Ezekiel 17.22-24; Psalm 92.1-4, 12-15; 2 Corinthians 5.6-10,(11-13), 14-17; Mark 4.26-34
This snippet from Ezekiel uses the metaphor of trees to illustrate the control that God has over the fortunes of the nations, in fact over all life.
The chapter begins with a parable about two eagles and a vine. Ezekiel poses the question: ‘When it is transplanted, will it thrive?’, and the implied answer is a resounding ‘No!’ (see 17.1-10). He is warning that turning to an alliance with Egypt in order to rebel against Babylon will not succeed. To fill in the historical background: when Babylon conquered Judah, an agreement was made that established Jerusalem as the capital of a Babylonian colony, with a king ruling by consent and paying tribute. Some of the elite were taken to Babylon to educate them (e.g. Daniel), no doubt with the hope that they would return as colonial officials. This ‘cooperative’ annexation did indeed break down when Judah attempted to rebel, and it was then that the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed and the whole royal court either executed or taken into exile. This passage continues the tree imagery used throughout the chapter and affirms that only trees planted by God will thrive. It is a vivid expression of Ezekiel’s overall vision that all power is in God’s hands, and that this reality is both terrifying (because God brings destruction and judgement) and hopeful (because God will renew and restore).
Psalm 92.1-4, 12-15
This psalm describes a life lived joyfully with God, responding with songs of thanksgiving and flourishing with the strength that God gives. Cedars in Lebanon grow tall and are the most commanding of trees providing a majestic habitat – at least they did before modern deforestation. These wonderful trees are contrasted with the quick-growing ‘grass’ of the wicked and foolish. A life lived in harmony with God is ‘always green’ and continues to bear fruit.
2 Corinthians 5.6-10,(11-13), 14-17
Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to see right to the heart of life – to look beneath the surface appearance and get right down to the roots. He explains that the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed the balance of what is important in life for ever. For instance, physical health (being ‘at home in the body’, v.6) is now a vulnerable and temporary stage, rather than being a peak of well-being or the prime of life. Previous religious and cultural identities also now have no meaning – no one is to be regarded ‘from a human point of view’ (v.16) any longer. Jesus has died ‘for all’ (v.14): he made no distinctions and grades within the human condition, so we cannot. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the hinge point in history. To understand what he has done is to understand everything differently. The old has gone, the new has come.
Jesus uses images of plants and trees in his parables. This is surely much more significant than simply borrowing from the scenery around him. He could have talked about carpentry and building, for instance, and yet he talks about plants and growth. The abiding image for the kingdom of God is growth, not construction. Growth is silent. It continues day and night. There is still a mystery and wonder around how a seed becomes a mature plant, even now that we understand DNA and photosynthesis. It is still astonishing that new life germinates, and we are still reliant on this natural process for our staple foods. All our skill at farming and food production is predicated on this natural force. These two parables suggest the kingdom of God also has this tremendous growing energy, similar to the emerging life of a seed. We seem to have little to contribute to the process, beyond initially sowing the seed and perhaps taking care of the plant. The earth and the seed together produce the mature plants, and this happens whether the grower is awake or asleep. The mustard seed grows to become a huge shrub, with room for the birds in its shade (reminiscent of the tree in Ezekiel 17.23). This is what the kingdom of God is like, growing mysteriously and wonderfully. This is not the only image of the kingdom of God in the parables of Jesus: there are also family relationships, work colleagues, things that happen at wedding feasts and things that are lost, among others. But this cluster of parables reminds us of the mysterious energy secretly at work in the world – not only the Church – to produce the growth of God’s kingdom.