A Provocation: Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6 (11): June 13, 2021: Mark 4:26-34

26And he was saying:
	Thus is the dominion of God:
		Suppose a person should dump seed on the ground, 
			27and then sleep and get up, 
				night after night
				day after day. 
		The seed sprouts and grows, 
	                who knows how? 
		28The soil produces automatically, 
			first the shoot, 
			then the stalk, 
			then full grain in the head. 
		29But when the grain is ripe, 
		BANG he sends the sickle, 
			because the harvest is standing ready.
30And he was saying:
	How shall we compare the dominion of God, 
	or in what parable shall we put it?  
		31It is as a seed of mustard, which, 
			whenever it is sown upon the soil, 
		is smaller than all the seeds sown on earth, 
		32and whenever it is sown, 
		it goes up and becomes bigger than all shrubs, 
			and makes great branches, 
			so that under its shade 
                                the birds of heaven can make nests.
33And in many parables of this sort he was speaking to them the word, 
	just as they were able to hear.
34Apart from parables he said nothing to them, 
but alone with his own disciples he explained everything.

A Question or Two:

  • Why mustard?
  • Why parables?
  • Why did he have to explain them if he told them “just as they were able to hear?”

Some Longer Reflections:

Mustard is not the smallest seed in the world. That doesn’t really matter. Jesus is not making a point about botany.

What does matter is that mustard was, for Jews in the 1st century, a weed. Ancient Jews used mustard in their cooking, but observant Jews did not plant it in their fields. Mustard is aggressive and invasive. Ask any farmer: it is impossible to have “just a little” mustard in your field.

It was this trait that made it not just a weed, but a religious weed. Observant Jews in any century do Torah so that their lives point to a God who is stable and orderly, a God who loves Creation and who saves people from the chaos that could kill them. That is the point of the highly-patterned lives that faithful Jews live. You observe Sabbath so that exhausted people can see evidence that God knows we need rest if we are to recover. You keep kosher not because God hates pork chops, but in order to learn self-control. Mustard breaks all boundaries, destroys orderliness, and weakens the witness of the community to God’s love. That’s why Jews in the 1st century did not plant it.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.”

That’s what parables do: they seem so simple at the outset, and then they cause problems that simply don’t let you go.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.” It grows and burgeons. It erupts where and when you’d least expect it.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.” It is destructive to its own ends. It undercuts itself even as it grows. It is chaos and it is life and it is hope and it dissipates its own hopefulness.

The question with a parable is not “What does this mean?,” but “What does this do?” What does this make you think about?

These days, this parable makes me think of conversations about incremental and revolutionary change. There are many such conversations going on. Everyone in every conversation appears to agree that change is essential. It is long past time to take seriously the continuing effects of our imposition of race-based slavery. We are long overdue in our recognizing that many of the people who have given us life, many people among our close friends and family, have had to hide deep truths about their identity, their gender, their way of living and loving in the world. There are more conversations of this sort. You know them because you are in them.

In those conversations are people whom I deeply respect who point out that incremental change is the favorite tool of the forces that hope to prevent all change. They quote, quite properly, Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. People who are comfortable always urge moderation. As Dr. King rightly said:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

In those conversations that are other people, people who I also deeply respect, who note that some of the necessary changes will pull communities apart.

It is easy to dismiss their concerns, as long as you think of them only in the abstract. From sufficient moral distance, it is clear that institutional self-preservation is a particularly distasteful form of cowardice. If you stand far enough away from real people in actual communities, it is easy to see that this is true. But people in actual communities live with the basic truths of life together: we need each other and we are stuck with each other. Members of rural congregations are tied together by bonds of family and history, and those bonds are often cemented by the fact that there are few, if any, other communities to join, should their congregation be torn apart.

The parable makes it clear: those who urge moderation are correct; the dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard: it may bring hope, but it surely brings chaos.

This parable is only incidentally about how the dominion of God brings BIG things out of little things. More significantly, it makes it clear that the big things that God’s dominion brings will always shake anything that has (so far) passed for stability and safety. To read it otherwise is to tame it, and comfortable people will try anything to tame the dominion of God. If they succeed, this parable becomes a religious affirmation of their own stability.

And that is one thing the dominion of God never brings.

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