The Mustard Seed
The house that Dwight, Luke, and I live in was last owned by members of a large and talented family. The father was a general contractor who updated the home in the 90s. One of the relatives was a gifted photographer. When we toured the home it was full of huge photos of the family’s three beautiful daughters. Another was the realtor who sold the house, and still another was a landscape designer. The landscape design, while simple and easy to maintain, is pleasing to the eye. On one side are three sections separated by brick. Two of them contain plants ranging from Lady’s Mantle, Russian sage, sedum, and day lilies, to a variety of grasses native to Minnesota. One whole section is full of Goat’s Beard. My guess is that the Goat’s Beard crept under the fence from the neighbor’s yard and overtook whatever was growing in the third planting area. You probably already know this, but Goats Beard is an invasive plant that grows quickly and has deep roots which are difficult to extract. Since we’ve been in our house the Goats Beard has pushed its way through the cracks between the bricks and into other parts of the yard. Even though Dwight somehow cleared it out to make room for a fruit and vegetable garden not that long ago, it’s already creeping back.
When I read today’s Gospel from Mark I thought of the Goat’s Beard. The mustard bush, like the Goat’s Beard is an invasive plant. In his Natural History Pliny describes the mustard plant as one that germinates rapidly and takes over. In Mark’s Gospel, the Kingdom is similarly described as an invasive shrub. It begins as a tiny mustard seed and then, before you know it, it’s everywhere. In Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed the Kingdom begins as something lowly. In Palestine the mustard seed was a common metaphor for “the smallest thing.”
I am wondering if John Dominic Crossan is right when he suggested that that by describing the Kingdom as a mustard seed Jesus was displaying humor. Imagine Jesus, surrounded by earnest disciples, describing the reality they were dedicating their lives to as being like buck thorn. Can you picture their expressions changing from pensive to completely lost?
Further evidence for Jesus’ humor comes from the fact that in the Mustard Seed parable he is most likely referencing today’s reading from Ezekiel. Instead of the lowly seed becoming a mighty tree like the Lebanon Cedar, it becomes a lowly bush. Matthew and Luke were so embarrassed by the mustard bush imagery that they referred to the mustard plant as a tree – which it is not.
In addition to showing some humor, Jesus is also letting the political powers that be know that although God’s reign seems small and insignificant, it would soon take over the world. It’s as if he’s saying, “watch out! Don’t get too overconfident! Something new and surprising is about to happen.”
As I was thinking about the parable of the mustard seed, and Jesus’ audience, I wondered what sort of analogy he might use today. The only thing that came to mind was a video going viral. First it is posted by one person in St. Paul, then it is seen and posted by that person’s Facebook Friends, and then it appears all over the world.
Both the parable of the mustard seed and the passage from Ezekiel are part of larger narratives. The mustard seed parable is not only preceded by the story of someone scattering seed on the ground who never attends to it, but also by the story of the sower and the seed. That’s the story where the sower casts seeds on many different types of soil. The seed that falls on the good soil brings forth a good yield of grain. The Ezekiel passage is part of a longer oracle, starting at the beginning of chapter seventeen, which begins with a riddle and an allegory. The allegory is about two great eagles and a vine. The vine is not like the vines elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments. This one rots and withers. The part of Ezekiel we heard a few minutes ago is God’s loving, encouraging response to the Israelites living in exile in Babylon after great suffering and defeat. Like the mustard seed, the cedar sprig has to do with God’s sovereignty and authority in relation to the contending sovereignties and authorities of this world.
In both stories the person who is speaking about God and God’s reign is encouraging the faithful not to give up. The stories are a reminder that God is always doing a new thing in our midst, even though we might not be able to see it right now. Both passages are a call for hope when all hope seems lost. Jesus’ original disciples were discouraged and confused, and the Christians in Mark’s community were probably experiencing ridicule and persecution. The people to whom Ezekiel spoke wondered where God was in the midst of their defeat and humiliation. Both audiences are challenged to trust in God’s promises. They are asked to trust again after their initial hopes have been disappointed. Both stories invite their hearers to take a leap of faith. This is a huge leap. Are we willing to trust that God’s reality, God’s priorities and vision of life will triumph in the end?
In his short video “Trees,” Rob bell describes the Christian life as “living between the trees,” meaning living between the tree of life in the Garden of Eden and the tree of life in Revelation. Given today’s lessons, we might describe the life of faith as living between the seed and the bush, or living between the spring and the cedar. Many of us have had a taste of God and of God’s vision for life, but also live in the midst of brokenness, death and violence. How should we live now, if God promises a future full of hope and new beginnings, a future in which, as Revelation tells us, all things are made new?
As Bell observes, some Christians see this life as something to pass through, a holding tank or way station on the way to something better. It’s as if there are a series of different and distinct life stages – including the present and the future. While some Christians sit back and hope for a better future, Bell wants a God and a life that matter now – and so do I. Bell wants a life in which he can participate in the Kingdom’s unfolding. He argues for a future hope that informs how we live now, even though the mustard bush has not yet taken over the planet, and the sprig has not yet become a full blown Cedar of Lebanon.
Not that long ago, Reed Carlson hoped to do his graduate work at Emory. He thought Emory was the right place for him given their Anglican studies program and a large Episcopal presence in Atlanta. When he received Emory’s rejection letter, he was crushed. His future brother-in-law Matt, who was with him at the time, had also recently gone through a professional setback. Both of them were discouraged, wondering where God and God’s future was in the midst of their dashed hopes. Reed’s mother, who was with them at the time, left for a moment and returned with something in the palm of her hand. It was a mustard seed. She placed it in Reed’s hand, a reminder of God’s plans and future, even if we don’t see them now.
Jesus said, “with what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubens, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. Amen.