A Mustard Seed Faith
By tradition Jesus may have been brought up to be a carpenter, yet the parables and illustrations he evidently used suggest he was a great observer of the world around him.
I would like to suggest most of us don’t give most of nature a second thought and are certainly much more impressed by the outcomes of nature rather than the single cells and small packages of cells from which the dramatic living products of nature are produced. While most of us would be impressed and no doubt stare up in wonder at the giant redwoods in California or widen our eyes at the giant Kauri, Tane Mahuta which lives in the Waipoua Kauri Forest in the north of the North Island of New Zealand, we might walk straight past the seeds of the Kauri or redwood on the ground without giving them a second thought.
Of course we might use the technical knowledge of today’s scientists to show that Jesus was actually inaccurate when he claimed the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds. There are certainly smaller, as any orchid grower would tell you. Nor does it grow to a mighty tree. I was pleased to note that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible correctly points out, it grows into a large shrub, not a large tree as the early Greek versions suggest. Nevertheless, criticizing Jesus on the basis of modern knowledge is to miss his point. Even today seeds are indeed strange things of wonder and although each year the scientists discover more, there seems always more to discover about each tiny part of a small seed, especially the part carrying all the genetic information to grow into a shrub big enough for birds to nestle in its branches. Life itself is infinitely strange.
That seeds have this dramatic potential to grow into something complex and wonderful is essentially beyond our current understanding, no matter how much we might now know about Chromosomes, DNA and gene expression. It is also significant that it is not just the Christian faith that recognises the unexpected in the seed.
There is for example a well known Chinese story which by tradition was told by the Buddha.
There are different versions but one story goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a mother whose son became ill and died. The mother was beside herself with grief. Unable to face living with the heavy burden of sadness, in desperation she went to a wise man.
The wise man listened sympathetically, thought for a moment and said.
“I think the answer to your problem will be a special kind of mustard seed. What you must do is this.
Find some home where they have not known the grief you have experienced, then collect a mustard seed from the garden and bring it back to me. I will then show you how to deal with your grief.”
Strange advice the woman thought….but on the other hand….. he is known to be a wise man, so she set off on this unusual quest.
The first house she chose was that of a rich family, a huge house with large well kept grounds. She explained her quest to the woman who answered the door. Is this by any chance a house where there has been no such grief as the grief I have experienced in losing my son? The woman who had opened the door, burst into tears. “You couldn’t have come to a worse place. Grief? Let me tell you about grief.” And she began to explain the total tragedy her family had suffered over recent months.
The woman who had lost her son listened, amazed that someone so rich might have encountered such a disaster. On the other hand she thought to herself, perhaps my experience makes me the sort of person who might understand. So she stayed a while, counseled the sad rich woman, then when the rich woman appeared able to cope a little better, off she went on her journey again.
I think you may have already guessed. The next house was exactly the same. A nice house on the outside yet another real story of unhappy experiences – and once again she left but only after helping as best she could. And then on to the next, again a house visited by grief – and the next.
But here is the curious consequence. Gradually – imperceptibly she became more and more focused on the task of helping others and more and more forgetful of her own unhappiness.
She had started with a quest for a seed – a mustard seed and her journey brought her to the point where though her grief was still there as a memory – something else was growing in its place.
The mustard seed illustration, as Jesus told it, is also a story where the truth emerges in unexpected ways. Finding wonder in that which is tiny and seemingly insignificant is as good a place as any to start. I remember coming across my grandfather’s microscope in a cupboard one day. At my father’s suggestion I collected some muddy water from the edge of a creek that ran through a nearby park. This opened up a world of wonder for me, discovering a myriad of strange life forms in a single drop. I could now begin to understand the poet William Blake finding a universe in a grain of sand. Later I was to encounter increasingly more powerful microscopes, electron microscopes, and even weird tunneling microscopes which pictured individual atoms. And if this wasn’t enough, an introduction to modern physics brought me in contact with the science of astronomy showing the Earth itself to be a place of insignificant size when measured against the vast Cosmos, yet also a place of incredible wonder.
Next we find the puzzle of developing life. As far back as the 1950s scientists were examining what was then thought to be the primordial atmosphere, letting sparks excite a mixture of gases thought to be present when the Earth first formed an atmosphere. Amino acids formed in the scientists’ glass vessels and gradually, since then, other scientists unlocked the beginnings of the mystery of the way these molecules joined together to make replicating proteins. It is a journey of discovery, yet one where only the first tentative steps have been taken.
Something else Jesus’ parable might cause us to reflect, is that life is basically precarious and left to itself although the seed may have great potential, not all mustard seeds grow in the same way. Some seeds fail even to germinate and sometimes the shrub is tiny and misshapen. Again the kingdom of heaven image seems apt. The seed may be a gift with unexpected miracle to be released but I guess those of us who take on the role of gardeners can also have our part to play, which after all is what we do when we accept the challenge to follow in Jesus footsteps.
Unfortunately, because not everyone is keen on growth that takes unexpected turns, there is also a form of gardening which produces what Leslie Brandt once referred to as Bonsai Christians. You probably know that a bonsai tree is a miniature version of a larger tree which is deliberately altered by cutting or tying its tap root so that it can be a small, decorative addition to a cultivated garden, rather than the tree nature intended it to be. In terms of Christians I guess the tap root is the one that allows direct contact with the main teachings of Jesus. A bonsai Christian then is one that would prefer to function without the challenge. Given a call to mission, the bonsai Christian would prefer to return to the comfort of the familiar music and listening to familiar prayer. The bonsai Christian will seek the setting of the rich wooded pews, the carved Church furniture, the sonorous organ, – or perhaps seek the modern entertainment style worship of the large crowd and technologically savvy preacher who knows how to work the crowd. A religion perhaps that pampers and comforts has an attraction for the bonsai Christian rather one than challenges and even provokes. Yet is this really what we are born for?
The mustard seed must be allowed to grow. This growth may not leave us undisturbed. Like many of his parables there are also strange twists, and parts we might miss if we do not look closely enough.
For example, the part where Jesus refers to the variety of birds sheltering in the branches can be taken as first glance simply as an indication of the size of the mustard shrub, yet we should also remember that the variety of birds was the standard code of the Pharisees for referring to those who lived as foreign neighbours to the Jews. That the mustard plant is referred to as offering the birds shelter then becomes a way of saying that the kingdom of God has something to offer those of different faith, culture and race.
For the early Christians, many of whom were Jews, this would have been a significant and even disturbing teaching. In view of the way in which, even today, there is much prejudice expressed towards those of different faiths, the mustard plant giving shelter to the birds of the world is a salutary reminder. Just as Jesus on a number of occasions found ways to highlight the potential of gentiles and Samaritans, perhaps in this age of belligerent religion we too should be acknowledging the potential for a place for those who do not share our background and faith.
St Paul finds a slightly different perspective when he talks of the branch of the gentiles being grafted onto the plant to replace the branch which was dying.
I guess for many of us, our start in the kingdom may have been as small and insignificant as baptism as an infant. Yet don’t forget Jesus saw potential in the tiny seed of the mustard seed. After all, Jesus saw the potential in some remarkably unlikely followers who, as his first disciples, found themselves entrusted with the next stage of growth. Might it be that, with the help of this parable, we too might see that despite our humble small beginnings we too are needed as the kingdom continues its mysterious growth.