A mustard seed

Pentecost 2  2009
Mark 4:26-34
Marian Free

In the name of God, whose kingdom is not of our making and cannot be contained within our imagination or constrained by our lack of the same. Amen.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. What an extraordinary claim, made even more extraordinary when paired with the claim of such extraordinary growth that it puts out branches in which the birds can nest. Jesus’ first century audience must have been taken by surprise by Jesus’ statement. Even we, who mostly know mustard in its processed form, have some idea that it does not come from a plant that grows to the stature of a tree or even to a great shrub with large branches.

So why a mustard seed – and why the exaggeration in relation to its growth?

Mustard was a plant which grew easily in the Mediterranean, so easily in fact that one of the tasks of the farmer was to contain its growth.  It grew so quickly and so prolifically that Pliny states that “it grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as when the seed falls, it germinates at once.” Its planting was circumscribed by a number of regulations. There was the rule of diverse kinds which insisted that only like plants be grown together and there was a regulation that it be kept apart from a field of wheat – because in height and appearance it was so similar that it would have been difficult to distinguish between the plants.

Mustard had a number of other associations for Jesus’ audience. It was understood to have great usefulness in healing but it was also associated with uncleanness or ritual impurity. Further, a mustard seed was used as a reference for smallness, so Luke, whose version is probably the most original, does not need to mention its size. Everyone knew that the mustard seed is proverbially small.

To sum up, a mustard seed is prolific and difficult to control. In certain contexts they are associated with impurity and a mustard seed is a synonym for smallness.

According to the parable, the mustard seed, when sown, grows into a great shrub or a shrub with large branches. Matthew and Luke go so far as to record that the mustard seed grows into a tree. For Jesus’ listeners, the tree would elicit the Old Testament references to the cedar of Lebanon – the most imposing tree in the ancient world. However, they would know this allusion to be impossible – a mustard seed does not grow into a great cedar. Jesus has taken the comparison in a completely unexpected direction. Further confusion is created because the cedar has multivalent meanings – it is both a symbol of strength and protection, but also a sign of pride which God will necessarily lower or humble.

In this simple parable Jesus has created some unresolvable tensions which his first century listeners would have struggled (in vain) to smooth out. They would be confused – Was the mustard seed planted in a garden which was strictly forbidden and if so why? Has the sower broken the rule and violated the law of diverse kinds thus – “making the planting and the growth a scandal – illegitimate, tainted and unclean” . More confronting still would be the notion of a mustard shrub being used as an image for the Kingdom of God – a mustard shrub representing the splendour of God’s kingdom (impossible!). There is the issue of the blatant exaggeration – a mustard seed certainly cannot attain to the height or stature of a tree, let alone that of a cedar. Lastly, is the cedar a proud symbol of the kingdom or a symbol of Israel’s pride?

We have seen on previous occasions that the element of surprise is just what Jesus intends with a parable. By creating a tension between what the listeners expect and what he actually says, he tries to lead them into a new and different way of thinking. In particular, Jesus wants to shake the rigidity and complacency which had developed especially among the teachers and leaders of the people.

In the gospels, Jesus attacks the self-assurance of the Pharisees who seem to be so confident that they know what it is that God expects not only of them, but of the people as a whole, that they can speak for God. It appears that they believe that if they behave in a particular way, if they observe defined rituals and offer prescribed sacrifices they will be assured of their place in God’s Kingdom. They seem to have developed a way in which to measure goodness which enables them to determine who is included in the kingdom and who is left out. Their adherence to these principles allowed them to feel superior to those around them who often through circumstance were unable to conform to their high standards..

Jesus confronts this attitude and through his behaviour and his teaching completely undermines the Pharisaic way of thinking and teaching – it is God not they who is the judge and God’s standards cannot be measured by human standards.

The gospels remind us over and over again, that it is not for us to determine the criterion for entrance into the kingdom. Jesus challenges our arrogance and assuredness by telling us that “the first will be last and the last will be first” and he shocks our sense of respectability by stating that sinners and tax collectors will enter the kingdom before us. He reminds us we do not decide whom God loves and accepts. God can choose whom he loves and that God’s love is withheld from no one.

The parables are an anti-dote to self-righteousness. By creating some sort of cognitive dissonance, they try to shift our way of thinking, to open us to new insights and to replace our confidence in ourselves with confidence in God. Parables are designed to confront us with our ignorance and arrogance and to remind us that God alone knows the mind of God.

So Jesus says: The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which someone took and sowed – the kingdom is not tidy or contained, it cannot be controlled, it does the unexpected, it includes the possibility of impurity and scandal and won’t allow us to determine who may be included and who will be excluded. Most surprising of all, the kingdom grows into a humble shrub and not into a mighty tree.

Nothing is as we expect. We would do well to wait on God and to remain open to God’s wisdom rather than establishing certainties of our own making, which leads us down the path of idolatory.


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