The Reign of God and Garlic Mustard?
Mark 4: 26-35
by Colleen Hartung, June 14, 2015
On the face of it, the parables in today’s Gospel read like some straightforward adage or truism. Seeds are something very small that, when sown and scattered on the ground, grow, at least potentially, into something much greater. In other words, great things come from small, homely beginnings. It is true, a mustard seed is small, about 1/20th of an inch in diameter and a mustard plant can grow anywhere from two to eight feet tall and in ideal conditions such as those provided in the temperate climate of the Mediterranean region, it can become a large, sprawling shrub. This is a feel good kind of image that resonates with other familiar aphorisms like “good things come in small packages” or the sentiment that Mother Teresa expressed when she said “be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies”. Even Lao Tzu says, in the Tao de Ching, “All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy and great things in that which is small. But if I have learned nothing else about being a homilist over my years at Holy Wisdom Monastery, it is that nothing is ever that straightforward when it comes to the gospel teachings of Jesus.
Still, it’s easy to get sucked in by the neatness of this kind of interpretation of today’s Gospel. It is not only the sense of order—first the seed, then the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head and then the harvest—but there is also this sense of justice in a David and Goliath sort of way. The small and persistent can conquer great and oppressive power. And so it seemed like a good idea in the beginning to start my journey with this passage meditating on the smallness of a mustard seed and that is where my troubles began.
I am not a master gardener but I have worked in the garden enough to have some sense about seeds in terms of their size. There are seeds like peas and corn and nasturtiums that are large, easy to count and handle. And then there are seeds so small they look like dust on your finger tips like coral bells and lobelia. The mustard seeds I know are small but they are not that small. So the mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth”? I thought I must not have something quite right. There must be other varieties of mustard that I didn’t know about. So I decided to go to Jungs and buy a packet of mustard seeds; the variety whose seeds are very, very, very small and grow into the greatest of all shrubs. When I got to Jungs, I walked up and down the seed aisle and I couldn’t find anything that said mustard shrubs. The only thing close was a packet of seeds for mustard greens. I didn’t buy them because I just couldn’t get my mind around the possibility that mustard greens could have any relationship to greatness. So, a bit defeated, I decided to go back home and maybe do some research on the internet. However, on my way out, I passed by a display of prairie seeds. For a moment it seemed like a logical option. Isn’t mustard an herb? So I stood there scanning the packets of prairie seeds and then all of a sudden an image of garlic mustard came to my mind. OMG! The reign of God is like garlic mustard; I might not be a master gardener but I do know that you do not want garlic mustard in your garden or your prairie restoration. I stood there for a moment, took a deep breath and then thought, “that cannot be right” and I went home thoroughly disturbed.
In fact, I had been gullible, captured by the obvious and not very mindful of the actual context and experience of 1st century Palestinians in relations to the parables in this gospel. In his book, The Historical Jesus: The Life of Mediterranean Jewish Peasant”, John Dominic Crossan says that if Jesus needed an image to represent the reign of God, the figure of a cedar shoot planted on a high mountain was the logical choice. It was part of the Jewish symbolic context and psyche. In today’s first reading from the book of Ezekiel, God, the most high, says, “I will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar…. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit and become a noble cedar”. For Jesus’ Jewish audience, the Cedars of Lebanon which are comparable to huge redwood trees, are an apocalyptic symbol. In the coming reign of God, tiny Israel would be like a huge noble cedar. In the reign of God, Israel would be the greatest of all nations. Crossan notes that “the mustard seed can only grow into a bush or shrub and, at its very best, is hardly competition for the Lebanese Cedar”.
In a natural history book written during the time of Jesus, mustard is described as a plant that has a pungent taste and is beneficial for health”.“It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted” but when it is cultivated in a garden “it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once”. (Pliny, Natural History 19.170-171; Rackham et. al 5.528-529). In other words, it is an invasive plant that left untended can become a weed.
Crossan observes that Jewish teaching in the Mishnah decrees that mustard seeds “should not be planted in the garden but only in a larger field where it can be carefully segregated by itself” (278). Furthermore, the gardeners and farmers in Jesus’ audience would not really be happy about the birds the prolific mustard plant would be attracting to their carefully cultivated fields. Ultimately, Crossan concludes that starting a parable with a mustard seed only makes sense if one plans to lampoon rather rudely the whole apocalyptic tradition” (277). HHHHGiven this perspective on the mustard seed, the crowd’s response to Jesus’ parapble was probably similar to my OMG. Are you kidding me? Does this guy really mean to say that the reign of God is like an invasive, noxious weed?
It seems possible and biblical scholars such as Crossan would say it is probable that the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel uses this parable and others to disturb and challenge not only the oppressive power of Roman rule but also his own Jewish community’s cherished expectations for the coming reign of God. In this way of reading the parable, the reign of God is not like a great and mighty Lebanon Cedar reaching two or three hundred feet into the air; majestic and imposing with large, full boughs wide enough and strong enough to provide shade and shelter for all the birds of the air. Instead, the reign of God is like a mustard seed; useful in a homely, ordinary sort of way; but something you may or may not want to cultivate in your garden because it is hard to control and easily escapes efforts at keeping things in order. It is prolific, fast growing, hardy and can become an invasive nuisance. Read in this way, the parable of the mustard seed is disruptive in relation to easy assumptions and dominant expectations. This seems like it could be a good thing. Right? But in a practical sense the question remains, at least for me, “What would the coming of such a reign of God look like?”
In order to wrap my mind around the practical implications of this twisted rather queer interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed, I tried to think about what an uncontrollable germination of something like the reign of God might look like in our own contemporary context. A few examples came to mind. What about the ideal, enshrined in our constitution, that all men are created equal? This was the cultivation of a worthy ideal that initially only applied to white property owning males. Yet ultimately this cultivated ideal was overtaken by women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement and gay rights activism. Or what about “love the sinner hate the sin” as a catch phrase for a “loving” religious response to LGBTQ church goers. It turns out love is also not so easily circumscribed or controlled. This month, the Supreme Court is set to make a landmark decision, at least potentially, that would make same-sex marriage the law of the land as religious institutions around the country like Holy Wisdom Monastery invite same sex couples to ritually affirm their love in a public, religious context. Or even the idea of a hospitable welcome to a Eucharistic sharing once governed almost exclusively by denominational dogma and rubrics. Open tables like the one here at the Sunday Assembly escape these cultivated boundaries and the idea of Ecumenism becomes something common place.
And so it goes. Taking this more twisted, subversive interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed seriously, it turns out that even the most earnest and more or less well meaning attempts at cultivating something like the reign of God are challenged. Within this framework, all oure attempts to cultivate something like freedom or love or hospitality within the boundaries of our own images are always overtaken and broken open by the advent of something more, something invasive and ultimately transformative. In this sort of coming of the reign of God, freedom and love and hospitality are more like weeds than a cultivated plan or a cultivated plant. In the reign of God, when it is like a mustard seed, the always surprising arrival of freedom and love and hospitable welcome is prolific, fast growing, hardy and likely to become an invasive nuisance that changes us and our world in ways that are unpredictable and ultimately transforming.Her