Nothing more important

Jean Giono, a French/Italian author, was working on a story. It was a story about a shepherd who lived up in the mountains and a hiker who met him when he was looking for water.

Giono worked on that story for twenty-three years, and in the end it was only seven pages long. It’s the story of Elzéard Bouffier who, after the death of his wife and son, moved to the mountains, and over a period of fifty years planted hundreds of thousands of trees. He began planting trees, he said, because the land was dying for want of trees, and he had nothing more important to do.

The publisher didn’t like the story because it was fiction. It was based on actual people and events, but it wasn’t journalism or biography. It was just a story. Since his publisher didn’t want it, Giono gave up the copyright, so whoever wanted to print it or tell it or turn it into a movie or a song could do so. And today countless people around the world have been touched and inspired by the classic tale of the man who planted trees.

Evening was approaching, and when he asked me if I needed a place to stay for the night, I gratefully accepted. We gathered his sheep and walked to his cabin in a steep valley.

After dinner, the Shepherd left the room and returned with a small sack. He dumped the contents – about two hundred acorns – out on the table. He scrutinized each one carefully and sorted them into piles. He discarded all with cracks. Through this process he eventually ended up with ten piles of ten acorns each. He placed this carefully selected piles of acorns into a bucket of water, then showed me to a corner where I unrolled by blanket and made my bed for the night.

The next day, he invited me to join him as he walked to the top of a nearby ridge. He carried an iron staff the thickness of my thumb and about shoulder height in length. As we reached the top of the ridge, the Shepherd began poking his staff into the ground, making small holes about two inches deep. Into each he placed one of his carefully selected acorns. He was planting trees.

I asked if this was his land. It was not – he did not know who owned it. Perhaps it was common land, or owned by the parish. It did not matter to him. With the same care with which he seemed to do everything, he planted one hundred acorns.

At midday, he returned to his home for lunch. Afterward, he again sorted out one hundred acorns.

When I told him that in thirty years his ten thousand oaks would be a magnificent forest, he responded by saying that if God granted him health, in thirty years these ten thousand oaks would be but a drop in the ocean.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Jesus didn’t give us a timetable for the coming of the kingdom of God, nor did he provide a blueprint or a constitution to tell us what he meant by the kingdom, reign, rule, realm, or empire of God. Instead of answers, we get stories about shepherds and farmers – and these parables are incredibly short and rich and frustrating.

Who is this gardener who scatters seed on the ground, and then nothing is mentioned about watering or weeding or keeping the rabbits or chip munks away? Is God the gardener or Jesus? Or are the followers of Jesus the gardeners who sow seeds of mercy trusting that every small act will bear fruit? Or are the followers of Jesus the soil in which the seed of God’s word takes root and flourishes into a harvest of life? Is the kingdom of God like a gardener who slept through the growing season but wakes up for the harvest?

“We have so little to do with Christ’s nearness to us,” says Wendy Farley, “that we can just go to sleep. In fact, it might be better if we did sleep through the whole thing, snug and safe, resting like babies in our mothers’ arms.”

I imagine the man who planted trees slept like a baby every night. And he didn’t go back day after day, anxious to see how the acorns were doing. He just got up every morning and went out to poke holes in the soil and plant seeds, because he had nothing more important to do.

We can enter the parable imagining ourselves to be gardeners, seed, or soil, and each door takes us into a different story that is still the same parable. Martin Luther clearly saw himself as a sower when he said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses on it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” But Luther was also able to see his life as the soil in which the seed of God’s Word took root and bore fruit, grace upon grace.

Parables resist complete explanation. They just won’t sit still long enough so we can turn them into simple one-liners that can be embroidered on a couch pillow or printed on a mug. Parables don’t offer answers that settle things, but rather point us back, again and again, to the one who speaks the word to us with many such stories that keep us wondering. They point us to Jesus whose life and cross unsettle the status quo and inaugurate the kingdom.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” Jesus asks, “or what parable will we use for it?”

And he wanders the whole realm of nature, teeming with lion and eagle, bull and bear, gladly offering themselves as symbols of power and might. The oak stands in quiet strength, and the cedar looks as if it knew the beautiful lines from Ezekiel who spoke of the great empires as mighty trees:

Say to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and to his troops: With whom do you compare in your greatness? Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon: beautiful branches, forest shade, towering height; indeed, its top went up between the clouds. Waters nourished it, the deep raised it up, 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; all the animals of the field gave birth to their young under its branches; and in its shade all great nations lived. It was beautiful in its greatness and in its lush foliage; 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.[1]

The same Ezekiel dared to dream of God planting a tender shoot on Israel’s mounainous highlands, and how it would send out branches and bear fruit. How 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. “Then all the trees in the countryside will know that I, the Lord, bring down the tall tree and raise up the lowly tree, and make the green tree wither and the dry tree bloom. I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do it.”[2]

Throughout Israel’s history, any story that mentioned trees with birds in them was a story of hope that in the end God’s kingdom would prevail over the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Rome or any other empire.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” asks Jesus, “or what parable will we use for it?”

And he returns from his walk through nature and Scripture and talks about – mustard. Disappointed? There’s nothing mighty or majestic about mustard. Yes, it has medicinal properties and it is useful for flavoring and preserving food. But the mustard plant is a garden pest, and no one would sow it on purpose. It grows all too readily on its own, and once it appears, it takes over first the field, then the farm, and then the whole county. The mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher; and it tends to take over where it is not wanted. It’s fast-growing, drought-resistant, and impossible to control.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” asks Jesus, “or what parable will we use for it?”

And he talks about mustard, an invasive weed. Mustard grows just about anywhere, not just on the hights of Lebanon or the hills of Rome or by the great rivers of Egypt or Babylon. The kingdom of God is like this annual plant that perpetuates itself with tiny seeds.

As people who seek to live in the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, we do small things and lots of them, acts of kindness and compassion that may seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of global politics, but Jesus tells us, “You’re scattering seed on the ground, friends. What you’re doing may be as common as mustard, but it’s also as resilient.”

We plant kingdom seeds because we have nothing more important to do. And God’s kingdom is like a weed that finds the tiniest crack in the concrete and it grows and nothing can stop it. It grows until the birds of the air make nests in its shade, and the nations find peace under its branches.

[1] Ezekiel 31:2-8

[2] Ezekiel 17:22-24