On the Parable of the Mangrove Tree

The kingdom of heaven is like a mangrove tree which sends its roots over rocks on the shore. Twice a day the water advances and twice a day the water retreats. The flood does not drown it, the storm does not shake it, the salt does not suffocate it.  It’s roots arch out, stabilizing it against the waves. It’s pores open to breath in at low tide, and exhale at high. Time passes and it sends out seeds which have been fertilized. Some sprouts land on the tidal mudflats and embed themselves in the rich soil; others float away and take root on distant shores. Years pass and a single mangrove grows to a thicket. Gathering mud towards itself, the forest adds land to land.

Tabi tabi, po”, we call at as we wend our way along the coast. The tide is low and a single mangrove tree stands in the expanse of exposed coral. This is unusual; mangroves are known to grow in families, expansive forests of different species growing in the brackish water of coast or rivers. “Excuse us, sir,” we call politely as we walk by this tree, “we are just passing through.”

A small man lives in this solitary tree. Crouched low, he is the Nuno sa Punso – the Ancestor of the Mound. In the right light you can see the point of his woven wide-brimmed hat made from reeds. He stands no taller than a three-year-old child, but is older than the oldest trees. He is older than this lone tree which he has made his home. Perhaps more rightly we should call him the Nuno sa mga Nuno – Ancestor of the Ancestors. The elders tell how he exists as the true and first owner of the land, living here since before humans set foot on the archipelago.

This coast used to be a vast mangrove thicket. All have been cut down, except this one. We are warned that whoever cuts down this tree will be killed, pierced by the point of the old man’s headdress. Our greeting shows we mean no harm; we ask for mercy.

A Reflection

Reader, do not dismiss this as mere animistic tradition. Doing so will only reveal more the blind spots in your own understanding of God – the ontological and epistemological biases in the Western Christianity you have come to believe to hold the fullness of truth – than any false perception of God you feel is revealed in this story.

In a world that has so surely and sharply separated flesh from spirit and seen from unseen, the presence of spiritual beings embodied in this physical reality is impossible to accept. Perhaps such a leap of faith is too large for you right now. Then let us let this be. But perhaps even if you cannot accept the reality of the spiritual, you might be able to recognize the ancient wisdom within the myth.

A single mangrove tree, within 10 years, can repopulate to a vast thicket. This sole mangrove holds within it the redemption of this stretch of coast. Within this last tree is the potential for a thicket vast enough that fish may nurse their young, crustaceans may find their rest, snakes and insects and organisms too small for sight may settle into reciprocal relationships of life. Carbon may be taken out of the atmosphere and stored in these mangrove swamps, up to ten times as much as terrestrial forests of the same size. Corals find the conditions for life to thrive.

Without this tree, there is no chance of the teaming ecosystem which once existed on this shore being restored. Coral gardens will be destroyed, fish will disappear, and the houses built just back from the shore will be endangered by sea surge and storm. Mangrove swamps hold the boundaries of the land in place. Once destroyed, the land erodes and the coastline reshapes at the whim of wave and wind, so fundamentally changing the conditions in which mangroves thrive that they will never be able to grow back in their former habitats.

Mano sa Punso, the elderly being with the flowing beard who lives in this last tree – who sometimes may be seen gazing out at the ocean deep in thought – is the embodiment (in myth, in spirit, in being – it doesn’t really matter), of the wisdom of creation. A wisdom placed within Creation by the Creator. The wisdom of seeds and of seasons and of soil. A wisdom recognized by the ancestors and passed from generation to generation until it reaches us now in story and fable and mythology. In parable. Jesus knew the power of this medium to carry wisdom down through centuries, which is why he chose parables to tell truth to the crowds.

As humans have been doing across time and place, we add our fears and our will-force and our desires to these inherited stories until we have to pull back all the assumptions of our knowledge of reality and our knowledge of the nature of knowing our reality, in order to find a still-small-grain of truth. In this mustard seed of wisdom unfurled from within the encasement of the parable we may find our salvation, and the salvation of all of creation.

As I walk along the beach, I listen to an audio reading of Mark 4:26-3. These two images taken from the green-growing world are offered to us as an image for the kingdom of God: a mustard seed that grows to be a tree of trees, with branches big enough so that birds can perch in its shade. Grains of seed scattered in a field, sprouting, growing, reaching, the soil producing fruit, each seed after its own kind.

What do these three parables tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God? Perhaps that it holds a wisdom within itself that has greater affinity with the wisdom of the rest of creation than it does with the supposed wisdom of man. Tiny seeds produce great trees. Food grows from soil without the fussing of the farmer, producing fruit as man sleeps and rises, night and day, “we know not how”. A mangrove tree learns to breathe under water, knows how to turn brackish water into clean. A  single tree left as a remnant may grow into a great forest, once again providing space for life to thrive.

The kingdom of God is like seeds scattered in a field, like a tiny mustard seed, like a mangrove tree.

Let them who have ears to hear, hear.

On the labourers at the side of the road

For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wealthy man who was making renovations to his house and drove down Rosmead Avenue at 7am on a Tuesday morning. He found some men sitting on the side of the road waiting for work. Pulling over, he called over to a man holding a paint roller, another holding a chainsaw and a third sitting next to a box of tools. He agreed to pay them R300 each for the day’s labour – a daily wage twice as large as the minimum wage set by the government. He set them to work at his home.

A few hours later, around 10 in the morning, he drove back down Rosmead and finding a few more men, agreed to the same rate and set them to work. When he went back down at midday, he saw a man who had been waiting for work since 6 am. The man was looking down at his shoes, dejection found in the line of his slumped shoulders. He was so engrossed in looking at the ground that he didn’t even notice the bakkie which had pulled up. Quickly recognizing the call for work, he jumped in the bakkie cab. When they returned to the house the others were already eating lunch. The wealthy man beckoned to the newly arrived worker, telling him to get out and join the others in their meal before starting work. Once more, around 4pm, the wealthy man was driving down Rosmead and found still more men sitting on the side of the road.

He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He ushered them into the vehicle and they too joined the workers on the construction site.

At around 5pm it was time for the workers to leave. A few of the wealthy man’s guests arrived and were sitting around in the garden drinking cocktails as the man gathered the workers and paid them each the wage of R300. The guests looked on in amazement. One of the guests, a lady, began questioning the workers: “Are you not angry that you who worked from early in the morning, skilled labourers who brought your own tools, received the same wage as the men who came an hour before the end of the work day? Isn’t that unfair? And what of the man who arrived at lunch time who shared the food that should have been all yours? He hadn’t even worked yet, before he was sitting down, putting his feet up and having tea!” The more she asked, the angrier she became. The workers didn’t respond, but thanking the wealthy man for the work, went together on their way.

When the workers had left, the wealthy man joined his friends. The woman who had been questioning the workers was furious. She was planning some house renovations and asked her friend whether he wasn’t ashamed that he was flaunting his wealth and driving labour costs up for all the rest of them. Others chimed in: “Now all labourers will expect R300?” “Don’t you think they’ll just stop by the shebeen on the way home and drink it away?” “I can’t afford to pay R300/day. What am I supposed to do now?” “You know they would have worked for you for half that amount. These people don’t need that much – they make do on much less.” “If you pay unskilled labourers the same as skilled labourers, there’s no incentive for people to improve themselves? Wage tiers are put in place for a reason.”

On and on the friends went. Eventually the wealthy man had enough. “What is it to you how I spend my money? You’re angry because my generosity highlights your stinginess. You accuse me, to justify yourselves. You snakes, trying to get away with the bare minimum required by law and hoarding up wealth, gorging yourselves on the labour of others.”

Sullenly, the guests got up to leave. As they went away they murmured amongst themselves, listing out the things they do for poor people and hating the wealthy man’s arrogance.

“Just like him, to try guilt-trip us into giving away everything we have. Well, just wait, because when he’s squandered his wealth away, those men are still going to be sitting day in and day out on the side of the road waiting for work. And then they’ll be forced to take anything they can get,” the lady grumbled.