More Fun with Jesus – Hyperbole Edition

As best as I can tell, we hear the Parable of the Mustard Seed two out of every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary.  We hear Matthew’s version this week, Proper 12, Year A and Mark’s original on Proper 6, Year B (Luke has it in his Gospel, but we skip over it in Year C).  Every time the Parable of the Mustard Seed is read at the 7:30 service on Sunday morning, Mr. Little, a man who has farmed in South Baldwin County since the end of WWII, whose hands look like this:

onion hands

comes out and says, “I don’t know what kind of mustard seeds Jesus was planting, but mine certainly don’t grow into trees.”  Not knowing the first thing about agriculture generally or mustard plants specifically, I always chuckle and merely shrug my shoulders.

As I’ve been reading my go-to sources this week, I’ve begun to realize that maybe Mr. Little is on to something.  Several of my usual commentators have suggested that perhaps Jesus was using hyperbole to make his point, that perhaps in the rolling of their eyes, the crowd full of farmers and fishermen by the seashore would have learned something.  Here’s how Mark Vitalis Hoffman, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Gettysburg Lutheran puts it:

The Mustard Seed parable has often been sadly reduced to “From small beginnings come great endings.” Since it is set among the accounts emphasizing abundant harvests, Matthew may have this idea in mind as it pertains to the ultimate triumph of God’s dominion, but such a reading also overlooks the parabolic difficulties it poses. Mustard is closer to being a weed than wheat. For a symbol of success, the cedar tree is a better choice. According to Ezekiel 17:23, the “noble cedar” provides the kind of shelter birds’ need, so Jesus is providing a stark and surprising contrast here. To say it becomes the “greatest of shrubs” is faint praise and to call it a “tree” can only be hyperbolic irony. What becomes striking is that this lowly plant is the unexpected symbol of God’s dominion. Is there any other “tree” that could so scandously become part of God’s plan? (Source)

Jesus doesn’t compare the Kingdom of Heaven to the Cedars of Lebanon.  Instead, he compares to the mustard plant, a weedy bush that produces no real fruit, only very pungent seeds carried in a pod.

As I’ve said before, parables aren’t meant to be easy.  They are complex, literary hand grenades that invite us to look at their various layers of meaning to see what we can glean from them about the Kingdom of God.  Taking on all five this Sunday might be a bit much, but the keen preacher might pick one or two and dive in deeply, probing the question, what is the Kingdom of God really like?

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One thought on “More Fun with Jesus – Hyperbole Edition

  1. I think you’re right about hyperbole on the “tree” side, but the seed really is tiny. Some mustard plants have minuscule seeds. In comparison, the result is a tree–might as well be a redwood. Hyperbole without connection to reality is just ridiculous. In this case–as with other hyperbolic speech–the remarkable comparison with reality makes it true.

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