If there had been a single parable that might qualify Jesus for inevitable execution by crucifixion I suspect this story of the mustard seed would provide all the evidence the Jews or the Romans might need. We might also have to suspect that it is also a story that might leave a modern Western audience somewhat bewildered until the context is explained.
Furthermore, once explained, I can’t help wondering if it might discomfort or even infuriate some sitting in a typical Christian congregation today. Listen, then decide for yourselves.
First there was a section which might start to antagonize some of the Bible literalists. Remember the mustard seed which Jesus said is the smallest of all seeds that grows into a mighty tree. Well, actually no! … at least not literally. The mustard seed is indeed small and I suspect you could get a few hundred on a teaspoon, but the smallest, no way. Many seeds are much smaller, for example orchid seeds – and anyway the mustard plant is a shrub not a mighty tree and can only grow a few feet tall. Jesus is telling a story for effect not demonstrating scientific omniscience. Live with it!
Well, is he at least accepting Bible truth? 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 excerpt from Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus
…you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed….
I guess in those days grain was absolutely precious – and back then, without today’s supermarkets, 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 allow 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 growth from 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 of the parable, 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.
And how to we feel about that? Turning to the mustard weed kingdom where Jesus would have us find our place is one choice – but what about the more popular practical choice of giving priority to the kingdom of the current civil authority. Because you see sometimes we do have to choose. When we see our Government treating the vulnerable badly or treating other rival nations with contempt, is this the same as expressing we are nesting in a welcoming tree?
Because we live outside Jesus home territory, and outside the Jewish society of that 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.
So that alone would have guaranteed Jesus losing the support of the ultra religious of his day. But I wonder how some of his followers today feel about the kingdom as a sheltering weed for the birds of the air. Well, wasn’t he teaching that this kingdom wasn’t particularly fussy having a place for the Gentile nations. Who are the Gentile nations today? Rome? Saudi Arabia? Pakistan? India? – those Sikhs, Hindu untouchables, Sunni and Shia and Palestinians .. and don’t forget the Buddhists, all part of the Kingdom?
I guess we should at least be honest and say that even Christian denominations sometimes find it hard to accept one another – let alone be comfortable with those who don’t even call themselves Christian. Should we encourage rank outsiders to find shelter in a ragtag weed of a kingdom, or would only acceptance of impressive Church authority in a carefully regulated church – perhaps the Church of Rome or the Anglican Communion – find you a proper resting place?
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 what we are sure are weaknesses in others, let us at least acknowledge that to cast such folk aside is not the way of the kingdom. Better yet, 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 to Jesus, that teller of parables, of such is the Kingdom of God.