Jesus was a good story teller. These days we miss some of the best bits because we are sometimes ignorant about the setting for his story telling, but let me assure you this particular parable – the parable of the mustard seed would have caused his listeners to drop their jaws – and then tell and retell the story – “did you hear what that man said?” until it even reached the ears of those who would have been so horrified at his message that they would have wanted to have him permanently shut up..
The first bit of jaw-dropping subversion was that the story was a direct contradiction to that part of sacred Jewish law which was at the centre of traditional culture.
In the book of Leviticus there are some farming rules and one of them is that, on pain of death, you must not sow more than one type of seed in a paddock. Listen to the Torah from Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus
…you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you wear a garment made of two different materials.
This in part was an acknowledgment that in those days grain was absolutely precious – and back then, without today’s Supermarkets, corner dairies, and convenience stores, what you grew was your very means of survival. So to give the grain the absolutely best chance of survival, weeds or competing crops were an absolute no-no. Remember too the mustard seed was actually the seed of a shrub that was considered a weed and next to useless. The thought that the farmer would have allowed it first to grow and then to actually continue to grow until it reached the size of a tree would have been absolutely unheard of – and in fact could have got the farmer into a huge amount of trouble.
But there was something else. Since the time of Leviticus something else had happened. The Romans had invaded – and conquered. The Romans knew what they were doing. They were ruthless. The crops were a source of tax and at least fifty percent of everything that grew was taken from the farmer for the benefit of the Roman Rulers. To deliberately allow something to grow instead – especially a useless weed like the mustard seed was an act of sedition – stealing from the tax gatherers – an act, if you like, of silent rebellion.
The Greek word for empire as in the Roman Empire is basileia. The word Jesus is reported as using recorded in the Greek translation, is that very same word for kingdom, basileia, in the phrase the kingdom of God. Jesus was using a phrase that invited the listeners to think of two alternative empires, the Roman Empire and God’s Empire. His words then conjured up the mustard growing as big as trees in the garden as God’s empire rising up in the midst of Rome’s. True, it is a ridiculous image – but more than that, it was making a clear and unwelcome statement to the authorities.
Remember too Jesus used this as a story telling image and his images are technically inaccurate as literal. Mustard seeds are not literally the smallest of all seeds. For example orchid seeds are much smaller. Then again the mustard plant doesn’t in fact grow into a mighty tree – at best it is a largish shrub – and then only if you find a particular species of mustard. So it is not literal – but it is great imagery and wonderful story telling for his chosen audience.
Because we live outside Jesus time, and outside the Jewish society of the time, there is something else that we might easily miss. When Jesus talks about the birds of the air finding their shelter in the branches of the mustard tree the surprise for the audience would not have been that the tree provided shelter – after all birds will nest wherever they feel safe and trees are usually the place. No, the surprise would have been that Jesus talked of the birds of the air because this was the standard Rabbinaical code phrase for the Gentile nations. To say that the “birds of the air” in other words the Gentile nations could find their shelter in the kingdom of God would have been something of a shock for the Jews of that time because the Jews saw themselves as separate – to the point of thinking that their God was theirs alone and had little to do with any other people.
The other bit of background that we need to think about was the situation for the listeners. Being invaded produces a high level of frustration and even impotent rage. What the Jewish people now thought they desperately needed was a charismatic leader who would call them to arms. One who would organise like a latter day King David and drive the invaders away – particularly from the Jews religious centre of Jerusalem. The historians of the day tell us at about this time, there were others talking of themselves as the Messiah. Each new suggested Messiah was scrutinised to see if possibly this was the one. Jesus who showed such confidence and quiet authority when it came to dealing with the collaborator leaders must have seemed to have particular potential. Yet in his actions he must have seemed a total and frustrating disappointment. Not only did he not call the people to arms, he taught pacifist surrender. Forgive your enemies. Turn the other cheek.
His crucifixion would later have been the final straw. The snuffing out of the last hope that somewhere and somehow Jesus was going to lead them into a new age.
Some time after Jesus told this story, later when the authorities eventually came for him – even then he told Peter to put away his sword. The odd and apparently useless mustard seed – the growth of a tiny and finally apparently unwanted weed was indeed the perfect analogy for Jesus as the symbol of the kingdom.
The story has an inbuilt puzzle that speaks to us in the seed itself. The seed is small indeed and I guess we could get a thousand on a teaspoon – but under normal circumstances who would be interested in such seeds. An acorn – that can grow into a mighty Oak – or a Puriri seed – at least the Puriri is a good solid tree that lasts for hundreds of years, we might understand seeds like that that as a symbol, but what good is a mustard seed. Yet when you look at who Jesus stopped to help – the untouchable lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors – healing, accepting all at table with him, and remember too even a good proportion of his disciples were from the uneducated lowest of class, this mustard seed was at the least yet another signal for what people Jesus thought to be worth his time.
But as to what happens next – the tiny wild and inappropriate seed not sown in accordance with the rules takes root in an typically hostile environment – and starts to grow in a most unexpected form, until in a strange way it becomes a force to be reckoned with.
I suspect not everyone would be comfortable with this idea. That sort of growth can’t be controlled – a seed dropped at random, anywhere is not a planned and not a certain certain recipe for success.
There is a woman Episcopal priest in the United States who came up with an intriguing statement about faith. She said
“faith is an engagement in the wonders, mysteries, and questions of life, not its certainties” (C. T. Irish).
Now I know there are those who like absolute certainty – and yes – some of them are in the Church.
These are the ones who love neat formulae of belief – believe every problem can be met by reciting the right prayer and finding the appropriate little Bible quotations – what CT Studd used to call neat little Biblical confectionery. Well unfortunately for those who like the neat certainty and organised plan for growth I have some bad news.
Wonders, mysteries, genuine fears and doubts are all uncertainties. Yet they are also all part of the struggle to truth. The message Jesus was sharing here was that the Kingdom is one of almost random, mysterious growth. The growth, like the scattered weed, is happen stance.
So is Jesus parable true to how it turned out? History certainly says it is true. Everything was against Jesus message getting through. Jesus – the leader of the new movement was crucified. Who could have predicted the Romans would drive the rebellious Jews out of Jerusalem along with the members of the fledgling tiny Christian sect. The traditional Jews didn’t want the Christians, and the Christians were persecuted almost to the point of extinction by just about everyone including the Romans.
In some places they were driven to hide underground in caves or catacombs. Yet there were unplanned strange triggers for growth. The emperor Constantine looked at the Sun one day and thought he could see a Christian symbol there with the words By this sign you shall conquer – and suddenly Constantine decided Christianity might be a good luck symbol worth supporting. Then another apparently random event – a Christian Bishop called Eusebius – not even a particularly nice man by all accounts, stepped into the picture. These days we might even call Eusebius a crawler for the way he sought to win the Emperor’s favour by writing a very biased history praising the deeds of the Emperor…. This Eusebius came to Constantine to complain that some of his fellow Bishops were picking on him and saying his beliefs were wrong and even that his favourite writings weren’t as good as some other Holy Writings. The result…. Constantine called a Council at Nicea in Asia Minor and made the Bishops sort out their beliefs, from which we got the statement of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed. At this conference they were in effect working out what it meant to call Jesus the Son of God and also arguing which Holy Books should be in the collection we now call the Bible. Without that conference, the beliefs and writings of the Church might have taken an entirely different shape and nature. A few years later, the Emperor Theodosius decided to make Christianity compulsory and started persecuting those who didn’t sign up – again causing an unexpected lurch in Church history which some Church Historians claim was not exactly good for the historical nature of the Church as the “body of Christ”.
Listen to the words of Theodosius’ edict:
“It is Our will that all the peoples We rule, shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. We shall believe in the single Deity of Father Son and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity.
We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians ….(Now the heavy bit) …. The rest however, Whom We adjudge demented and insane shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of Churches, and they shall be smitten first of Divine Vengence and secondly by the vengence of out Our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgement.”
(in other words he was saying God said it was OK to persecute the non-Christians…. where else might we have encountered such certainty?)
Theodosius you may recall was the one who had thirteen statues erected for the thirteen apostles with the largest representing himself. When asked why the thirteenth statue – his statue – was the biggest – he replied modestly, “the last shall be first”.
And repeatedly – John Pridmore says – sickenly – time after time there are those in the Church who have checked the other seeds to determine which should planted and then consigned the mustard seeds and other doubtful weed producers to the rubbish heap …. And just as repeatedly the rubbish heap continues to show signs of growth.
The other curiousity was that growth was happening while so many in the Church were not concentrating on the growth part. Think for a moment of all those monks simply praying, meditating and doing nothing more than caring for travellers, the poor and the sick. What would a modern PR company make of that?
And yes, the Church continued to grow but in most disorganised and unexpected ways. It is now more than 1.6 billion and what a disparate group they are. We have liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, mystics, orthodox, liturgy bound and liturgy free. The Russian and Greek orthodox Churches finished up with a slightly different Bible and a different slant on some of the beliefs. And each of the now 38,000 denominations has its own history and chance starting point. If we look for a moment at the Western part of the Christian Church, had King Henry the eighth not wanted to marry in a way that the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognise, the entire Anglican Church might never have got started. Had John Wesley not gone unwillingly to a chapel in Aldersgate Street one evening on 24 May 1738 he might never have had a conversion experience, and had that same John Wesley subsequently been a little more restrained in his preaching he might never have been asked to stop preaching in Anglican Churches and the Methodists might never have got started. Had William Booth not found the Methodists were reluctant to support him in his mission to the poor, the Salvation Army might never have got started…and so the Church continued to grow – with I guess different birds finding vantage points on different branches of this curious mustard plant.
Christianity does not exist in some special Church vacuum. It takes many forms and is the faith for real live people with their faults and own tangled and confused lives living in a very real world, growing in unexpected ways. And let’s not forget this is the case for the church members as well. For example I met my wife to be (who lived on the other side of the City) by what seemed a fortunate coincidence at a Methodist Bible Class Dance in Christchurch because I had a mate who had a Triumph motorbike who could get me to the dance and Shirley had a Bible Class leader called Dick Sealby who thought his duty was to help his Bible Class members have a social life that included driving them to Church activities. I wrote Shirley’s name on a banknote with her phone number – then before I could ring her I forgot and spent the money. Had I not remembered where she told me she worked I would probably never have found her again and the whole of my subsequent history would have been different. Each person has their own history and potential interaction with their faith and those around them.
A plant deliberately planted in carefully prepared ground might well have a predictable future but the kingdom of God according to Jesus is the weed with no special advantages that has to develop amongst others where it may not always be welcome. But let us not also forget the weed, which he likened to the Kingdom of God in his parable, has the potential to grow in unexpected ways. ..
Jesus ever the good observer found potential in the mustard seed. He finds potential in the least promising and I guess if we claim to follow his ways we should be trying to do the same for those around us. If we see weaknesses in others, let us at least acknowledge that to cast such folk aside is not the way of the kingdom. If we can see our own hidden weaknesses we are not identifying anything that would ever disqualify us from following the one who always had time for the least…….. because of such is the Kingdom of God.
(To the reader: Use what you like with acknowledment – comments in return would be helpful since this is intended as a work in progress. In the event you find the draft sermon notes and/or the site of use, giving the site publicity would be appreciated.)