When you tell a joke and somebody stares blankly at you, you know they haven’t got it; and you know that if you explain it, it might finally provoke a smile but the fun has gone out of it. On the other hand you might tell a story which illustrates a point, and it’s quite normal to explain what you mean. Ezekiel told a story of a powerful eagle plucking the top of a cedar tree and transplanting it to another place, and that was meant to remind his hearers of what had happened when the king of Babylon had exiled the king of Israel and brought him to Babylon; the story we hear in today’s reading from Ezekiel is of God doing a similar – yet really very different – thing: God takes a shoot from the top of a cedar tree and plants it on a high mountain, and it becomes a noble cedar which provides shelter to many kinds of bird. The explanation is not a political one, though the hearers may well have hoped that it meant that Israel would be exalted by God and not humiliated by foreign kings. The point of the story (a story in the future) is that God is the true sovereign, and God alone. It’s significant that the people of Israel developed an understanding of God’s greatness precisely at the point when they found themselves outclassed by political powers far greater than themselves. Rather than moan about their defeat, or seek an improved God, they came to see that the God they had always believed in was greater than they had realised, and had purposes beyond what they could comprehend. Note that the very high mountain on which God was going to plant the new noble cedar does not have a name, like Jerusalem or Zion; it’s beyond particular places and political systems, which exclude other places and systems; the power of God is a power over all of reality, including nature and politics; fundamentally it is a power to make things (and of course people) flourish and find a home.
The parables of Jesus are not stories which require an explanation, even though they’re sometimes presented as if they were. Today’s two parables simply say something and leave you to get it, or not, like a joke.
“This is what the kingdom of God is like”. “What can we say the kingdom of God is like?” And Jesus goes on to talk about everyday reality, nature doing what nature does. But this is not “just” nature: it’s nature seen with eyes which can spot a mystery: it’s not that the growth of the wheat or of the shrub is an illustration of the reality of the kingdom, a kind of visual aid which you could do without if you prefer to describe the kingdom in – er… - real terms. But what real terms? What is more real than the miracle of growth which Jesus has just been talking about? Just let the story of growth be your way into the reality of the kingdom. There is a transformation going on, and maybe we can learn a kingdom mentality by hearing other stories of transformation, stories of hope; by becoming ourselves stories of transformation and of hope; by sharing hopes of transformation with others who long for our world to come alive, to be a home for all. Do I mean we must work with others to build the kingdom? No I don’t . No way. We do not build the kingdom; it’s not that kind of reality. The kingdom is God’s kingdom, not ours. We will only get energised to do useful and creative work if we first learn to welcome the miracle of the kingdom over which we have no control.
What these parables make us think of is life as a gift. (I’m not starting to explain them: I’m trying to sense, with their inspiration, what the God of the kingdom is like). In many if not all societies gifts are not really gifts at all; they are part of a system of exchange – think of Christmas presents and cards. But we do encounter people who simply give – and ultimately what they give is themselves. The kingdom comes as sheer gift from God. The wise person says thank you.