Tucked away in one of Jesus’ short, unassuming parables is a hidden subversive message that pronounces coming judgment upon mankind’s systems of power.
It all starts with a little mustard seed…
The Marvelous Power of the Little Mustard Seed Revolution
While there are plenty of passages in the Bible which explicitly contradict the tenets of Christian nationalism and pronounce impending judgment upon the kingdoms of men, it’s become increasingly apparent to me that this opposition is so thoroughly ingrained into the biblical worldview that it can be implicitly found in many places where you wouldn’t expect it.
For example–the parable of the mustard seed. It’s familiar to many Christians, but I’ll reproduce it here since it’s so short:
He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES’” (Matthew 13:31-32, NASB).
Mustard seed as an anti-state metaphor
How does this passage oppose the present political order? You might have noticed that a handful of words are capitalized in this translation. That’s one way that some Bible translations alert their readers that the Old Testament is being quoted in the New.
These quotations can be hugely important, shedding light on the meaning of the New Testament author who quotes them. If we’re good Bible readers, we’ll want to know what passage is being quoted here.
But that’s where things get a little complicated. Technically, this language occurs more than once in the Old Testament, though the most relevant passage is from Ezekiel 17.
The prophet Ezekiel speaks of how Judah’s king, Zedekiah, had sought to make an alliance with Egypt to protect his kingdom from Babylonian occupation. This move may have made some tactical sense, but it was also against the command of God. As a result of this disobedience, God promised that Zedekiah’s plan would fail, his troops would be smashed, and he would die in Babylon.
But Ezekiel didn’t just say this plainly. Like Jesus, he used a parable. Zedekiah was like a branch from a large tree that was plucked by a great eagle–the king of Babylon–and brought to his city.
When the shoot was planted, it became a low vine spreading out to entangle itself with another great eagle–Egypt. But despite its attempt at self-preservation, the vine was destined to wither in the soil.
That was the bad news. But Ezekiel also promised good news for the future:
Thus says the Lord GOD, “I will also take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and set it out; I will pluck from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one and I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the high mountain of Israel I will plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar.
And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will know that I am the LORD; I bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree, dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will perform it” (Ezekiel 17:22-24, NASB).
Careful readers of the New Testament may be surprised to see Ezekiel using themes and concepts more closely associated with Jesus’ teaching about Himself and His kingdom. The small branch–a future king–will be planted on a high mountain and eventually become a large tree that provides for all the world’s living things. This closely parallels not only Jesus’ image of the tiny mustard seed, but it also suggests the surprising reversals that come in its wake.
The seemingly insignificant branch becomes a tree that the others learn they must bow down to. The trees that are now high and flourishing (the kingdoms of men) will die when God performs this miraculous reversal of fortunes.
As the New Testament scholar Craig Keener wrote in his commentary on Matthew:
Jesus insists that the kingdom, though present in a hidden way in the ministry of Jesus and his followers, is the glorious anticipated kingdom of God (13:31-33). These parables most clearly declare that God’s kingdom had arrived in some sense in Jesus’ ministry, in a hidden and anticipatory way…
Far from baptizing the wicked in fire and overthrowing nations at his first coming, Jesus had come as a meek servant (12:18-20), wandering around Galilee with a group of obscure disciples, healing some sick people…
Jesus’ initial arrival as a meek and politically inconspicuous servant rendered his mission as opaque as his parables, except to disciples bearing the insight of faith. Only those who press into Jesus’ circle truly understand his identity. (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary)
Against confusing the Kingdom of God with political movements
In other words, the kingdom of God does not look like earthly kingdoms. Keener’s claim that “only those who press into Jesus’ circle truly understand his identity” suggests that if we confuse the kingdom of God with a contemporary political movement, we are missing who Jesus is and our claim to being His disciples is questionable.
As mentioned above, this isn’t the only place in the Old Testament where this kind of language is used. Perhaps Jesus had one of the other passages in mind and did not mean to make such subversive claims about the state? Possibly, except the other places where this language occurs in the Old Testament communicate the same basic principles about the kingdoms of men that Ezekiel 17 does.
For instance, when Daniel was in exile in Babylon, he interpreted the meaning of a dream that king Nebuchadnezzar had of an enormous and fruitful tree whose branches were visible to the ends of the earth.
This tree was so imposing that “the beasts of the field found shade under it, And the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, and all living creatures fed themselves from it” (Daniel 4:12, NASB).
Suddenly, unexpectedly, judgment was proclaimed against the tree and it was ordered to be chopped down. This is what would happen to Nebuchadnezzar until he learned “that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.”
The rest of Daniel has no better news for the kingdoms of men, which are compared to wild beasts that are fit to be slain at the coming of God and then thrown into a lake of fire (Daniel 7, see also Daniel 2).
Finally, this language also occurs in Ezekiel 31:3-14, this time of the Assyrian empire. I’ll bet you can’t guess what Ezekiel predicted would happen to it:
Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon
With beautiful branches and forest shade,
And very high,
And its top was among the clouds…
All the birds of the heavens nested in its boughs,
And under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth,
And all great nations lived under its shade…
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Because it is high in stature and has set its top among the clouds, and its heart is haughty in its loftiness, therefore I will give it into the hand of a despot of the nations; he will thoroughly deal with it. According to its wickedness I have driven it away…
On its ruin all the birds of the heavens will dwell, and all the beasts of the field will be on its fallen branches so that all the trees by the waters may not be exalted in their stature, nor set their top among the clouds, nor their well-watered mighty ones stand erect in their height.
For they have all been given over to death, to the earth beneath, among the sons of men, with those who go down to the pit” (Ezek. 31:3-14 NASB).
Like much of what Jesus told His disciples, this short little parable really packs a wallop. While you might be able to guess from the broader context of Jesus’ mission and teaching that the mustard seed-like Kingdom of God is surprising and maybe even subversive, the contours of its meaning really become visible when we read it in light of the Old Testament passages which inspired it and gave it its meaning.
And that meaning becomes increasingly clear the more we dig in–the kingdoms of men will be destroyed by God and the kingdom of God will replace them. Since we know this to be true, we had better join the mustard seed revolution while we can.