Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
(Third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 6)
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel
grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
He [Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed
would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
I cannot help but think it odd that this text from Samuel would come up on Father’s Day. David was about the worst father imaginable, not just because of what he did with Bathsheba, but what he failed to do about his son Amnon who raped his half-sister Tamar, and how he handled his son Absalom’s reprisal murder of Amnon – and the story of David’s failures as a father goes on from there.
Nevertheless, the story we read does set in motion a chain of events that begin with this inauspicious shepherd boy and culminates in a united Kingdom under David’s rule. That kingdom, and the covenant that supports it, is then the basis for the hope in a future restoration, which will be an important part of our discussion of Jesus’ parables. (see 2 Sam. 7)
Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed reminds me of Azaleas. Living here in the South, I have had to learn about Azalea bushes. They grow. They grow huge. And they seem to have a survival instinct that is unrivaled. You can take a huge Azalea bush, cut it down to knee height, leaving only a bare few branches, and next spring you will have a full green bush again.
Azaleas will get huge, but they will never become trees with large branches. They are, in that way, like mustard bushes which could reach even ten feet tall, but which
We read two short parables that Jesus told, and we will look at them, but I think to understand them best, since we did not live back then and don’t know what they knew already, we should look at them in reverse order.
The Mustard Seed
In Jesus’ parable, the mustard seed grows up and morphs from a bush into a tree, with branches capable of supporting “all the birds of the air.” Now, that is a major tree; something you would never expect from a mustard bush!
That huge tree was familiar to people. In the ancient world there was the myth of the cosmic tree. The tree represents the whole living world. Its roots are in the waters under the earth. Its branches reach up to the heavens. It shelters every living creature.*
The great empires of the ancient world like Assyria, Babylon and Egypt, wanted to dominate the whole world. They wanted to be the world-tree. Ezekiel describes the
great empire of Assyria thinking of itself, as that cosmic tree:
“…with fair branches…and of great height, its top among the clouds. So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long… .
All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; (Ezek. 31)
But, Ezekiel says, it grew prideful, and so the Lord allowed another empire to come and cut it down to a stump.
Israel: from Tree to Stump
The same thing happened to the nation of Israel. Like a great tree which David’s kingdom had grown to become, it was cut down to a stump by the Babylonians.
That was not, however, the end of the story. Hope remained, because God was not finished with it. The prophet Isaiah said that a new shoot would come up from the stump of Jesse (king David’s father). The stump, Isaiah said, contained, a “holy seed” from which which God could bring a new branch that would become a new tree, a renewed kingdom.
When the Babylonians cut them down to a stump, Israel had to endure exile. In Jesus’ day, under Roman occupation, they felt as though they were still, for all intents and purposes, in exile.
But maybe there was hope that the holy seed that remained in the stump could once again be planted in its land and the Kingdom of David could grow up like a new, great tree – one that all the birds of the air could rest in, like that ancient mythological cosmic tree.
The Realism of Revolution
Could it ever happen? How? Being practical and realistic, many of the people of Jesus’ day had figured out that the re-birth of the Davidic kingdom was going to require action. The time to sharpen swords and knives was at hand. There were Romans to slay so that the holy seed of Israel could grow up out of the stump in its own land as a new tree, an independent kingdom.
If the promise God made long ago to “the seed of Abraham” was ever going to come to its proper climax, it would have to come, they believed, by force of arms.
Some scholars believe that Judas was one of the people who believed that. It could well be that his last name, Iscariot, came from the group of secret assassins, the
Sicarii, who carried the curved dagger, the Sica, hidden in the folds of their robs, to slit the throats of Roman collaborators right in the marketplace at midday.
Was “Simon who was called the zealot” also a would-be revolutionary when Jesus called him to leave his former life and follow him? It is certainly possible.
These people longed for the renewal of the kingdom of their ancestor David. They believed the ancient promise to David that God would restore a descendant of his to the throne. They had a well-formed idea of how this new kingdom would look, who would belong to it, and where its borders would be.
Jesus’ cryptic Kingdom-speak
So, when Jesus spoke of “seed” being “sown on the land,” it made people perk up and pay attention. When he told a story of a tiny, mustard seed-sized seed, just like the small faithful remnant of Israel, growing up to become a new tree – people knew he was telling the story Israel longed to hear. He was speaking kingdom language.**
Of course speaking of cosmic trees growing up from a tiny seed was cryptic; it had to be. There were the spies of local king Herod about, and there were Roman soldiers around to enforce Caesar’s ultimate authority – neither of whom would appreciate talk of being replaced as king. The Romans famously made crosses for people who spoke like that. And they were not shy about using them.
Jesus’ parables were subversive. He came preaching about the kingdom of God which necessarily had to threaten everyone else who claimed to be the king. But his parables were doubly subversive.
Not only were they subversive of king Herod and of Caesar, they were also subversive of the Sicarii and the (nascent) zealots, the would-be Jewish revolutionaries.
They were subversive in two ways: in what the kingdom was going to look like, and how the kingdom was going to come to life.
Just as the Azalea never becomes a tree, neither does the mustard bush. It gets big, but it stays a bush. When Jesus told his parable, he did not tell a parable of a small cedar seed growing up to become a giant tree – though he could have told it that way. He told of a seed of a bush.
The tree that this bush becomes looks nothing like the bush. It has huge branches. The bush concept is left behind. It is utterly transformed. The tree is so much larger and grand than the bush, there is no comparison.
In the same way, the kingdom of God was going to look much different than the renewed kingdom of David that the revolutionaries had in mind. It was going to be so much bigger, you couldn’t even compare it to the little bush they were planning to fight, to kill and to die for.
In fact the kingdom of God was going to look like that cosmic world-tree, in which all the birds of the air could nest in; all the creatures of the earth could find shelter in its shade. It’s boarders did not end at the Nile or the Tigris Rivers; it’s branches spread out to cover the whole earth.
How? The Secret Seed Parable
How would such a world-wide kingdom come? Not by force of arms. Not by swords and sicarii, the methods of men of action, but by the power of God. This is now time for the first parable we read; the parable of the secretly growing seed.
What does the farmer do after sowing this seed? Nothing. This parable announces that the kingdom is surely coming, but this parable is not a call to arms. There is no action required. Night and day, sleeping or rising, there is no blood to shed for this kingdom.
The plants grow up because that’s how God made the seed to grow in the “automatic earth.” The only sharp blade that appears in this parable is the sickle that comes at the end when the harvest is ready. That’s God’s sickle; it’s for him to wield. Humans have no role in that action.
A Different Kind of Kingdom
How was Jesus’ kingdom concept different from the one the revolutionaries sought? Jesus’ kingdom was not about power and domination, it was about mercy and healing.
It was not about one national or ethnic group and their exclusivist agenda, it was about including all kinds of people – Samaritans, Canaanites, Romans as well as Jews. It was not about “us against them,” the righteous against the defiled, it was about recognizing that we are all on the same ground as God sees it, needing forgiveness.
There is no basis for excluding lepers or sinners, rather this kingdom is about bringing the message of God’s love to them. This kingdom is not meant to be like a small private-property garden bush, but a huge tree whose shade is broad enough for everyone. As John pictures it in the book of Revelation,
“the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2)
The Climax of Israel’s Story
In the ministry of Jesus, the story of Israel has reached its climax. The promise to Abraham that through his seed, his descendants, all the families of the earth will
be blessed is coming true at last. The kingdom of God has come.
But the story is not finished. Harvest time is still in the future. In the mean time, we live in the kingdom that has already arrived, and in anticipation of its finale.
Like watching a play in the theater – the action is in progress already, though the final curtain has not yet fallen. The Lord is King, yet we have been taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come.”
Living as Citizens
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, what kind of people should we be? We should live lives that are congruent with the kind of kingdom in which we are citizens. We are called to embrace all people and to exclude none, because those are the values of the Kingdom of God.
We are called to reach out with God’s love, to find ways to bring healing and compassionate care to everyone who is hurting, because those are the values of the Kingdom of God.
And we are called to trust that God is the one who is in control. We do not for a minute believe in the cries of hopelessness and despair we hear around us. We are people who trust that what God has planted, God will see through to the harvest.
Our lives are in his hands. He is the one who sends rain and sun in its proper time. We are people of faith, people of hope, and people love because we know we are loved, cared for and watched over by our heavenly Father.
*Cosmic tree myth: see Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 28, p. 263
**I am following the construct of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 230-243