A Mustard Plant Kingdom: God’s preference for the small and improbable (or “Crosses instead of Towers”)
This one is a bit long but bear with us folks. Here’s our lesson from Wednesday 12/11/13
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It 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, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
The Tower of Babel
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
The story of the Tower of Babel gives us one of the most well known images in the Hebrew Scriptures. Its a very striking image. A huge architectural and engineering project involving thousands of people. They strive together to create something grand. To “make a name for ourselves.” Then, seeing this undertaking God comes down and scatters the people. Not only scattering but confusing their speech that they could never organize this way again. That seems like an odd thing for God to do. What does God have against towers? Or architecture?
Something isn’t clear when we read the story by itself. But we have to remember a few things about the world this story was told in. The story of Babel was probably written down the way we have it now around the 7th or 6th century BC. After many of the Israelites were taken away into exile. In Babylon. Babylon was famous as one of the civilizations which built Ziggurats, huge square temples which were built in rising layers. Like this one.
This design allowed Ziggurats to be one of the tallest building of its time, towering above everything else. Sound familiar? Ziggurats were also centers of worship for the Babylonian gods, like Marduk and Nabu. The Israelites in exile would have seen these pagan temples towering above them as they waited for God’s rescue. They would also have seen first hand the kind of people it takes to go about a project like this. In history its not usually been the nicest folks who can rise to the top and command a project like this to happen. There was probably a lot of abuse and mistreatment in putting together something like this. Babylon created a lot of amazing advancements in art, law, science and engineering but they did it at least in part by being bigger and nastier than everyone else.
So our story is a little different. God looks down on this project. The mighty and the grand and the powerful whipping the poor and the weak into service, using someone else’s sweat and pain to try and grab greatness. Babylon has one language and one goal not out of a sense of unity but out of fear and ambition and violence. This isn’t God’s intent for the human project, for the way people would live. So God scatters them and stamps a definitive “No” on this way of living in the world.
But God doesn’t stop there. Having broken up the unjust undertaking of Empire God is ready to start something different.
So God goes and finds the perfect place to start the next chapter of humanity. Abram and Sarai. An old, barren couple with no children. God doesn’t go to a king or a priest or a general or a wealthy merchant. God picks two senior citizens, late in their lives, and tells them they will be the parents of many descendants. The couple considered cursed for their lack of children will bring God’s great people into the world. Nations and kings will come out of what God will do with them. The name that Babel couldn’t take for itself with its tower God gives to these two. Literally. God gives them new names, Abraham “Father of many nations” and Sarah “the laughing one.”
For some reason God keeps picking these unlikely people. An exiled Egyptian shepherd, wanted for murder becomes the first Great Prophet and confronts a Pharaoh. A group of desperate escaped slaves become God’s people. A young shepherd is plucked off the side of a hill to replace a charismatic warrior as King of Israel. Disciples are chosen from amongst illiterate fishermen and sinful tax collectors. A murderous zealot is chosen to be God’s apostle of reconciliation and love.
This is why Jesus tells us that God’s Kingdom is a mustard seed kingdom. Not the mighty Cedars of Lebanon or the luscious grape vine. But a weed. A pervasive, pungent weed which springs up without warning and is almost impossible to remove. An unlikely banner plant for God’s kingdom but perhaps the perfect plant for God’s consistent choice of the lowly and the unwanted as his people. Mustard wasn’t seen as a desirable thing. It could taint a whole batch of crops. It was common and lowly and a bit of a nuisance.
But that’s the point. God’s kingdom will always seem undesirable to the Babel’s and Babylon of the world. Its about working small and faithfully. Its about trusting that God redeems even the most broken of things. Its a messiah and savior born in a stable instead of a palace. Its a king who dies in shame. Crosses instead of towers.
God help us to start small, love much and live faithfully even when its not glamorous or easy. Help us to turn down the temptation of great towers and live like lowly mustard in a world of great cedars. Amen.