Of all the head scratchers (aka "parables") that Jesus used to teach about the ways of God and God's Kingdom, perhaps none is more likely to draw noggin blood than the one involving the Mustard Seed. Especially the version we find in Mark's gospel. The one that's this Sunday's lectionary reading. Mark 4:30-32.
It seems perfectly clear, right? Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like the mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds that grows into the largest of all plants, with the longest of branches, giving the birds of the air the shade (i.e. protection and peace) that they need. Got it, next parable, please!
Coupled with the other mustard seed references Jesus makes in the gospels -- how you only need faith the size of this seed to move mountains or transplant mulberry trees (Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6), and the versions of the MS KOG parable in Matthew and Luke (where, at Matthew 13:32, Jesus says the mustard seed grows to the largest of plants and then becomes a tree; and, at Luke 13:19, Jesus cuts right to the chase and says the mustard seed becomes a tree that solves everyone's problems), it's all just about as obvious as the date of the War of 1812: the mustard seed is f-a-b-u-l-o-u-s!!
This tiny particle reminds us that with God, everything can go from really small to really big, and just like THAT! It's like miracle stock! I'll take two!! Make that three!!!
Perhaps you have already heard that one of the realities that brings this "Hollywood version" of Jesus' parable (aka "head scratcher") to a screeching halt (or activated scalp scraping) is that fact that mustard plants in the ancient world were most unwelcome, noxious weeds. I know we like to make every bratwurst extra special by lathering it with mustard laced with cranberries or champagne, but in the ancient world, the only good mustard plant was a dead mustard plant. And one that had no seeds, so its progeny couldn't spread and further devour the soil water and nutrients needed to produce wheat and barley and other staples that fed the many Israelite poor.
Then there is the fact that, at least in Mark’s gospel, the mustard seed doesn’t grow into a tree, but rather, a … plant. And that’s probably the most impressive translation of the Greek word Jesus uses in Mark's version: laxanon. In some Bibles, Mark's mustard seed grows into an herb or garden herb or, in the NRSV, a…shrub.
Shrubs are nice, but they’re probably not -- if you're a bird -- going to be your go-to place for finding protection and peace. Shrub branches are actually quite short and flimsy and the plant's stature is quite modest. In fact, it's rather silly to give them any importance whatsoever. Take for example that hilarious scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the giant Knights Who Say “Ni!” will only let Arthur and Co. pass if they bring the "Ni's" a….shrubbery (dah dah dah!) and then another…shrubbery (dah dah dah!). The ultimate punch line of that bit is when the "Ni's" tell Arthur he must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with... a herring (DAH! DAH! DAAAAH!). Even here, the shrub ends up being but a "middler."
The other reality that I think is fascinating (or maybe totally upsetting) about mustard plants is that they are annuals (in some, more even annoying cases, perennials). Unlike the mighty Cedar of Lebanon - the vegetation that was most used in Israelite culture to explain God's realm - mustards invade, sprout, blossom, steal, refuse to die, spill seeds, are possibly whacked, and, in any case, die. Then, to everyone's dismay, they rise again in that plot…or somewhere else… They're like zombies with a transporter. And completely unpredictable and transient.
So what's the Good News here? Who in their right mind would want to compare the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed?
Well, maybe what Jesus is getting at, whether we like it or not, is that we can never second-guess what God is up to. Or where. Even though it's so tempting to let our faith life settle us into comfortable routines and simplistic assumptions of where God is and wants to be found.
In truth, nothing with God is absolute, obvious, or even all that mighty. God's love is constant and never dies, but the way we find it manifesting itself may. For example, in one moment we may feel God's presence so pervasive in our church; and then in the next moment we're so disgusted with its politics, hypocrisies and conservatisms we can't help but leave and discover God in the beloved community of a theater troupe or non-profit agency where we volunteer. We fall in love with another, and God is suddenly most present there. Or out in nature, where we start preferring to spend our Sunday mornings. We are shocked to find profound love and angelic aid in an adversary. And thrilled to find true holy in the sacred stories of other faith traditions. And then time passes and for whatever reason our connection with God gets weaker and quieter and disappears…for awhile…until we find ourselves walking by a church one day and it's as if arms shoot out from the building and grab our gut and says "Come here!" That what it was like for me the day I walked past the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica. The congregation through which I later experienced the crazy call to ministry.
I invite you to think about your own life and journey and where the Divine has "sprouted up" for you. Undoubtedly it's been in places and ways that seem, in the eyes of the Church - or you - surprising and maybe even noxious. As improper and unwelcome as a weed! And always somewhere we don't expect.
Suddenly the path of our lives, and the way of faith, is not simple or straight but rather a crazy connect-the-dot endeavor that goes who-knows-where. And will next make God manifest...???
This Sunday, if you go to church, bring the parable truly, scandalously, to life. Sit in a different seat than the one you always sit in. Yikes! Gulp! Start scratchin'!