Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message Bible, once said that parables are “like narrative time bombs.” The stories that Jesus tells sound tame; ordinary even. At face value they are little more than tales of farmers, shepherds, seeds, victims, and merchants. But as you think about them, and ponder why Jesus told them, as you carry on with your daily living, and that story rests in your mind – boom! What Jesus said hits you in a way it had never hit you before, and the implication of what seemed like a simple story become overwhelming.
We are in the midst of a six-week focus on the parables in an attempt to strip away some of the domestication the parables have received over the past 2,000 years. The parables, as first told by Jesus, were intended to be challenging and convicting. If we ever feel as if we fully understand a self-satisfying explanation of a parable, it is precisely then we should go back and reread the text. Parables are not fables, which are designed to offer clever stories that elicit a common sense didactic lesson for life. No, parables are intended to be disruptive, calling to question what you might have previously believed, and to confront you with a surprising and often unwanted truth.
To help open our minds and hearts receive Jesus’ provoking truth, we have to first strip away the cute and easy explanations that the parables have been offered by centuries of placating preachers and scholars. We also have to see the parable in the context of the narrative that is told by the Gospel writers. So let’s try to rehear today’s text, regarding the parable of the mustard seed.
The context for today’s parable is worth a lengthy discourse in and of itself, for today’s parable is not found in one or two … but all three of the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. You’ll find that the three renditions of this story are found side-by-side on the front of the bulletin.
The first, and perhaps most challenging question, to ask is, are these three gospel accounts recollections of the same story, or did Jesus tell this story multiple times over his three-year teaching career? Were the three gospel accounts identical, we could perhaps more easily claim these three tellings are of the same individual story. But the three differ in some small, yet significant ways. Perhaps, like a hilarious game of telephone, these are three accounts of the same story, where the details change ever so slightly each time the story is told. In fact, just for fun, I went online to see if there was a modern translation of the parable of the mustard seed. I was not disappointed. In one telling, the mustard seed is now an oak sprout in a suburban backyard, that, growing into a massive, strong oak, gave shade for the back yard, provided the foundation for a children’s treehouse, and of course, increased the selling value when the family decided to move.
Taking a look at the three accounts of this parable in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, consider these comparisons. First, Mark and Luke say, “the kingdom of God is like …” while Matthew offers, “the kingdom of heaven is like …” This is not a significant edit, as we tend to use these two phrases interchangeably. In all three accounts, Jesus is comparing the kingdom to the mustard seed that has been sown in the ground.
Notice, regarding the seed, Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention the size of the seed. In Matthew and Mark, the size of the seed is of importance, as it is called the smallest of all seeds. Perhaps Luke leaves this detail out because, as any botanist would tell you, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed in all the earth. Orchids and cypress plants, among others, have smaller seeds. Is Luke’s a revisionist’s telling, which seeks to move the telling of the parable into scientific accuracy? … Or, are we to expect that for a first century farming society, as Jesus was addressing in all three of these gospel narratives, the mustard seed would have been known to be the smallest of the seeds. Perhaps orchids, cypress, and others were less common or unknown among the society? Does Luke leave this detail off because it is redundant – the mustard seed’s size as the smallest seed may have been common knowledge at the time.
A third difference in the three renditions of the parable is what happens to the seed as it grows. For Mark, it becomes the “greatest of all shrubs,” for Matthew, “the greatest shrub and then a tree,” and for Luke, “it becomes a tree.” Sounds like the storyline of a fisherman each time they recall their greatest catch. It was “this big,” … then “this big,” … and then “this big.” Which is it Jesus? Is it just a large shrub, or does it become a tree? Surely one can tell the difference between an overgrown shrub and a tree. So much for Luke caring about the botanist’s explanation. Mustard is an herb that on a good day should be called a bush – never a tree. Yet, a quick google search confirm, the black mustard bush, which is common in Israel, can grow to be eight to ten feet tall. Perhaps solely by size, one could say the seed can grow to be as big as a small tree?
Finally, we have the closing line of the parable, which tells us just how big the plant grew. For Matthew and Luke, the full grown tree was large enough for the birds of the air to make their nests in the plant’s branches. Yet, for Mark, the birds did not nest in the tree’s branches, they nested in the plant’s shade. Why the difference? Is it because Mark thought Jesus said shrub, and not tree? Were the branches not strong enough to hold a nest, so the birds had to nest in the shade of the plant instead? Is there a significant lesson Mark is trying to teach that differs from Matthew and Luke in his telling of this story?
I’m curious, what are the exact words Jesus used? If it was a single telling, and all three were recounting the same occasion, which gospel account is right? If each gospel were recounting a different event, why did Jesus tell the story differently? Like a good storyteller, was he perfecting the story each time he told it? If that’s the case, which one came last?
Amy-Jill Levine, in her book, Short Stories by Jesus, offers that, while perhaps advancing each gospel writer’s individual purpose in writing, the details are believably less important than the overarching story line. She says, “Jesus told a parable about a small mustard seed, a sprouting of some sort, and a growth that is large enough to shelter birds.”[i] The other details of the story may or may not be relevant.
Given this basic frame work, a small seed was sown and grew to become of great size, such that it sheltered birds … what is Jesus trying to teach us about the kingdom of God?
From a simple reading, we can easily say the text is a tea-sipping allegory. Invited to define the seed, you can yell out your best Sunday School response and have a good answer. What is the seed in this parable? “Faith,” “the Bible,” “Jesus,” or “God.” … Yes, each of these can make sense. If you have but a little faith, it may grow to such a great size that others may find rest in your presence of welcome and hospitality. If the Bible – the Word of God – is planted in you, it will grow to be so consuming, that you will be a place of refuge for those who need the hope and comfort of God’s word. Jesus himself was like a seed – planted as an insignificant child in the world, an infant born to a poor merchant family, who grew as God’s incarnate love in the world to be so great that, like the birds of the air, all may find rest and home in his embrace.
We could even tighten the allegorical connection of the seed to be exactly what Jesus defines it as, and say that the kingdom of God began as a small seed, having taken root at the creation of the earth. And, like the moral arc of the universe that bends toward justice, the kingdom of God will continue to grow until it is so great that even those who have no place to rest – the birds of the air – come to nest in the goodness of God’s kingdom. In such a reading, the growth, like that of a mustard plant, is continuous and steady. Like the parable of the unleavened bread that precedes this one, the yeast and seed, though imperceptible at first, are there, growing, and will become visible and great upon full maturity.
These are lovely interpretations of this text. Such a sermon has been preached many times.
There is just one problem with this interpretive reading – it’s too easy. “There is no challenge in hearing that from small beginnings come great things.”[ii] This is a story line that not only reads well, it’s one we praise and shell out billions of dollars to hear again and again. This is the story of the Blind Side, where the adopted son from the poor side of town becomes a NFL star. This is the Oprah Winfrey story, where a single teenage mother, who grew up without running water or electricity, becomes one of the wealthiest woman in the world. It’s Cinderella; it’s Annie; it’s Slumdog Millionaire; it’s The Pursuit of Happyness … it’s the rags to riches motif that we love to hear.
Perhaps we love this story line so much because, like the parable we call the “good Samaritan,” we want to read ourselves into the story as the hero. We want to be the one who goes from such insignificant stature to being so great. It’s why we clamor to climb the proverbial ladder – because we believe this is what God wants for us, reading ourselves to be the seed in the parable, as the one who goes from the lowly to the magnificent.
Let’s be honest and name, this narrative is toxic in our nation right now. It’s literally killing people. We have large subsets of the country who are claiming they are not on the receiving end of the greatness promised them by God in these such parables. We see ourselves as biblical mustard seeds, whom Jesus promises will become great, but we cry foul when we aren’t received as being so “great.” This is the toxic nature of reading parables as if they are promising you comfort, wealth, greatness, and eternal well-being.
The parables are not intended to promise us such greatness and comfort. Only in our 21st Century American exceptionalism could such a reading be defined as “biblical.”
The parables were intended to provoke and conflict, not comfort and placate.
To understand how the parable teaches us about the kingdom of God, we must hear with the ears of those to whom Jesus was speaking. Jesus spoke to an agricultural society using agricultural metaphors. If we don’t share that same agricultural background, such metaphors may quickly be lost on us. What do you know about mustard plants? Do you know how they are used on a farm? Do you know how they grow? Do you think highly of them, or consider them a nuisance in the farm? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be likened to a mustard plant?
What do you think about the “birds of the air,” who find home in the mustard plant? Would the birds be a welcome addition to the farm, or would they be seen as a pest? What would these 1st Century listeners think about birds making nests among the plants that were intentionally sown on the farm?
“The parable does mark a contrast between small and great … It has something to say about seeds and birds, growth and shelter. These are the component parts of the parable, and it is from these that meanings may best be drawn.”[iii] But what conclusions do we draw? Is it as simple as saying, even the lowly become great? Is this story just about giving a place of privilege to those who claim to have been overlooked?
“To speak of the parable as demonstrating that great outcomes arrive from small beginnings is correct, but it is banal. To note what outcomes might occur provides better provocation.”[iv] And it is provocation that was Jesus’ point.
The mustard plant is generally considered a fast-growing, invasive weed. It was not something farmers would have desired to have in their garden. Why someone would intentionally plant such an uncontrollable weed in their garden is provocative. Such a decision would have been considered foolish for a farmer. What does such recklessness say about the kingdom of God?
That the farmer doesn’t try to trim, prune, or limit the growth of the plant is also provocative. What does it look like to give free reign to that which we can best be called an obnoxious weed? What does it mean to give up control over such growth, and trust such growth into the hands of God?
That the birds of the air were given home amidst the garden is provocative. Why would any farmer want birds who had no home taking up residence amidst their crop? What kinds of birds are taking refuge in the plants, and how does this affect my ability to farm?
These are all questions that the first hearers would have been struggling with, because they understood the agricultural references Jesus was using to tell the story.
Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of God is like – it’s like a weed, being intentionally sown, where it can invade, overturn, and eventually become so great that it overcomes everything else that’s there, and in doing so, it invites residence among the unwanted and unwelcome.
Tick – tock – tick – tock … Eugene Peterson says the parables are like narrative time bombs. They sound tame and simple. But as the provocative Word of God lies on our heart, it is working a mystery of God’s revelation, until one day, God’s truth explodes, and we hear with new ears what it is Christ is proclaiming about the good news of the kingdom of God. May we have ears to hear, and hearts to receive, the good news of God’s love. Amen.