design, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. “With what can we compare this revolutionary adventure, or what parable will we use for it?” the three patriots asked, and they had very different ideas. After much discussion, they agreed on a drawing of lady Liberty holding a shield to represent the thirteen states.
Lady Liberty would later have a long career in France, but the members of Congress were not inspired by the committee report. And so more committees met, and eventually, in 1782 Congress adopted a seal designed by William Barton, with just one small but significant change: the golden eagle in Barton’s design was replaced with the bald eagle, because the golden eagle also flew over European nations.
To this day, the great seal shows a bald eagle with a shield covering its breast, holding in its talons a bundle of thirteen arrows on the left, and a thirteen-leaf olive branch on the right. The new nation was still at war with England at the time, and the fierce-looking bird seemed to be an appropriate emblem.
Benjamin Franklin, though, famously frowned at it. In a letter from Paris in 1784 to his daughter he wrote,
For my part, I wish the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched in some dead tree where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing hawk and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for his young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes the fish. With all this injustice, he is never in good case; but like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, no bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.
Franklin argued that eagles could be found in all countries, and that “a true native of America” and “a much more respectable bird,” the turkey, would have been a more appropriate symbol. He conceded that the turkey was “a little vain and silly,” but maintained that it was nevertheless a “bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
I don’t know much about the moral character of birds, but Franklin obviously preferred a bird that might be perceived as a little vain and silly over one that might be perceived as lazy and lousy.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” Jesus asks, “or what parable will we use for it?” People in first-century Judea were familiar with images from nature to represent nations and kingdoms; a very common symbol for royal power was the tree. There’s a particularly beautiful example in the book of Ezekiel:
Mortal, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes: Whom are you like in your greatness? Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds. The waters nourished it, the deep made it grow tall, making its rivers flow around the place it was planted, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived. It was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its roots went down to abundant water. The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor the fir trees equal its boughs; the plane trees were as nothing compared with its branches; no tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty. Ezekiel 31:2-8
But Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, was cut down and fell. All the people of the earth went away from its shade and left it. The birds settled on its broken trunk, and among its fallen boughs all the wild animals lodged.
In the book of Daniel we read about a dream the mighty king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had.
Upon my bed this is what I saw; there was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed. Daniel 4:10-12
But Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of greatness and power ends with a frightening announcement.
Cut down the tree and chop off its branches, strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from beneath it and the birds from its branches. Daniel 4:14
Israel’s experience with royal power was that it comes and goes, that kingdoms rise and fall. Israel’s hope was that one day God would plant a tender shoot on the mountain height of Israel, a sprig that would become a noble cedar that would never fall.
When Jesus asks, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” it is easy to imagine a tree; a mighty tree whose branches extend to the ends of the earth; the tallest, the most magnificent tree of all, forever defining the center of the world; with its top in the heavens and its roots in the depths of the earth; with beautiful foliage and abundant fruit; with shade and food and peace for all living beings.
And then Jesus tells us his parable. He leaves the lofty cedars on the mountain height of our imagination, and goes to the field just outside the village where you work every day.
"The kingdom of God," he says, "is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth."
Oh yes, it’s a tiny seed, but we know the potential of a seed: one acorn has in it not just one oak, but an entire forest, mighty oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, taller than the cedars of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Rome.
Except that in this parable, the lowly mustard seed doesn’t grow into a tree but merely becomes the greatest of all shrubs.
Now if you expect God’s reign to powerfully transform nature and history, and to bring creation to its fulfillment, a scrawny mustard shrub of about 4-5 feet is hardly an appropriate emblem, is it?
If you prefer to keep the tree in the picture, you can read the story in Matthew, where the mustard seed “is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree”(Matthew 13:32).
Or you can go to Luke, where the kingdom is like a mustard seed “that someone took and sowed in the garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:19).
According to Matthew and Luke, the ancient hope for an empire where God alone is Sovereign and the nations find peace, begins to be fulfilled in the story of Jesus and his followers. According to Mark, the story of Jesus rewrites the ancient hope for an empire to end all empires from the bottom up.
At the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel, the great king arrives at a difficult insight.
The Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings. Daniel 4:17
The lowliest of human beings.
The parable of the mighty tree announces a restoration of the Davidic kingdom among the kingdoms of the earth. Other kingdoms will dry up, while that of David will flourish and outlast them.
It grows everywhere, not just on the hights of Lebanon or the seven hills of Rome or by the great rivers of Egypt or Babylon, or wherever the centers of power happen to be.
It grows dependably wherever there’s just enough soil for the tiniest of seeds to take root.
Perhaps the most beautiful detail about the mustard shrub is that it is an annual plant. It doesn’t just sit there and simply get bigger and bigger with the years. The mustard shrub depends on renewed sowing and its perennial promise lies in the fruitfulness of the seed and the faithfulness of the sower.
God’s kingdom is no divine empire, but faithful followers who continue to sow the seed of God’s grace and truth.
We do small things: small acts of compassion, tiny steps toward greater justice, a kind word to the cashier at the check-out line who just got barked at by an unhappy customer – small things that seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of human history and cosmic time, but Jesus reminds us that God’s reign grows everywhere and from the tiniest of seeds.
We do small things in lots of small places, things as common as mustard, and God’s reign spreads and grows and nothing can stop it.
With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like sowers who scatter seed on the ground, and the seed sprouts and grows and they don’t know how, and their lives bear fruit.