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.
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.