For a thousand years before Jesus, two radically different worldviews and social orders battled for the hearts and minds of God’s people. I’m not referring to what we might think of as “Judaism” and “paganism.” Rather, I'm talking about two diametrically opposed ways of being the people of the same God.
These two ways fought during the monarchy: kings and their elite companions on one side, the prophets and the oppressed poor and excluded on the other. They fought during the Second Temple period after the Babylonian Exile: the urban elite associating God with the wisdom of empires; the voices of the emerging apocalyptic tradition crying out for an egalitarian social and economic order in that same God’s name.
Jesus was born into this ancient and ongoing struggle. He experienced the heavens ripped open and God’s spirit poured down on him, bathing him in divine love. He now knew clearly which side God was on. He went forth from his baptism proclaiming one of these traditions to be the true “word” and “way” of God, and the other a diabolic counterfeit. I call these the “religion of creation” and the “religion of empire.” Jesus embodied and called others to join him in living the good news of the fulfillment of the religion of creation.
WE CAN SEE this battle taking place throughout the New Testament, reaching its spectacular culmination in John of Patmos’ portraits of the fallen and disgraced “whore,” Babylon, and the beautiful “bride of the Lamb,” New Jerusalem. But even passages that might seem domesticated reveal Jesus announcing the victory of the true “religion” that will unite God’s people together in bonds of love, compassion, and deep joy.
I use the word “religion” cautiously, knowing how it is fraught with the history of “holy wars” and ongoing “us vs. them” fights for supremacy. The Latin root religio means simply “bind again.” Rather than thinking of “religion” in terms of the usual labels (for example, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam), I suggest we use the term to refer to a worldview and associated pattern of practices that claim divine authority. The “religion” of the kingdoms Jesus stands against is marked by, among other things, violence, economic exploitation, and social exclusion. The religion of the kingdom Jesus proclaims is experienced in mutual love, economic sharing, and social inclusion.
A few familiar images from Luke’s gospel illustrate this contrast when examined through the lens of the “two religions.” The first image is that of the devil. Jesus confronts this adversary immediately after his baptism in the Jordan, after the Spirit leads him into the wilderness. The “devil” (diabolos in Greek) makes only rare, cameo appearances in the scriptures before the gospels (other than as God’s betting opponent in Job). One use is when Antiochus IV Epiphanes—evil king of the Seleucid Empire, opposed in war by the Maccabees—is referred to as diabolon ponēron, “an evil adversary” (1 Maccabees 1:36). This use matches the devil’s claim to political authority in opposition to God, as he confronts Jesus in the wilderness and leads him up to see “all the kingdoms of the world”: “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will” (Luke 4:6). In both instances, the diabolos is one who seeks to wield the power of empire over God’s people.
The devil’s next appearance in Luke is in Jesus’ parable of a sower and seeds (8:5-15). There the devil is equated with the one who takes away the Word/seed that fell on the path.
The devil appears again in Luke’s writings in a speech by Peter to the household of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. In that moment, Peter comes to understand that—contrary to what he had learned from the adherents of the religion of empire—God does not favor one people over another, but rather, “shows no partiality ... in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). Peter continues by summarizing the word of “peace” preached by Jesus Christ, who healed “all who were oppressed by the devil” (10:36, 38). The juxtaposition is clear: Those “oppressed by the devil” are people driven into separate camps by the way of the world’s kingdoms, “insiders vs. outsiders” who are split by class, wealth, and ethnicity. Over against this diabolic power is the power of God, healing all oppression and division, restoring all to one divinely beloved family.
Let’s listen more deeply to Luke’s sower-and-seeds parable. We hear that the seed that fell on the path was “trampled on” and the “birds of the air” devoured it (Luke 8:5). The Greek verb for “trampled” is the one Greek translators used for the prophet Amos’ description of the elite who “crush” the needy and “oppress” (katadunasteuousai) the poor (Amos 4:1; see also Hosea 5:11). The Greek verb for “oppress” refers several times to such injustice, for instance in Exodus 1:13: “The Egyptians became ruthless (katedunasteuon) in imposing tasks on the Israelites ...” That verb is used only twice in the New Testament. Once is in James 2:6: “But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress (katadunasteuousin) you?” The second is the devil’s oppression noted above (Acts 10:38).
In the parable, we are not told who “tramples” on the seed, but we do hear that the “birds of the air” “devour” it. “Devouring” is always negative in Luke. For example, the elder brother resents his younger, prodigal brother’s “devouring” their father’s property (Luke 15:30). More pointedly, Jesus uses it to describe what the Jerusalem scribes do to the houses of widows under the pretense of worshiping God (Luke 20:47). But who are the “birds of the air” who devour the trampled seed of God’s Word?
“Birds of the air” next appear in Jesus’ response to someone who offers to follow him “wherever you go” (Luke 9:57). Jesus says: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Finally, we see them in another parable: The kingdom of God “is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:19). We might wonder: If “birds of the air” in the sower parable “devoured” God’s Word/seed in apparent league with the devil, then how did they find a home in the tree that grows from the seed of God’s kingdom?
TO UNRAVEL THIS mystery, let’s listen to how two prophets used this imagery centuries earlier. Ezekiel paints a picture of the Assyrian Empire as a great cedar of Lebanon, “of great height, its top among the clouds” in which “all the birds of the air made their nests in its branches” (Ezekiel 31:3, 6). But then God proclaims that this beautiful and towering tree has been “cut down” and “its branches have fallen” and “on its fallen trunk settle all the birds of the air” (31:12-13). Why the collapse of the great tree? Because “its heart was proud of its height” (verse 10). Ezekiel 31 makes clear that the “birds of the air” are the nations that found temporary shelter within the protection of Assyria; but when Assyria is defeated, those nations settle amid the imperial ruins.
Daniel repeats the image of the great imperial tree being cut down. He interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a “tree at the center of the earth,” whose “top reached to heaven” and “the birds of the air nested in its branches” (Daniel 4:10-12). This time, the tree’s fall leads the birds to flee from its broken branches. Daniel makes plain that the tree is “you, O king!” (verse 22). The king himself will be “driven away from human society” and be restored to power only when he “learn[s] that heaven is sovereign” (verse 25).
Thus, by the time we hear the image spoken by Jesus in Luke’s gospel, we should recognize that “birds of the air” symbolize the nations. It therefore should be no surprise to hear that they devour the seed that is God’s Word, since their power is from the devil, the one who reigns over the world’s kingdoms. Similarly, we can understand why the “birds of the air” have nests, and the foxes their holes (compare with Luke 13:32, where Jesus calls King Herod “a fox”), while the Son of Man is homeless. It is precisely from Daniel (7:12-13) that the image of “Son of Man” (“Human One”) echoes: The One “like a human being” whose sovereignty is unlike that of the “devouring beasts” (Daniel 7:5, using the same verb for “devour” as in Luke 8:5 and 20:47), but truly in the image of God. The Son of Man, unlike the “birds of the air” and the foxes, finds no “home” in the world’s kingdoms.
Given this context, we can hear how subversive Jesus’ final “birds of the air” image is in Luke 13:19. Rather than finding a home in the diabolic kingdom-tree, the birds make their nests in the tree of God’s own kingdom. This alternative kingdom emerges from a mustard seed sown in “the garden.” Gardens in the ancient world were manifestations of empire, as, for example, the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They symbolized the king’s dominion over creation, reshaped within the royal city to provide shade and respite for those within empire’s sheltering branches. But, Jesus claims, “someone” has subverted this garden by planting a nearly invisible seed, which suddenly becomes a tree abundant enough to house all the nations.
Thus, these homey images of seeds, trees, and birds convey a subversive contrast between two radically different kingdoms. The devil’s kingdoms exert power from above, whereas the power of God’s kingdom grows from “good soil.” The worldly kingdoms seek to expand through violence. God’s kingdom, however, contains no violence. Rather, it bears fruit through the practice of “faithful resistance” (hupomenē; Luke 8:15). Both kingdoms claim divine authority to bring all people within their shelter. Each does so, however, through a different “religion” that would unite people. Jesus insists that one is authentically grounded in the experience of the Creator God, and one is a diabolic lie.
Wes Howard-Brook teaches at Seattle University. He is the author of Unveiling Empire, Becoming Children of God, and “Come Out, My People!”