That Pesky Mustard Seed

Get your Googles ready, everybody, because it is once again time to fill your favorite search engine with image searches of mustard seeds and plants.  Every year, I get the question from a farmer in our congregation about what sort of mustard plants Jesus was talking about because in LA (Lower Alabama) they just don’t grow into “the greatest of all shrubs.”  As the internet is ever expanding, I found a new image this year, that perhaps will help allay some of Mr. L’s concerns.

That’s not me in my cassock-alb.

What are we to do with this wildly contextualized image for the kingdom of God?  It is like a mustard seed, which if Wikipedia is to be believed, is awfully small.

Yet it grows into “the greatest of shrubs” according to Jesus, of the Middle Eastern equivalent of Kudzu, as some scholars have described it.  Either way, this tiny seed is a force to be reckoned with.  In the genre of parables, it seems that the details are only important insofar as they point you to the underlying meaning.  So, whether great bush or annoying weed, the truth that Jesus is sharing is that even when it seems that the influence of the kingdom of God is nearly imperceptibly small, there are big things brewing.

This makes sense, of course, here near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.  Over the course of three years there will be great crowds and utter isolation; there will be cheers of joy and mocking jeers; there will be moments of profound influence and times when it seems as though the whole world is rebelling against Jesus and his message.  In the long-run, the kingdom of God will have its influence, will make a difference, will flourish beyond imagination, but in those moments of doubt, we can recall the mustard seed and know that God’s plan is larger than our momentary frustrations.

Mustard Seed Living – a sermon

You can listen to today’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

        Every morning, it is guaranteed that at least five items will be brought out from our girls’ rooms.  Lainey will bring her owl and bear.  Eliza will bring her fraff.  And both girls will bring their blanket.  Oh how they love their blankies.  They are a staple for wake up time, for car rides, for quiet times, and especially for bed time.  The world ends when it is bed time and a blanket cannot be found.  Of course, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  While Lainey has her very own blanket, Eliza actually uses Cassie’s old blankie.  I still have my mine, handmade 30 some-odd years ago by my Aunt Michelle  My sister carried a piece of hers in her wedding dress as her something old.  I think, or a least I hope, that we aren’t the only people with such an affinity to the comfort items of our childhood.  It seems as if most of us have had that one thing that was a source of comfort and security; that kept us safe in the dark of night.  And really, even once it is no longer socially acceptable to carry around a blanket; most of us have found new ways to find comfort in the topsy-turvy-ness of life.  Some find it in routine.  Some find it in companionship.  Some find it in a good book.

        I think we seek security and comfort in a lot of different ways, and I think that for many, one of those sources of comfort is the Scriptures.  We find solace in the stories of our faith.  Just hearing the words “In the beginning…” can remind us that God is in control and we need not worry.  “The Lord is my shepherd” can soothe even the most troubled heart.  Even these parables from Jesus seem safe and tame, especially the Parable of the Mustard Seed which is almost suitable for framing.  Using a parable as a security blanket is problematic, however, because the parables were not meant to be a source of comfort.  Instead, Jesus told parables to confound us and make us think.  He told parables not so that we could find easy answers in them, but so that our minds might be opened to hear difficult truths.  Unfortunately, we’ve heard these parables so often that they have all but lost their meaning.  They’ve become nothing more than pithy proverbs that you might find in a fortune cookie.

        I spent a lot of time this week trying to think of new ways to spin these parables; trying to make them less Linus’ blue blanket and more Eugene Peterson’s description as narrative time bombs, but every time I went back to the text, I would read “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed…”, and immediately began to picture doves making their homes in the strong branches of a yellow flowering tree.  And then, I remembered Mr. Little. 

        We hear the Parable of the Mustard Seed two out of every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Matthew’s version is assigned for this week, Proper 12, Year A and Mark’s original take on it comes on Proper 6, Year B. Luke has it in his Gospel, but we skip over it in Year C.  Every time this parable is read at the 7:30 service, Mr. Little comes out and says something like, “I don’t know what kind of mustard seeds Jesus was planting, but mine don’t look like trees.”  I don’t know the first thing about agriculture generally or mustard plants specifically, and so I always chuckle at the thought and merely shrug my shoulders, but as I read my go-to sources this week, I began to think that maybe Mr. Little is really on to something.  Again and again there were references to the silliness of this parable to the first century hearer.  Words kept coming up like weed, crabgrass and the dreaded kudzu.  Thanks to Mr. Little, the idea that Jesus meant the Parable of the Mustard Seed as a starry eyed image of the Kingdom of Heaven now seems absurd to me.  Jesus didn’t have in mind a mighty tree, but rather the mustard plant that Mr. Little knows well, the scrubby almost grass like plant that when left to its own devices might grow tall and woody, but certainly isn’t a tree.  This parable is often explained to a sleepy congregation, shrunken by the cares and concerns of summer time, by saying “Take heart!  We may be small, but big things can grow from even the smallest of faith.”  That’s nice, and that may be a quality children’s message that we can take from this parable, but I don’t think it is the only thing the mustard seed teaches us.

        Instead, Jesus is using hyperbole, one of those great rhetorical devices they taught us about in seminary, by making a greatly exaggerated claim to teach a deeper truth.  I’m certain that as Jesus told this story, many in the crowd chuckled at its absurdity.  Some probably rolled their eyes at the very thought of the mustard plant being “the greatest of shrubs.”  Maybe in the rolling of their eyes, this rag tag group of farmers and fishermen; widows and orphans; scribes and illiterate women crowded around the seashore were really learning something about the Kingdom of Heaven. 

        Jesus could have chosen a more classical Biblical image of a majestic kingdom.  He could have said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the seed pod of the mighty cedar, which when planted grows into the greatest of trees.”  His audience would have immediately thought the mighty trees of the Babylonians or the lofty cedar of the Assyrians or the oaks of Bashan.  They would have associated it with real power, real authority, real kingdoms.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Instead, he uses the image of the wild growing mustard plant to turn the idea of power upside down, subtly suggesting that real power doesn’t come from our usual expectation of might makes right, but from ordinary, often un-majestic sources.  The Kingdom of Heaven is always expanding, always growing, and always present when people of faith take on seemingly simple acts of love.  The love of God, like the lowly mustard plant, has a way of spreading beyond anything we can ask or imagine.  It can take over your life, your family, our church, our city, even the world.[1]

        Jesus’ parables, like the Gospel message they share, are not meant to be like the comfort of a beloved blankie.  If we take seriously that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, then it will change every aspect of our lives: from how you shop to how you vote; how you watch the news to how you treat your neighbor.  Nobody likes that much change, but as we heard in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we do not go it alone.  Nothing, not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

        Sometimes, life in the Kingdom of God compels you to open your checkbook in unexpected ways.  Sometimes, it calls you to be a tutor for kindergarteners at Foley Elementary School. Sometimes, it means sleeping on a cot in the education building for Family Promise, or inviting your neighbor to church, or forgiving that family member or friend who hurt you so many years ago, or praying for Christians in Mosul or Israelis and Palestinians in and around Gaza and undocumented children caught in between a political rock and a hard place on the Mexican border.  The love of God can take you way out of your comfort zone, and these Parables, especially the mustard seed, suggest that that is exactly what the Kingdom of God is like.  Sometimes, the Kingdom is just a tiny seed, waiting to be planted, so that it can grow, spread, and someday, to take over the whole world.



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?

The Kingdom is like…

While I enjoy all three weeks of Parable Season, my distrust of all things allegory makes week three the shining star.  Clearly the disciples, and Matthew’s readers, have failed to fully grasp Jesus’ drawn out metaphorical parables.  They, and we, have been further confused by his attempts to explain them.  And so this week, Jesus tries a different tack, straight up simile.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like…

  • A Mustard Seed
  • Yeast
  • A Treasure Hidden in a Field
  • A Merchant in Search of a Fine Pearl
  • A Net Thrown into the Sea

These are five very different ways of explaining the kingdom.  None of them is able to carry the full weight of explaining the Kingdom of Heaven.  In fact, combined, they still don’t even begin to do the job justice.  Still, there is plenty to learn from these five short similes about the Kingdom.

  • The Mustard Seed – the Kingdom of Heaven may look unassuming at the start, but when it takes root, it changes the very landscape of your heart.  From shrub to tree to a home for the birds of the air (those pesky things that stole the seed back in the Parable of the Sower), the Kingdom changes everything.
  • Yeast – the Kingdom of Heaven is subversive: working through an inordinate amount of flour, even this little bit of yeast can change the world.
  • A Treasure – this is a tough one.  It seems as though Jesus is telling the disciples to be unscrupulous.  It is awfully unethical to find a treasure, not tell the land owner, and buy it at market value, but Jesus did once tell his disciples to be shrewd like the children of this age and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
  • A Merchant – the Kingdom of Heaven is of great value, in fact, it will cost you everything, even your very life.  This is the parabolic version of “take up your cross and follow me.”
  • A Net – though God desires the restoration of all of creation, there will come a day when everyone will have to make a choice: do I want to live in God’s love or not?  I believe there is a hell, though I hope it will be empty at the second coming when everyone, experiencing the overwhelming love of God, chooses to live in the Kingdom of Heaven that is so unspeakably awesome (I use that overused word very intentionally), that even Jesus can’t explain it fully in human terms.