Relentless sowers

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? Jesus asks. Some will say, it’s like the garden where it all began. In the kingdom, we walk about among lush, verdant trees and meadows, and the weather is perpetually mild, the sun is never harsh, the rains are always gentle, and delicious fruits, nuts, and seeds ripen year-round, and no creature is afraid of another.

Some will say, the kingdom is like a garden. Others will compare it to a city. A city of great splendor, where the nations of the world come together for the feast of reconciliation, each person offering their gifts to the celebration of life, and all is done to the glory of God, and none shall be afraid.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? Jesus asks. The task before a small committee, meeting for the first time on a July afternoon in 1776, was of a much different scale. The thirteen colonies had just declared their independence from Britain. Against much resistance from British loyalists who admonished the revolutionaries with words from Paul’s letter to the Romans, to “be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Romans 13:1-2 KJV) — the powers that be always gladly open the Scriptures to these couple of verses, especially when faced with protest for ignoring the commandments about justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger — against much resistance the thirteen colonies had just declared their independence from British rule, and now these United States needed an official national seal. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin formed a design committee and they asked themselves, “With what can we compare this revolutionary adventure?” They discussed various ideas and eventually 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 design committee report. And so more committees met, and eventually, in 1782 Congress adopted a seal designed by William Barton, showing an 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. Congress adopted Barton’s design with just one small but significant change: the golden eagle was replaced with the bald eagle, because the golden eagle also flew over European nations.

Not everybody liked the new design. Benjamin Franklin 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” would have been a more appropriate symbol: the turkey. 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.”[1]

Royal houses, nations, and empires have long turned to the world of animals for symbolic representations of their power, and in general, predators like the eagle and the lion have been preferred over doves and bees or rabbits and the turkey. When Jesus told his parables about the kingdom of God, a very common symbol for royal power was a tree, the cedar of Lebanon. The book of Ezekiel contains in chapter 31 a particularly beautiful example for the use of this image:

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. Israel’s experience with royal power was that it comes and goes, that kingdoms rise and fall. Ezekiel dreamed of God planting a tender shoot on Israel’s mountainous highlands, a shoot that would send out branches and bear fruit. And it would grow into a mighty cedar, and birds of every kind would nest in it and find shelter in the shade of its boughs.[2]

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 towering cedar 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 creatures great and small, representing all peoples and nations. But Jesus tells us a very different story. He leaves the lofty cedar on the mountain heights of the royal imagination, and goes to the field just outside the village where people 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. Yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs. Yes it does, at this point of the story everybody in the audience is nodding, mustard plants grow to about 5’ tall or when conditions are right, 8-9’ — tiny seed, big shrub, we get it. But then Jesus talks about the humble mustard plant in language borrowed from Israel’s dreams of royal greatness restored, and he tells us that it is the smallest of all seeds on the earth that becomes the greatest of all shrubs and that it is this shrub that puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Jesus picks up the ancient hope for a kingdom that brings an end to the rise and fall of empires, but at the same time he subverts any imperial dreams of grandeur we might have and our assumptions of majesty and might. There’s nothing mighty or majestic about mustard…

… but it spreads readily on its own. Mustard is fast-growing and drought-resistant; it’s an annual plant, so it doesn’t just grow bigger and bigger year after year, but it reseeds lustily and grows dependably anywhere where there’s just enough soil for the tiniest of seeds to take root.

Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is like this: Someone scatters seed on the ground, and sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows — how, he does not know. Who is this farmer or gardener who scatters seed on the ground, and then nothing is mentioned about watering or weeding or keeping the rabbits away? Are we to think of God as the sower or of Jesus, or perhaps of anyone who plants seeds trusting that they will grow?

The parable invites us to recognize ourselves in the soil in which the seed of Jesus’ life and teachings takes root and grows into a harvest of life, and we don’t know how — and it invites us to see ourselves in the gardener who scatters seeds of God’s reign: seeds of kindness and compassion, seeds of respect and generosity and encouragement, confident that God gives the growth. I hear in these parables a divine affirmation of seemingly small actions by ordinary people, common as mustard. I hear a divine affirmation of the small things we do and say in the name of Jesus, things that may seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of global change, but that are indeed kingdom seeds that grow – we don’t know how – until the harvest comes.

Every small act of kindness matters, especially when the powers that be play political games with the well-being of children and families fleeing from violence. Every yes and no, whether spoken with firm conviction or trembling courage, matters. Every gesture of welcome and hospitality matters.

We are called to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. May we be relentless sowers of small seeds that grow.

 

[1] “The Great Seal,” New York Times, June 20, 1909 http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archivefree/pdf?res=9405E4DF143EE033A25753C2A9609C946897D6CF

[2] Ezekiel 17:22-24

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