The first sign that the kingdom of God is not what you expect comes not so much in Jesus’ use of parables to describe it but in the content of those parables. Why describe a kingdom by comparing it to the most ordinary of things, like shrubs, seeds and nesting birds? It is a sign that God is not building a kingdom in line with human expectations. Parables about an ordinary kingdom might focus on the beauty of princesses, the power of warriors and authority that exalts itself over the weak.
In today’s reading from Ezekiel, the prophet also describes in his parable the coming of the unusual kingdom, comparing it to a tree growing from “a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar.” That “sprig” was planted by God on the highest mountain and became “a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” Jesus reimagines this metaphor, comparing the kingdom of God not to a cedar sprig but to something even more unassuming, a mustard seed, which “when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Both of these biblical metaphors imagine planting something modest, a shoot or a seed, which grows beyond its inconspicuous beginnings. The cedar gives us a sense of the majesty and nobility of God’s unusual kingdom, but the mustard shrub remains ordinary, for even when grown it is only the “greatest of all shrubs,” a designation meaningful only to mustard lovers and shrubbery aficionados. But that seems to be Jesus’ point.
The growing shrub is not notable for its majesty but for its purpose. And the purpose of the cedar and the mustard shrub is to offer shelter for birds of every kind. What do these birds represent? Biblical scholars agree that the birds represent the nations, the Gentiles, who will find a home in the branches. Though the growth of God’s kingdom overwhelms no one, somehow this shrubby kingdom develops to become the home for all people.
But this is not the only metaphor Jesus uses for the kingdom of God, for the kingdom is not simply a shrub waiting for the birds to nest. Jesus uses the parable of the sowing of the seeds to explain how the kingdom is spread to the world. The seeds are scattered over the ground by a sower so that “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” There is a mystery at the heart of the kingdom’s growth, here reflected by the unknown growth of the seeds, which stand for the individuals who populate the kingdom.
But just as there is mystery in the sowing and in the growing, there is mystery in the harvesting, for when “the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” The harvesting is the most mysterious of all the agricultural metaphors of the kingdom of God, for it is our destiny to be cut down. While we grow, struggling to root ourselves, threatened with drought, heat or other enemies, we are growing to be harvested. Yet our reaping is not our death, for though the kingdom is mysteriously present in us, embodied and alive, the kingdom truly comes when we are “at home with the Lord.”
In the parable of the mustard seed, it is clear God has prepared a home for us, which opens itself up to provide shelter and security in its branches for all. Yet God has also planted us and nurtured us to grow for the kingdom of God, a time and a place still to come. But as God has caused the kingdom to grow for us, each of us is also helping the kingdom to grow, providing shelter for others along the way, sowing seeds of love along our own path in the world, the work of the unusual kingdom unknown perhaps to all but God. For the kingdom of God is not the usual game of thrones but a work of love, in which the weak are raised up and the power comes down to earth to live with its subjects, until they are called home to live in the kingdom fully grown.