Sermon Series: The Questions Scripture Asks Us
Question 2: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” -Mark 4:30
By Fr. Michael Cover
Welcome back for the second installment of our sermon series, “The Questions Scripture Asks Us.” Each Sunday in June, we will take one question from the Scriptures and ask how this question might be addressed to each of us personally and to us corporately as a church. Last Sunday, we went back to the beginning, to God’s very first question in the Bible: “Where are you?” Today’s scriptural question takes us out of the book of Genesis and into Mark’s Gospel. Appropriately for this long green season after Pentecost, it is a question about growth. It is posed by Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples during his Galilean ministry. The question is: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” What would a just and reconciled world would look like? Can you describe it in a picture? We are all good at bemoaning the present political order. So, Jesus challenges us: what would a right political order truly look like? Can you put it in words? Can you even imagine it?
Framed in this final way, perhaps one of the greatest and most pervasive answers to Jesus’s question in the modern era is that given by the noted theologians of the 1960s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. To what can we compare the Kingdom of God? “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try. No hell below us / Above us only sky.” “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too. Imagine all the people / Living life in peace.” It’s easy enough to critique Lennon’s words; but I’m not in this for cheap shots. Read sympathetically, much in Lennon’s vision riffs on the Gospel, with phrases like “life in peace,” “no possessions,” “a brotherhood of man,” recalling the communalism of the early church in Acts. Like it or not, Lennon and Ono’s atheistic utopian dreaming has become deep-wired in Western culture and politics. All the more important, then, for us as church to be able to imagine and articulate things differently; to imagine a place for religion, country, heaven, hell—even for a word as complicated for Americans as “kingdom”.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” Jesus’s answer to this question at first looks beguilingly simple. According to Luke’s version it goes something like this: Imagine the kingdom of God? It’s easy if you try. It’s like that tree outside the window with the birds in it. It started as a small seed that somebody planted. But it outlived that somebody, and grew into this great big tree that you’re looking at, that you could never grow in your whole lifetime. All the birds come and live in it for free. You want to know what God’s kingdom is like? Look at the tree. You will see that God is still in charge.”
Easy, right? Well, maybe. Depends how much you know about mustard plants and trees. But before we get into the weedy details of Jesus’s preferred image for the kingdom of God, let’s stop briefly at Jesus’s question itself, which as ever gives as much to us as his answer.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” The question has several remarkable features. First and most obviously, Jesus presupposes that there is such a thing as the kingdom of God. And yet we might ask: where is it? For many, including John Lennon, the violence, disorder, and sin that characterize our world challenge the notion that God is in control. It’s helpful to admit that things in our world are currently disordered. As all of Jesus’s parables of growth emphasize, the kingdom of God is an eschatological reality—that is, it is something that only comes to its fullness at the end of time.
But what of the word “kingdom” itself? Even if we accept that God’s reign is growing-yet- hidden, must we accept from Jesus’s question that such a divine order is a kingdom? As all fans of Hamilton know, we Americans have a rather testy relationship with “monarchy.” Why didn’t Jesus come to proclaim the “democracy of God” or the God-given governance of “we the people”? That would seem rather “self-evident,” right? Wrong, according to Jesus. Whatever one makes of it, there can be no mistake that if Jesus preached one sermon series, it was not entitled “I’ll Be Back” but “the kingdom of God is near.” Ever self-effacing, Jesus focused his message on the kingdom, in keeping with the message of Israel’s prophets and singers of old.
And how did those prophets of Israel speak of the Kingdom of God? They spoke of it, like Jesus, in the language of trees. As we heard this morning from the prophet Ezekiel:
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar… . I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain, [o]n the mountain height of Israel…in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. (Ezek 17:22–24a)
Ezekiel’s parable of the trees demonstrates that Israel harbored hopes of becoming the loftiest of cedars, planted upon a high mountain where all the other trees would look for light and hope. So too, the psalmist proclaims that the righteous will “flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (Ps 92:12).
This brings us back to the principal problem of Jesus’s parable: why on earth was he talking about a mustard seed? It’s clear what Israel was expecting—and what most of us would like, if we are honest. God’s coming political order ought to look like the greatest of trees—the cedars of Lebanon or the giant sequoias California. Instead, Jesus says that the kingdom of God will be like a mustard seed, planted in the ground. Now, I am no arborist; but from my limited knowledge, I can see two problems with Jesus’s likening the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. First, mustard is not cedar. Jesus’s image looks to be a downgrading of our and Israel’s hopes. Second, and perhaps more botanically problematic: mustard doesn’t grow on trees. It’s just a plant, and a plant of such diminutive stature that a single large crow alighting on it might bend the entire stalk to a human’s waist-length. It’s true that Mark, unlike Luke, doesn’t speak of a mustard “tree” but a mustard “plant”; and mentions the birds only in terms of the mustard plant’s shade, and not their sitting on its branches. Nevertheless, reading Mark’s parable of the mustard seed in light of Ezekiel’s vision of the cedar, several points are worth mentioning.
First: by likening the kingdom of God to a mustard plant instead of a lofty cedar, Jesus is reorienting Israel’s hopes for its kingdom: it will not be only a lofty city on a hill to which the nations shall look, but also a humble shade under which the nations of the earth, as birds of the air, will take shelter.
Second, turning to Luke’s version of the parable, in which the mustard seed becomes a tree: Jesus still holds out hope in the vision of Ezekiel. But for the kingdom to grow in this way—for the mustard seed to become a tree—will take nothing less than a supervening of the laws of nature. In short, it will take a miracle. And this is exactly the point: God’s kingdom doesn’t grow, either within or without, on account of our building it. God’s kingdom takes a miracle: the miracle, in the first instance, of the Incarnation of the Son of God, which plants anew the divine image within the human person, such that she can grow into a fuller stature and greater glory than was possible in her fallen state.
Extrapolating from Jesus’s parable, our own response to the miracle of God’s kingdom should be two-fold: to plant and to wait. First, recognizing that God’s kingdom grows by miracle and divine action is not a counsel to the complacency of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s white moderate. The parable of the mustard seed imagines that each of us can and should sow our own seeds of faith and charity and participate in God’s growing of his Beloved Community.
Second, however, the parable of the mustard seed—in its refusal to explain the miraculous transformation from germ to tree—also reminds us that once a seed is planted, there is no getting around long periods of waiting. It does no good to try and speed a seed’s growth exponentially, as Frog and Toad do in Arnold Lobel’s beloved children’s story, by yelling at it or playing it music or overwatering it. At a certain point, one has to let go and let God grow his kingdom in his own time. And so: we wait. And we wait, not without hope, but with a sure and certain expectation, that just as leavened dough will rise, so also will God be faithful, when he says: “I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
That, at least, is one of Jesus’s answers to the question, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” The nice thing about parables, however, is that they are never exhaustive. They do not foreclose the question completely, or say “the kingdom is like this, and nothing else.” And so this morning, I want to leave you not with an answer, but with a question: “With what else can we compare the kingdom of God? What other parable will we use for it?” Amen.