Tree of Sustenance
Suppose you were watching a movie with a lot of cultural reference jokes. Let’s say, Shrek. You are watching Shrek except that you never have read a single fairy tale. So the whole movie references fairy tale after fairy tale, children’s story after children’s story. They make a Pinocchio joke, a Snow White reference, characters from the three little pigs, and you don’t get any of it. It is truly a bizarre, unfunny tale.
This is how most of us read the Bible. The Bible is packed with references to ancient myths, histories, folk tales and literary references to other portions of the Bible. In fact, the book of Revelation alone holds approximately 2000 references to passages in the Old Testament and countless references to Jesus’ teaching, but most people want to think of it as a unique vision of their newspapers. When we miss the context of a literary work, we usually miss the intent of that work. We can read something over and over again and just don’t get it.
So let’s look at the background of a passage we are very familiar with. The passage is the parable of the mustard seed.
This is a description of how God established creation through the image of Eden. In the middle section of the poem is a detailed description of how God continues to supply all creation with water. God supplies water through springs and rain, the mountains and streams distribute the water and the trees and animals are sustained through that distribution. It describes an ecosystem, begun by God and perpetuated by all creation. In the midst of this description the mountains are seen as a home for all creation with the line, “Beside them the birds of heaven nest, lifting up their voices among the branches.” So the birds thrive because of God’s provision through the mountain, through the trees, through the streams, from the spring. It all works together.
God through the prophet speaks to Egypt, saying, “You are just like Assyria.” An analogy is given that Assyria was like a huge cedar tree that took on a huge amount of resources, but supplied the animals and birds. In this analogy, the birds are the nations of the world whom Assyria took on as clients. “All the birds of heaven nested in its branches,” the text says. God provided the resources of the earth to Assyria, and Assyria’s responsibility was to fairly distribute them among all the nations.
However, as we continue to read, we find that Assyria didn’t do that. They withheld the resources for themselves, causing their tree to rise higher and higher and leaving the nations to survive on scraps. In reality, the Assyrians destroyed and tortured whole civilizations in order to retain everything for themselves. So, says Ezekiel, God chopped down that tree and the birds thrived on the remains. Because the nations of the world could thrive better with Assyria dead than alive.
Emperor Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a tree which grew high and “the birds nested in its branches”. But the tree was shown to be inadequate and it was chopped down. Sound familiar? Daniel tells the Emperor that the tree was him and he was in danger of seeing his power drained. Daniel’s recommendation was that the Emperor “give to the poor” generously, and to give glory to God as the creator of his empire. That his empire had a divine purpose— to distribute to many, especially the poor, so that all might thrive together, according to the creation-plan of God.
That’s the background. Now let’s get to the meat, Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.
“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can nest in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32
Here, we see the key phrases that brings to mind the previous passages. “Huge branches that birds nest in.” In the ancient Greek translations, the group of phrases use the same words as the three passages quoted above.
The mustard seed parable is half about the growth of God’s kingdom. It is also about the nature of the kingdom. The kingdom is the distribution of the resources of God, according to the mercy and love of God.
The kingdom Jesus speaks about begins tiny, with one man distributing God’s healing, food, deliverance and forgiveness to as many as he could reach.
The kingdom will have reached its apex when whole nations, ethnicities, corporations, churches and religions join in God’s distribution network, making sure that everyone obtain what they need to both survive and thrive. As the kingdom’s distribution network grows, so does the world thrive.
Who Got This?
Interestingly enough, the early church understood this immediately. The first church, as described in Acts, distributed food to the poor in Jerusalem, and when their was controversy whether enough people are being feed, the church leaders made sure that everyone was provided for.
Paul himself in Galatians said that though he disagreed with Jerusalem leaders about some issues, they agreed that distribution to the poor was an essential aspect of the church.
Even the Romans agreed in the third century that they needed to persecute the early church, but that the church “provided for our own poor as well.”
In the fourth century, as the church was getting organized, a group could not be officially claimed to be a “church” unless they had a distribution network for the poor in their system.
What about us?
I do not identify the “kingdom” with the churches we see. Because part of the core nature of the kingdom of God is distribution to the poor, needy and outcast, as Jesus displayed and taught. Not everyone who teaches Jesus displays this basic understanding. Many who proclaim the name of Jesus, teach or display a withholding of resources, sowing a distrust of the poor or outcast. These churches are not a part of the kingdom of God as Jesus described it.
And there are many secular organizations that do demonstrate the principles of God’s kingdom. Even as in Jesus’ teaching of the Sheep and the Goats shows, many who have done the acts of the kingdom will be a part of it, even though they didn’t know who Jesus was.
Let us not think that our task is primarily or mostly “spiritual”, focusing on just prayer and word. If we do not organize and provide for the physical needs of the people in our community, we are not a part of Jesus’ kingdom.