It is not often we can say Jesus told a parable which seems to have particular meaning for our time. Today’ gospel from the lectionary certainly generates discussion, yet I wonder if indeed what is often debated misses one of Jesus’ main points. Our parable for today is the story of the Mustard seed. Let’s think for a moment about what is most often said about the parable then turn to the more interesting teaching from the story.
As far as I can tell, most often this story is seized on by those who are anxious to point out to Bible literalists that whoever Jesus was, he was simply incorrect in his description of the mustard seed, both from the size of the described seed and in his description of the plant formed. As the scientifically literate critics are fond of pointing out, from what we know today, at least on this issue, far from being omniscient, Jesus most certainly had it wrong when he reportedly talked of the mustard seed being the smallest of seeds and what’s more it most certainly is not a seed that grows into a mighty tree. Orchids and a host of other plant forms whether they be from flowers, shrubs or trees have much smaller seeds, and yes, anyone who has encountered the mighty redwood or giant Kauri knows full well that these trees totally dwarf the humble set of shrubs classified as the mustard.
True, it is hard to argue with the modern Bible critics. Mustard seeds are readily available from plant nurseries and they are indeed totally unlike the dust-sized seeds of some other well known shrubs and trees. And to clinch the critics’ case, all the textbooks say the Mustard shrub rarely grows more than 12 foot tall.
Yet surely when Jesus told this parable, the truths he was trying to convey were never intended to stand or fall on the scientifically accuracy of the story. Sorting out the intellectual truth of our faith is not nearly as important as finding what our faith means when it is lived.
When for example Jesus drew attention to the humble beginnings of the Mustard he may well have been hoping his listeners might at least later remember that from his first teaching something more significant …a new form of faith would grow.
As it happens even today seeds are indeed only dimly understood and although each year the scientists discover more, there seems always more to discover about each tiny part of a small seed, especially the parts carrying all the genetic information to grow a shrub big enough for birds to nestle in its branches. Life itself is infinitely strange.
Certainly for most of us 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 think we now know about Chromosomes, DNA and gene expression. It should also be a little humbling to realise that it is not just those who follow the Christian faith that can find a faith analogy in a seed.
You may have heard the Chinese story which, by tradition, was first 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, counselled 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 focussed 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 tunnelling 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 analogy 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 form 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. AMEN
(Regular visitors to this site would have noted that lectionary sermons are frequent reworked and updated. Because the writer is limited to his own reading and experience, additions, corrections and different viewpoints are always welcome. Feel free to respond to each sermon in the comments box below.)