That Famous Mustard Seed

HOMILY—Pentecost 3—That Famous Mustard Seed

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”

In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

I’ve learnt more about mustard and mustard seeds this past week than I ever thought I would, or probably ever needed to. We have, in this morning’s reading from the gospel of Mark, one of the iconic images of the kingdom of God, that of the mustard seed. We find the same parable in Mathew and Luke, but with slight variations. While Mark talks about a great shrub and large branches with nesting birds, Matthew and Luke talk about a tree. Branches and birds are also part of their image. Our evangelists, however, seem rather botanically-challenged. If you’ve ever seen a mustard plant—and you might, because Canada is the world’s largest mustard producer (see what I’ve learnt?)—you’ll know that it is neither shrub nor tree, but rather a somewhat frail looking plant, though one particular variety does grow to some eight feet tall in warmer climates, which hardly makes it a tree. But agricultural precision is not, of course, the point of this or any other parable. Like any good storyteller, Jesus is known to have been vague at times on the specific details of his stories. Did he want to leave room for our imaginations? Perhaps—or perhaps, as it were, the devil is indeed found in those pesky details.

The problem with parables—and that of the mustard seed is a good case-in- point—is that we so often read into them what we want them to say. We so often superimpose our own agendas on that of Jesus, and not always for the best. This image of the tiny mustard seed as the kingdom of God, or as a symbol for the reign of God, has been interpreted in two major ways. Most often, the somewhat banal idea of “…from small things grow bigger things” has been recycled to talk about the inevitable, almost evolutionary growth of the Christian religion. The birds are non-Christians who will predictably come to find rest in the shade of the church. As you might expect, this awkward interpretation was especially popular in the great 19th-century heyday of imperial missionary expansion. A second reading is somewhat “edgier,” focusing on the mustard plant as a sort of weed (which it is not, and which it never was for Jews), and implying that God’s kingdom is transgressive of an established sense of ritual purity and of right order. That may indeed well be, but an exegesis of the text does not bear out this specific understanding of the parable, nor what a mustard seed is and what it does. We recognize here another version of Christian exceptionalism. While there certainly may be some element of truth to both these popular perspectives, they remain, I would think, too narrow and ultimately too triumphant in their outlook.

Perhaps we need to go back to the question posed by Jesus: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” It’s the kind of open question that can elicit any number of responses from us. I think that too often, we get stuck on the word “kingdom” and on all that it implies in terms of greatness, and glory, and grandeur. In this case, I really don’t think that size is the point. I think that anonymity and simplicity very much are. So what can we say about the mustard seed to help it bear good and honest theological fruit for us? How are God’s kingdom and the mustard seed linked? How are they comparable?

I take my cue from scripture scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who says it rather well when she writes the following: “Some things need to be left alone. (…) keep exposing the seed to air and it will not germinate. Not everything, or even everyone, needs our constant attention. We are part of a larger process, and although we may start an action, once started, it can often do quite well on its own. Second, sometimes we need to get out of the way. We are not always the focus; sometimes we are the facilitator for something bigger than ourselves. (…) The man plants, or even tosses, the seed. Who sowed it is much less important than the tree into which the seed grows. The final image is not a focus on the human actor, but on the results of the action. (…) The challenge of the parable can [also] be much homier: don’t ask “when” the kingdom comes or “where” it is. The when is in its own good time—as long as it takes for seed to sprout (…) The where is that it is already present, inchoate [hidden], in the world. The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do—to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well.” (Short Stories by Jesus, 166-67)

Anonymity and simplicity. Consider the first part of the reading from Mark. Here, someone merely scatters the seed on the ground, then goes about their human business of sleeping and waking, and the seed takes root and grows as part of the natural cycle of life in the world. No explanation is given as to how or why, nor is one sought. The seed simply does what it needs to do. It grows, because that’s what seeds do. We know neither the name of the sower, nor the type of seed, and all that is actually rather unimportant. “The earth produces of itself,” Jesus reminds us. It’s the end result that counts. Something good and beneficial comes of the planting when harvest time comes around. The same goes with that famous mustard seed. Yes, it is small and inconsequential. It too is planted. It grows—whether into a plant, or a shrub, or a tree is a trivial detail—and created beings, human and animal, are able to benefit from its goodness and the shade it provides. There is no great fanfare or flourish in these unassuming stories of seeds being sown. There is only human labour and human effort, and the glorious wonder of seeds and nature doing what is pleasing in God’s sight. One could say that that is the kingdom at work. From such simple and anonymous gestures come splendid yields. From such sowing the kingdom of God flourishes, Mark is telling us.

But that does not mean, of course, that we are passive and uninvolved by-standers in this flourishing of the kingdom. Quite the opposite. Just as the seed—the kingdom in hybrid form—needs the sower, so the sower, in a way, needs the seed. There is a fundamental and mutually beneficial dependency at the heart of this relationship. God’s work, which is so often unknown and inconspicuous, must be brought to completion—be made gloriously manifest, as it were—through our continuous and persistent labours of love. Sometimes we do toil in the shadows without recognition, unsure and perhaps even doubtful of the outcome. But then there come those moments when we know with a measure of hopeful certainty that we have helped nudge the kingdom along. Our lives as Christians are really a call to a never-ending process of nudging: nudging ourselves to sow ever more widely and even wildly, in the hope that much fruit will come of it; nudging others to join us in spreading the seeds of faithful expectation; nudging the church to become its better self; even daring to nudge God so that the kingdom, hidden yet present in the here-and-now, becomes fully realized. “Your kingdom come,” we pray faithfully. “Your kingdom come,” because we are helping to make it more tangible every day.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” A rhetorical question no doubt, but also a question which deliberately implicates us in its answer. In a way, the exact story-line of the parable becomes almost secondary, though that of the mustard see—or any seed, for that matter—is certainly rich in metaphors. Though we need to put ourselves squarely in the parable, our role is not the heart of the action. We come, we see, we sow, we reap for ourselves and for others. God does the rest. But what a spectacular rest it is. We may be as inconspicuous as that tiny mustard seed, but we can help nudge the kingdom to sprout in all its splendid foliage.

Donald Boisvert, June 14, 2015

Post a comment