Thursday, January 22, 2009

Weed, Wings, and the Kingdom of God

Posted by Jack

I stood outside on Mulberry Street staring into the sky in amazement. Hundreds and hundreds of circling crows filled the sky. The trees across the street were full of the black birds as well, and their loud squawks and squeals demanded my attention. It was like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

This unusual phenomenon has not gone unnoticed in Springfield, OH. Our city newspaper, The Springfield News Sun, even ran a story about a month ago to address the unusually high number of crows congregating in the area. As a result of this phenomenon, Cornell professor (and Springfield native) Dr. Kevin J. McGowan put together a study of crows and their behavior patterns. (Check out his crow FAQ for more information.)

As I stood outside today watching these loud, disgusting birds gather in the trees of our battered neighborhood, I was reminded of a Bible passage.

He gave them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32; from the NET Bible).

First, what about this mustard seed? Growing up, I always heard that this parable was meant to teach us that big things come in small packages. Without going into too much detail, I have come to believe that Jesus meant more than that.

Yes, the mustard seed was small. That part is true. But mustard was not necessarily a good thing. First, it was known for its volatile, intensely pungent oil. In short, it stank… stunk… stinked? You get the idea, it had a strong smell.

Also, it was known for its insane rate of growth. Mustard plants would shoot up like crazy, spread around out of control, all wild and woolly, creeping into unexplored crevices and pushing other plants out of the way. It could spring up among other crops and establish a presence, whether it was wanted there or not. Yeah, farmers were not so fond of mustard.

Yet, Jesus uses this metaphor to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. He even goes further, saying that the branches of this wild, out of control plant will house the birds of the air.

Often, when the Bible uses this phrase “birds of the air,” it is a general term to describe all birds in general. But is it possible that Jesus meant something more subversive?

“Fowl” in the Old Testament was frequently used to describe “ravenous beasts of the air”, or scavenging birds of prey. Leaving men’s carcasses for the birds of the air is Biblical symbol of death and destruction (Dt. 28:26; 1 Sam 17:44, 46; Ps 79:2; Jer 7:33). Levitical law draws a distinction between types of birds, declaring that fowls of the air that ate carrion and dead flesh are unclean (Lev 11:13; Dt. 14:11-20). So, these fowls of the air are nasty, nasty creatures.

When Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (a wild, crazy weed) that grew and allowed the birds of the air to nest in its branches, is it possible that He was talking about the unclean kind of birds?

Maybe so. Evidence suggests that the idiomatic expression “birds of the sky” indicates wild birds, not domesticated ones. The context could suggest it as well. Earlier, in Matt. 13:4, Jesus uses the same expression to refer to birds that came down and “devoured” the seeds. We see parallel examples of this in Mark 4:4 and Luke 8:5. These birds of the air are portrayed as the bad guys… as ravenous, hungry beasts that swoop in and devour that which is not theirs. They are scavengers.

Imagine for a moment that Jesus really did reference the nasty kind of fowls in His statement about the mustard seed. His audience would have immediately recognized them as unclean animals.

It is possible that Jesus was saying something like this: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wild, untamable, uncontrolable weed that springs up from the ground, snaking its way between the other plants, exploding by leaps and bounds, and spreading like crazy. Once it has grown, all the unclean, voracious, greedy scavengers then come to rest in its branches. These unwanted, unclean creatures find comfort and rest in the shade of the plant (Luke’s version of the parable adds that detail).”

His audience would have flipped! (Perhaps a more Biblical phrase is “astonished by His teachings.”)

Was Jesus really suggesting that the Kingdom of God was going to spring up around them like a weed? Was He really suggesting that it would rise up among them, unkempt, untamed, and out of control? Was He really suggesting that the unclean, disgusting creatures of the world would feel free to gather and be a part of it? Was He really suggesting that the scavengers and bottom-feeders of the world would find rest in its branches?

I don’t know what brought all those crows outside my window, but as far as I am concerned, they are more than welcome to stay.

1 comment:

derek said...

nice job with the "by Jack" thing under the title. i sometimes cannot tell if something was posted by you or tim. it is cool that time contriibutes too since he is in the house.

anyway, nice post. for one, i love hitchcock's the Birds. i also love talk of the kingdom being subversive. the serious question i have to keep asking myself is whether or not the unwanted birds even know i exist, or if i am too protected as a tree and am not actually bothering anything.