Jabbok Dawn

Tumbling in the Sand

About: mustard trees

The texts for Sunday, June 17,2012: Ezekiel 17:22–24; Psalm 92:1–4, 12–15; 2 Corinthians 5:6–10[11–13] 14–17; and Mark 4:26–34

“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.


Other posts related to this: Dear Jesus;  Lighten Up!

11 comments on “About: mustard trees

  1. Katherine O. Cooper
    June 14, 2012

    awesome post! though I must say you’ve either saved me a lot of stress or broken my heart a little bit.

    yesterday after praying a minute on that reading, by the time I slogged through the first 2 hrs of summer stress, my solution was to get some mustard seeds along with the food to save my “starving” 16 year old darling.

    my neighbor and friend, both botonists, mentioned that if I try mustard rather than sunflower seeds, I could end up with a TREE.

    O.M.G.O.M.G. So, I then thought like your post went…the holy spirit joking and messing with my mind that it really REaLLY matters if i go for the sunflower, moonflower or mustard experiment.


  2. Katherine O. Cooper
    June 14, 2012

    more scientific thought, what if they WERE trees back then, and what, in desert life circa. before Jesus, is considered a tree? maybe trees to them, would be bushes to us. besides which, wasn’t everyone shorter at that point in time?

    or…maybe they considered really tall, bird enticing bushes trees, just not the kind that people can climb…


    • jabbokdawn
      June 14, 2012

      Katherine, there are all sorts of arguments about Jesus actually talking about this or that tree. One of the favorites is to claim he was talking about Salvadora persica L. also called the Arak tree, Peelu tree, or Toothbrush tree, which is indeed a bushy little tree that grows in the area. People even sometimes call it the Mustard Tree, because they decided (long after biblical times) that this must be the tree that Jesus was talking about. But, the thing is, it’s not a mustard. I suppose Jesus could have been a bad botanist, but I like the idea that he might be a better comedian more.

      Of course, there were plenty of trees around at the time: Olive trees for one, Cedars for another. And mustard has never been a tree. I suppose, at a serious stretch, some mustards when they flower could look bushy, but they aren’t really woody so that would be hyperbole too.

      BTW- you should totally plant some mustard, as you can see in the picture, it is beautiful when it flowers, and the greens taste great when lightly stir fried or eaten raw in salad. But don’t give up on the sunflowers! (one of my favorite flowers) Or, for that matter, moonflowers—they are so beautiful!


      • Katherine O. Cooper
        June 17, 2012

        I’m really enjoying this conversation! Hang on…off to find a book title for you…


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  4. Katherine O. Cooper
    June 17, 2012

    Just watered the dogs and tried to imagine how, if I do have time to plant, that I can find time to guard these little seeds from the rabbits and water them, along with maintaining the front shade garden we planted. We are new to the Iowa summer heat, but I’m committed to making a go of my upside down trellis idea on the clothes line poles that would be impossible to remove.

    Okay, the book is Between Heaven and Mirth by James Martin, SJ. Sadly, I’ve only read a few pages b/c I’ve been distracted with other nonfiction reads…need to get back to it because it is great. I enjoy Martin’s twitter feed more than any other.

    Let me read a bit and find you a few quotes to back up your humor theory!


  5. Katherine O. Cooper
    June 17, 2012

    I found too much to add in another reply, so I’m going to try and work on a blog post.

    In short, your last paragraph is awesome, and after a long string of family tragedy, the experience that faith is all about finding another way home has gotten me to a much better place.

    And (teasing voice) what seminary says that “maybe” Jesus had a sense of humor? That’s silly.


    • jabbokdawn
      June 17, 2012

      I think my goal in understatement there was to invite people to consider the vaguely obvious possibility that Jesus might just have a sense of humor. 🙂 Sometimes, based on the behaviour of people at church, I wonder if people think that “holy” people have their senses of humor extracted to be more holy.

      I look forward to your upcoming post and hearing more!


  6. Pingback: God’s Seedy Kingdom « Jabbok Dawn

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