Tumbling in the Sand
“He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.'” – Mark 4:30-32
I think the mustard seed shows up every year in the lectionary. And every year while I was growing up I thought it a strange parable. At first, I thought that there must be a mustard tree somewhere. I thought that perhaps we harvested the mustard that we eat from really big trees. I thought that maybe the little round mustard seeds in my mother’s spice cabinet came out of pod-like things that hung in clusters from towering, arcing trees that dwarfed everything around them.
Though, clearly, such trees had nothing to do with the canola that grew around my house—though, it was, they said, a kind of mustard. Canola didn’t get as tall as me when I was 10—it would send up a flower stalk that might have been 4ft tall or so and put out beautiful, funky smelling, yellow flowers. There were hundreds and hundreds of acres of it planted around where I lived that would stretch as far as the eye could see under clear Alberta-blue skies … an infinity of yellow and blue meeting only at the horizon. It was strikingly beautiful, but certainly no tree and no shade.
As I got older, I started to think that maybe Jesus was a bad botanist. I went to college and worked on plant taxonomy there (the naming of plants) and learned what the whole family of mustard looked like. None of it was a tree. None of it was really even a bush. I figured maybe Jesus just didn’t know what he was talking about and it was some other plant he meant (maybe like a pepper tree—they get to be pretty impressive). Maybe something was lost in translation. After all, mustards were at best the beautiful canola that I remembered, or maybe a leafy green that you’d eat long before they flower, or at worst an invasive little weed that no one planted. I saw lots of mustards as a botanist wannabe: mostly in waste places, in abandoned lots, in ditches along the roads, or maybe growing as things like watercress in veggie gardens.
When I finally went to seminary, I learned that Jesus might have had a sense of humour. This was a new thought for me—the Bible had always seemed so serious—but it was enlightening. It actually helps make lots of parts of scripture make more sense. And, this parable might make more sense too. Maybe Jesus said this parable with a grin. Maybe this was hyperbole, a joke… But, what was the point of the joke? That’s hard to explain, I think. I mean, if you explain a joke and it’s not funny, did you just explain it badly or did the act of explaining the joke ruin an otherwise good joke?
It seems kind of hard to tell. But, well, my thinking on this parable as a joke, or a hyperbole is this: the parable should read (as per Ezekiel) “the Kingdom of God is like a mighty cedar that God planted on the top of a mountain and all the birds of the air come to nest in it’s branches.” Instead, Jesus, in essence, says, “The Kingdom of God is like a dandelion that grows to be massively large so that birds of the air can make nests in it’s shade.”
Basically—to explain away the funny—Jesus is saying the Kingdom of God doesn’t show up the way we expect it to. Jesus is saying the kingdom of God is weedy and dismiss-able. Jesus is saying the Kingdom of God surprises us about where and when it comes about. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God makes waste-places, abandoned places, unimportant places (where weeds grow) into places of new life and if we are determined to only see the Kingdom of God in the big, glorious, obvious places of the past, we’re probably going to miss out on the sprouting taking place by our feet and the fields of gold blooming in front of us.