2. A Small Invasion, But Spicy
Jesus seems in a thoughtful mood in our text. “What’s the best image of the Kingdom of God that has drawn near and is now at work among you?” he seems to wonder. Perhaps the seed growing automatically captures one aspect of that new regime, but there’s much more to say, apparently. “What’s another picture we can draw to make the point?” Jesus asks rhetorically.
“Perhaps it’s like a mustard seed,” he muses. You put it in the ground as the smallest of seeds. And yet, when it grows, it becomes the biggest bush on the block. It gets so big and bushy that little birds build their nests in its branches and find shelter in the shade. Yes, perhaps that’s a good image of this coming reign of God among us.
How, precisely, is the Kingdom come near like the mustard seed? On the one hand, commentators note the small size of the seed. Hunziger (TDNT VII:289-291) notes that here in Mark 4 and in the “faith like a mustard seed” texts of Matthew 17 and Luke 17, the stress is on the size of the seed.
He writes that this element of the seed was proverbial in Palestine at the time. According to this source, the seed in question is the black mustard seed which works out to about seven hundred seeds to the gram. Perhaps not the smallest seed on earth, but tiny enough indeed.
In Matthew and Luke, the mustard seed parable is yoked with the parable of the leaven. In that pairing, the emphasis is primarily on the growth. Hunziger notes that here in Mark and in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, the two parables are not connected. The focus in Mark (and Coptic Thomas), therefore, he suggests, is on the smallness of the beginning. The end product is hardly what one would expect from such miniscule start.
Robert Farrar Capon points out that what is sown is the Kingdom, “not something that results from the sowing of a seed other than itself” (Kindle Locations 1201-1202). “The real point of the parable,” Capon writes, “is the marvelous discrepancy between the hiddenness of the kingdom at its sowing and the lush, manifest exuberance of it in its final, totally successful fruition” (Kindle Location 1214). And in light of the previous parable, this “manifest exuberance” does not need our help.
Not only does the Kingdom work in secret and on its own, as noted in the previous parable. The beginnings are hidden from all but the eyes of faith. The Kingdom is present in the work of Jesus, even though that may not be obvious to all. In fact, it is quite easy to mistake the work of the Kingdom for that of Satan, as we saw in last week’s reading.
Jacobsen suggests that the image in the parable shows that the seed’s astonishing growth appears and spreads “all of a sudden.” He notes that one of Mark’s favorite words, “euthus” (immediately) shows up in verse 29. “Mustard seeds have the beautiful quality of being small,” he writes, “but with the ability to spread and take over a field—in Mark’s text, sprawling enough to include shade for all those gentile birds of heaven, too!”
The growth of the mustard bush into a veritable “tree” has political and apocalyptic reverberations as well. “Along the way, the eccentric comparison to a mustard plant provides a little prophetic edginess,” Jacobsen writes, “few powerful nations liked to compare themselves to mustard bushes, but rather to impressive, great cedar trees.” In fact, we find an allegory of the cedar tree in Ezekiel 31 (as well as mention in Ezekiel 17). And in Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a world tree in the midst of his mental imbalance.
“The mustard seed decolonizes by comparison to mighty cedars,” Jacobsen writes. “The mustard plant is short, scruffy, and small; but it is also in Mark’s sanctified imagination sprawling and sufficient for shade—just like this mysterious Kingdom of God.” Short, scruffy, and small – that’s a description of many Christian congregations these days.
Matt Skinner notes that smallness, sudden growth, and unexpected size are elements of the parabolic point here. The hidden beginning becomes a “public and grand” display, Skinner notes. And the result is not merely an exhibit in God’s horticultural gallery. Rather, he suggests, “creatures will find that it provides them shelter and security.”
Skinner leads us further into the world of the parable. “Those are all important points,” he argues, “but they cannot capture the real energy in this parable. The parable’s punch comes in at least two funny things Jesus says.” Skinner notes that most people would not sow mustard seed as a cash crop. It shows up quite nicely on its own. It has stubborn staying power. It is useful in a variety of ways, but it competes with other crops. “Better be careful what you pray for,” Skinner wars, “when you say, ‘Your kingdom come…’”
The second part of the “joke” in this little parable, according to Skinner, is the description of the result as largest of all the garden shrubs. “At this point, some of his auditors probably snorted and blew milk out of their noses,” Skinner suggests. “Google brassica negra and judge for yourself,” he urges. “It can grow dense, but it is hardly magnificent. Jesus must be grinning as he speaks. He is not aiming to impart insights about the relative worth of shrubberies,” Skinner concludes, “but to shock people into a new way of perceiving greatness.”
Jesus doesn’t point to the noble cedar, as does Ezekiel. Instead, this kingdom parable points to “something more ordinary, and yet also something more able to show up,” Skinner proposes, “to take over inch by inch, and eventually to transform a whole landscape.” What a humorous and hopeful image in a world awash with stories of pompous prats who cannot deal with their own fraudulent failures.
“The reign of God will mess with established boundaries and conventional values,” Skinner observes. “Like a fast-replicating plant, it will get into everything. It will bring life and color to desolate places. It will crowd out other concerns. It will resist our manipulations. Its humble appearance will expose and mock pride and pretentiousness like a good burlesque show.” This will not be welcome news to those who are invested in cedar tree empires. “As a result,” Skinner suggests, “some people will want to burn it all down in a pointless attempt to restore their fields.”
Another element I find compelling in this parable is by and large rejected by scholars. I am struck by the invasive nature of the plant in the parable. That reflects my own farm experience of chopping wild mustard out of our cultivated rows during the summers of my youth. I became well-acquainted with our own variety of the plant and did not appreciate any aspect of it.
Scholars do not find the “invasive” nature of the mustard plant as a proverbial reference in ancient literature of the time. Smallness, yes, but aggressiveness, no. The plant was valued, within limits, for medicinal purposes and as a condiment. While it wasn’t necessary to plant and tend mustard as one would grapes or olives or wheat or barley, it was still useful and was harvested in limited quantities. For all these reasons, scholars suggest that it could not have been regarded in Jesus’ time as an invasive weed.
I think that’s too limited a perspective, as well as an argument from silence. We noted last week that the “invasive” character of God’s Kingdom (as in “home invasion,” for example) is part of Mark’s subtext at least through the Temple Incident. I would suggest that this is sufficient warrant to look for the emphasis here as well.
In addition, we have several useful plants in our vegetable and pollinator gardens that would quickly be regarded as weeds if we did not keep them carefully boxed in. We keep chives and bee balm and phlox in containers. If we didn’t, they would gradually take over large parts of our garden plots – places we have reserved for other species. A weed is a plant “out of place.” We exercise care to keep some plants in their proper places.
What if this is part of the image Jesus uses in the parable? The Kingdom does not stay put. It invades and gradually takes over. In John’s terms, the Wind blows where it wants to blow. The plants grow where they want to grow. In our desire to manage and control our lives, we are often in danger of trying to box in the kingdom and keep it limited to its “proper place.”
I find Sharon Ringe’s words in her workingpreacher.org commentary interesting at this point, although she is focusing on the size and growth potential of the seed. “The almost predatory ability of the mustard plant could crowd out the planned crops of the Romans, even sheltering birds that could be trusted to gobble up more of the carefully planted seeds, no doubt gave a chuckle to people delighted by subverting the economic enterprises supporting Rome’s imperial agenda. Good news: God’s empire has many ways to carry the day over powers bent on their own profit and power!”
The Kingdom among us may well crowd out our own planned church crops and reach out to fowl we wouldn’t welcome on our own. The mustard seed is growing, for example, outside the walls of our church buildings and the boundaries of our worshipping communities, whether we like that or not. Will we chuckle or grumble in God’s garden? Will we regard that extravagant and spontaneous growth as Good News or as weeds to be pulled?
References and Resources
Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Timothy Wenger. Luther’s Small Catechism.