After a long hiatus… Read here for a refresher on my general analytical approach. Mostly, I’m trying to cast new light on incredibly well-known and well-worn stories, to reconstruct the likely meanings intended and heard at the time and place of the parable’s speaking. Again, I presume that Jesus chose stories and characters from the familiar world of the lives of His hearers, not just to lend timeless tales an intimate context, but because the characters, actions, and social processes would themselves carry meanings not lost on the ears of those “with ears to hear.” My readings presume that some basic understanding of the social actors and politico-economic processes referred to in the parables — understandings taken for granted by Jesus’ first hearers — is necessary for getting at the core meaning and purpose of this powerful pedagogical style. I also assume that part of the purpose of deploying language and stories that drew so liberally from the life world of the mostly impoverished peasants and laborers that constituted Jesus’ Galilean audience was that these salient, memorable speech events enabled those hearers to see that world in a different light, calling forth into full conscious awareness the ruling ideologies unconsciously imbibed by those thereby oppressed, enabling them to be articulated, questioned, and overturned in an effort to establish a kingdom whose governing imperatives and modalities of power are antithetical to those manifested in the world we now live in.
The parable of the Mustard Seed is interesting for several reasons. First, from the perspective of historical scholarship, it is one of the sayings most easily attributed to the historical Jesus. By even the most critical and rigorous evidentiary standards of secular scholarship, this saying (or something very much like it) — triply attested (in Mark, the Q source, and the Gospel of Thomas) — is readily acknowledged by virtually all Historical Jesus scholars (notable among them J. D. Crossan, mentioned in Part 1) as having been originally spoken by Jesus.
Last time, I cautioned against reading the Good Samaritan as an allegory of the plan of salvation, and parables as allegories in general. In the case of the Mustard Seed, however, Jesus appears to be deliberately deploying this agricultural vignette as a metaphor for the kingdom:
With what can we compare the kingdom of God; or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed… (Mark 4:30-31, NRSV).
That is, even if not a full-blown allegory, with each minute element standing symbolically for some specific other thing, the mustard seed and its germination are meant as a metaphor for the kingdom Jesus is preaching and enacting. Jesus continues the parable:
It is like a grain of 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 4:31-32, NRSV)
A bucolic image, at least at first glance. Fertile earth, great branches, nesting birds, and blissful shade. The kingdom of God is like a Norman Rockwell landscape or a place for a Disney princess to have a peaceful nap. Still, let’s plumb a bit deeper into the horticultural reality invoked here. There is a strong prophetic/apocalyptic tradition in Israel that metaphorically equates great trees with mighty kingdoms and their kings. Daniel envisions Nebuchadnezzar as:
a tree in the midst of the earth; and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth… (Dan 4:10-11, NSRV)
The connection between the metaphors is even extended to wildlife: “and the birds of the air dwelt in its branches,” just like Jesus’ mustard plant. A few verses later (20-21), Daniel applies the great tree metaphor to Nebuchadnezzar himself. The cedars of Lebanon are also a salient symbol of greatness, and their utilization in the construction of unified Israel’s great temple signals a kingdom at the height of its worldly power. Ezekiel deploys the metaphor in his description of both the Messiah — “a noble cedar… in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest” (Ezek 17:23) — as well as to Pharaoh in Egypt: “I will liken you to a cedar in Lebanon… of great heights, its top among the clouds…. All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs” (Ezek 31:3, 6).
So, on the one hand, an agricultural metaphor for greatness and dominion seems appropriate for a Messiah declaring the advent of his kingdom. Yet, it is clear that messianic expectation in turn-of-the-era Palestine did not quite square with the messianic promise in Jesus, precisely in that Jesus rejected the notion of a Messiah leading a liberating army against Roman imperial rule and establishing an invincibly powerful kingdom in its stead (as an heir of the great David properly should). So, what is the alternative? A mustard plant, aptly described as a shrub (as in the NSRV above). And that’s not all. Mustard is far from the grand, majestic symbol appropriate for figuring a great and mighty kingdom. During the first century CE, famed Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote a passage on the mustard plant in his Natural History:
It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.
That’s right. Mustard is a weed, and a rather hazardous one to boot. The point is not that it starts out small and then grows to beautiful and majestic height, but that once it takes root, it takes over and is impossible to get rid of. And for people who spend their lives sowing and harvesting grain, grapes, and olives, the nesting bird is a threatening pest, not an adorable nap-time serenader. The apt descriptive term applied to “puts forth its branches” is not miraculous, providential growth but creeping, unstoppable infestation. Jesus speaks to a tradition that equates greatness with the mighty kings and empires of Israel’s mythic past, and totally lampoons it. He reaches for the agricultural metaphor, and skewers it brilliantly: “My kingdom,” he seems to say, “is not so much a majestic tree as a relentless weed. Sow even one tiny seed and soon it’s everywhere, inviting pests of all kinds to take refuge in its noxious branches. How’s that for a Messiah!” Even if mustard is something to be desired — say, for culinary or medicinal purposes — one wants it only in small, easy to control doses.
There is something deliciously subversive here. As Crossan points out, using a plant with such hostile and dangerous take-over properties as a metaphor for the kingdom hits close to home for people who continually labor over fields, crops, and harvests. It would mean something even more suggestive to those laborers for whom fields and harvests represented the property of others.
Part of what makes this parable so meaningful for me is that, while I have never sown or harvested crops (let alone seen a mustard plant), the metaphor of infestation seems totally appropriate to my religious experience. As people with widely varying relationships to the Church — from the faithful and active to the secular agnostic to the most embittered DAMU — Mormonism is not easily shaken off or contained in our lives. Our religious experience creeps its way into the various facets of our lives in ways that can make compartmentalizing or bracketing the Mormon portion of our character impossible. Mormonism seems to touch parts of our brain that the other religions do not in their adherents. This is not meant to be a chauvinistic representation of Mormonism at the expense of others, and perhaps my anecdotal experience is not representative. I’m certainly not attempting to drag this parable into some kind of proof of the truthfulness of Mormonism. Still, does an invasive, infectious, impossible-to-completely-get-rid-of species of sometimes delicious, sometimes pungent herb strike you as an apt metaphor for the religious tradition that, on one level or another, binds us all?