I’m in my backyard this morning, so I can introduce you to my blackberry bush. When Jerome and I moved to this house and began redoing the backyard, our next-door neighbor offered us canes (or shoots) from his blackberry bush. It was an old bush — probably close to 50 years old — and I loved the idea of having this hardy survivor of the past five decades in our garden. And so we planted those spindly little canes and — voila! — we got this. We have been enjoying delicious blackberries ever since. So have the birds and the occasional raccoon that makes its way onto the roof of our garage and gets to the blackberries from above. Birds don’t find shelter, as in making nests, in our blackberry, but they do hang out there sometimes.
But here’s the thing. People couldn’t believe we deliberately planted a blackberry bush in our backyard! “Blackberry bushes are pests,” they’d say. “They’re so invasive. And you can’t eradicate them. You’ll be trying to control that blackberry for the rest of your life.” And, they are right. Blackberries are invasive. This bush desperately wants to be bigger, and it is constantly sending out shoots or runners. If we — well, actually, — if Jerome didn’t constantly keep cutting back these shoots, this backyard would be covered in blackberry bushes in five years. They would crowd out every other thing. And even if we wanted to eradicate it, we probably couldn’t. We’d think we had, but then we’d find another little shoot like the one I showed you. Blackberries are tenacious.
The kingdom of God is like a blackberry bush.
Let me explain. Like the blackberry bush, the mustard plant was considered an invasive pest in Jesus’ time. People would not sow it on purpose. It grows all too readily on its own and, once it appears, it takes over the field. Like the blackberry bush, it’s not the best-looking of plants; it’s kind of scruffy looking. No majestic structure or fragrant flowers. Yes, the mustard shrub has good things going for it. It is a medicinal herb, which is also used in cooking, and birds love its black seeds. But really? The kingdom of God is like a mustard shrub? A shrub and an invasive, annoying one at that? It’d be like saying today the kingdom of God is like a blackberry bush. What about the kingdom of God is like a stately cedar tree? (picture) Or the kingdom of God is like this majestic pine tree you can see from my backyard, this tree that towers over our street. Isn’t that a more appropriate metaphor for the Kingdom of God?
The people who wrote the gospels of Matthew and Luke must have thought this same thing, because in their version of this parable, Jesus says that the mustard seed becomes a tree, not a shrub. (The gospel of Mark was written first and Matthew and Luke use it as a basis of their own gospels.) In fact, Mark does allude to cedar trees in our text. When he says that the mustard seeds grow up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and put forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade, he is explicitly referring to this passage from Ezekiel 17:22-24:
Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
This passage from Ezekiel is imagining the day, as Biblical commentator Sharon Ringe put it, when “God’s sovereign and life-giving power will embrace the whole world.” Mark is explicitly pointing to this prophecy in his parable. But in his parable, God’s “sovereign and life-giving power” is symbolized as an invasive mustard shrub, not as a noble cedar.
What is Mark up to? What is Jesus up to? Something pretty subversive, it turns out.
The Roman Empire, which occupied Israel, was an agrarian empire, and most of the common people were peasants. As Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan notes, the term “peasant” is not just a romantic, old-fashioned word for a farmer. Rather, he says, “Peasant denotes a relationship of exploitation in which the vast majority who produce the food on which everyone and everything depends (meaning the peasants) are consistently relieved of their surplus, so that a small minority (of elites) have a huge surplus while most remain at a subsistence level.” (From The Essential Jesus.) In other words, a peasant is a systemically exploited farmer, he says. And in the time of Jesus, the Jewish peasants were rapidly losing even what little land they may have owned because of high taxes and the need to take on debt which, when it could not be repaid, resulted in them losing their land. Very much like the foreclosure crisis of 2008 and 2009 here. Rich landowners were gobbling up more and more of this land and also now had this readily exploitable, landless group of peasants to serve as cheap labor on their huge farms. (And, in fact, many of the workers were also slaves.) The Romans were really doing a form of industrial agriculture, but instead of having a huge John Deere harvester they had hundreds of peasants or slaves as harvesters. And just like industrial agriculture today, much of that harvest was exported elsewhere to make a profit. Very little of the food being produced stayed in that local peasant community.
So, imagine a big industrial farm in Jesus’ time. Acre after acre of wheat, most likely. Imagine you are a peasant and you look at all that food and you know almost none of it is going to feed you or your family or your community. It’s going to be sold for export, and the profit will line the pockets of the landowner who is paying you starvation wages or maybe renting you a little plot of land (after depriving you of your own) so you can just barely eke out a living. Imagine what sowing a mustard seed into those fields of wheat would do? Why, it could create quite a disruption. That mustard plant might take over and decrease the rich landowners’ yields and, thus his profit. As Sharon Ringe put it, “The almost predatory ability of the mustard plant could crowd out the planned crops of the Romans, even sheltering birds that could be trusted to gobble up more of the carefully planted seeds… (this) no doubt gave a chuckle to (peasants) delighted by subverting the economic enterprises supporting Rome’s imperial agenda. Good news: God’s empire has many ways to carry the day over powers bent on their own profit and power!” This is what I mean by subversive!
The Roman Empire was actually more like the stately cedar of its day. It built huge, majestic monuments (using taxes extracted from the peasantry) and flaunted its magnificence. The empire of God — the Kingdom of God — was more like the mustard shrub. It may appear to be small, scruffy, ragtag. Not much to look at. But watch out! It will grow into something large and firmly rooted, in which some will find shelter in and others — like the exploiting rich — will find obnoxious and disruptive. You will never be able to fully get rid of it because it wants to grow, it wants to take over! And just when you think you’ve stamped it out, you will find another shoot or two growing somewhere else. The kingdom of God is uncontrollable. Tenacious. Impossible to eradicate. The kingdom of God is like a blackberry bush. Thanks be to God.