Our Old Testament and New Testament lessons for today are parables. The parables in our Gospel lesson concern the growth of the kingdom of God. The Old Testament parable might have left you scratching your heads. It’s from an unfamiliar book and the context is missing, so let’s take a few minutes to place it in context and make the meaning plain.
The Old Testament lesson is from the book of Ezekiel chapter 17. Here is another parable from the first part of chapter 17:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, propound a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel; say, Thus says the Lord God: A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar. He broke off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants. Then he took of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil. He placed it beside abundant waters. He set it like a willow twig, and it sprouted and became a low spreading vine, and its branches turned toward him, and its roots remained where it stood. So it became a vine and produced branches and put out boughs.
“And there was another great eagle with great wings and much plumage, and behold, this vine bent its roots toward him and shot forth its branches toward him from the bed where it was planted, that he might water it. It had been planted on good soil by abundant waters, that it might produce branches and bear fruit and become a noble vine. Ezekiel 17:1-8
That’s the parable. God intended the parable to be a puzzle. Get the picture in your mind, a cutting has been taken from the top of a cedar tree by an eagle and after being planted it becomes a vine, but instead of taking root in the fertile ground the roots grow upward as the roots and branches together reach out toward a different eagle than the one that planted it.
After he had told them the parable, Ezekiel was told that rather than explaining the parable he was to ask the people a question.
“Will it thrive? Will he not pull up its roots and cut off its fruit, so that it withers, so that all its fresh sprouting leaves wither? It will not take a strong arm or many people to pull it from its roots. Behold, it is planted; will it thrive? Will it not utterly wither when the east wind strikes it—wither away on the bed where it sprouted?” Ezekiel 17:9-10
The answer to the question, of course, is that it will be very easy to pull up the vine and that it would be unable to withstand the dry wind that came out of the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
God let Ezekiel and the people chew on that for awhile. When they could not come up with the answer on their own God gave Ezekiel the explanation:
Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Say now to the rebellious house, Do you not know what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, and took her king and her princes and brought them to him to Babylon. And he took one of the royal offspring and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath (the chief men of the land he had taken away), that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand. But he rebelled against him by sending his ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army. Will he thrive? Can one escape who does such things? Can he break the covenant and yet escape? Ezekiel 17:11-21.
So the eagles are emperors. The first, that planted the vine is the king of Babylon, where Ezekiel and his listeners were already living in captivity. The tall cedar tree is the house of David. When Nebuchadnezzar had first come against Judah, the king, who was a descendent of David, had surrendered and had been taken captive with a host of other officials and their families, including Ezekiel, Daniel, and the men you know as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and had been taken to Babylon. The king’s uncle, also a descendent of David, was given the throne under the condition that he take an oath of loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar in the name of the LORD, our God. But he had violated that oath, and rebelled. He was relying on Egypt to protect him. The point of the parable is that Jerusalem will fall again and when it does it will be destroyed. A short time later in 586 BC the prophecy was fulfilled. God had pronounced judgement against Jerusalem and its king and that judgement was carried out.
We now have some of the tools we need to interpret the parable in our Old Testament lesson. The cedar tree is the house of David. At some time in the future God, himself, will take one of David’s descendants, and build a new kingdom, but it will be more than the minor kingdom that the last king of Judah had had. It will be an empire. Here’s why I say that: in the book of Daniel, we read that when God gave Nebuchadnezzar a dream to warn him of his pride he used a giant tree. Nebuchadnezzar described it this way:
The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it. Daniel 4:10-12
Listen again to how God describes the king to come from David’s line:
On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. Ezekiel 17:23
The kingdom promised through Ezekiel is not that of Zerubbabel, the one who governed Judah after the return from the Babylonian captivity. He ruled under the thumb of the Persians over a small, poor, and devasted community of people. The kingdom that God promised is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus, the Christ. He is the king of kings, and Lord of Lords, and the people of every nation come to him for rest, and peace, and safety.
It is said, that when Handel’s Messiah was first performed that King George the second rose to his feet as the choir sang the Hallelujah chorus to acknowledge that Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lord, was his king and lord. Today we still stand when it is sung.
We stand also when we sing the Te Deum which includes these words:
“The holy Church throughout all the world does acknowledge you: the Father of an infinite majesty, your adorable, true, and only Son… You are the King of Glory, O Christ, You are the everlasting Son of the Father… You sit at the right hand of God in the Glory of God the Father.”
Yet it is this same glorious king, who is served by people of every tribe, race, language, and nation, who says,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Mathew 11:28-30
This brings us to our Gospel lesson. Jesus recasts Ezekiel’s parable to make it a puzzle once again. The tree has been replaced by a shrub that grows from a tiny seed. The birds of the air still rest and nest in its branches. But as the mustard plant is smaller than a tall cedar, the kingdom would be small and insignificant in the days of his listeners. Yet, in our day his empire of faithful people is as large as the earth itself, greater even than the tree Ezekiel saw upon Mt. Zion.
This worldwide kingdom has arisen from a single tiny seed. The seed of Jesus’ parable is his body. For it was from his death and burial the kingdom sprang into existence, offering life and peace to believers of every time and place. Now, that kingdom is here for you.
May God grant that life and peace to you today and forever, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.