The little kingdom that grow: The noxious weed
Hespeler, 24 September 2017, © Scott McAndless
Mark 4:30-32, Isaiah 55:8-13, Psalm 92:1-15
esus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed is one that that gets brought up a lot these days in certain discussions. If you ever get into an argument with people – either on the internet or anywhere else – about whether or not the Bible is true and trustworthy or not, chances are somebody will bring up the Parable of the Mustard Seed.
The argument will go something like this: “If you really believe the Bible,” someone will say, “then what about what Jesus says about the mustard seed because Jesus says that the mustard seed ‘is the smallest of all the seeds on earth’ but that is actually not true. The smallest seed is actually a certain variety of orchid that is found growing in the tropical rainforest of Bora Bora or something like that.”
So Jesus got it wrong and the Bible got it wrong. The mustard seed is not the smallest seed. And if the Bible is true and inspired, doesn’t it always have to be correct? If we can find even one small error (like if it says that something is the smallest when it isn’t) then the Bible isn’t trustworthy. It invalidates the entire book because if you can’t trust what the Bible has to say about seeds, you can’t trust what it has to say about anything.”
Now, I am not necessarily one who is overly concerned about arguments like that because I don’t necessarily need for the Bible to always be literally true and the entire Bible does not fall apart for me merely because it gets a few facts wrong here or there. I believe that there are truths that go far beyond literal truths and mere facts and I often find those truths in the Bible.
But there is another reason why it doesn’t really matter that this passage gives us false information about mustard seeds and it has to do with a question of genres. A genre is a particular type of literature. You are already familiar with various literary genres. You can easily recognize, for example, genres such as fiction or fairy tale, you know what a newspaper article looks like and you can read the ingredient list on the back of your breakfast cereal box. All of those are examples of literary genres that you encounter every day.
And we have different expectations of different genres. You would get very angry – and rightfully so – if the ingredient list on your cereal box was not 100% accurate. If it promises that the package contains no peanuts, for example, and you’re allergic to peanuts, well, there had better not be any peanuts. But you don’t expect exactly the same kind of accuracy from a historical novel or a book of science fiction, even though you may indeed learn many worthwhile things by reading such books. So you really need to know what kind of literature you are reading in order to know how to interpret the information that it presents.
This understanding is a very important one to bring to your reading of the Bible because the Bible isn’t just one book. It is a collection of books and different parts of it are written in different genres. The Bible contains history and myth, poetry and prose, gospel (which is not the same thing as history) and correspondence and many other types of literature. To know how to read a particular passage, you need to know what type of literature you are dealing with.
So, when Mark tells us Jesus’ pronouncements on mustard seeds, what type of literature are we dealing with? Because if this passage were some sort of scientific treatise on the mustard plant, we would expect a very high level of accuracy and be very upset if it should contain false information on the relative size of mustard seeds.
So is this a scientific treatise? What would it look like if it was? We don’t have to wonder because we actually have an example of a scientific treatise on mustard written around the same time that the Gospel of Mark was written. It was by a Roman senator named Pliny (who also had a famous son so he is usually called “Pliny the Elder”) and it was an encyclopaedia of Natural History in which he included an entry about the mustard plant. In fact, this is what Pliny wrote for his entry on the mustard plant: “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. 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.”
So that is what a scientific entry on mustard would have looked like at the time when this gospel was written. And you could certainly argue that if Pliny the Elder had gotten any detail about mustard seeds wrong, it would have devalued everything he had to say because Pliny set out to communicate with that kind of accuracy.
But what Jesus was doing was something quite different. He was trying to teach his followers, as he clearly says, not about the nature of mustard plants but about the nature of the kingdom of God. So of course he is going to emphasize and even exaggerate those things about mustard plants that particularly help him to make the points about the kingdom that he is trying to teach them about – like, for example, the relative size of the seeds. It is hardly a problem that the way that he puts it is not strictly correct.
So, if we want to appreciate this parable, arguing over the size of orchid and mustard seeds is to miss the point of it completely. But what is the parable trying to teach us through this image? On one level, the point is pretty simple: Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is something that grows in somewhat surprising ways. That is a lesson that we have actually found in all of the parables that we have been looking at all this month here at St. Andrew’s. It is a theme that runs through all of the parables of Jesus that Mark has collected together here in the fourth chapter of his gospel.
But what particular nature of that growth is Jesus trying to bring out in this particular parable of the mustard seed, and what might it have to teach us about the life of the church today? Well, for that we need to understand the things that the people who listened to Jesus tell this parable would have brought to what they heard. And for that, it would be kind of helpful to know what first-century people thought about mustard seeds?
Well, fortunately, we don’t need to guess at that. We are incredibly fortunate in that we know exactly what people thought about mustard – that we actually have a scientific treatise on mustard written at almost the same time as this gospel. Pliny the Elder’s book of Natural History tells us exactly what the received first-century wisdom regarding mustard was.
We know from Pliny, for example, that they knew the usefulness of mustard. “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health.” They saw it as a useful spice to add taste to food and, even more important, as a medicine in various plasters and potions that they used as folk remedies for various ailments.
They also knew that it was really easy to grow, that it grew wild, in fact, as Pliny says, and farmers had even found ways of increasing its yield by transplanting it. But there was one catch when it came to the growth of the mustard plant. Pliny puts it like this: “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.”
Pliny is saying that mustard doesn’t just grow well, it grows too well. It spreads so readily that it tends to take over the garden and squeeze out any of the other fruits, vegetables or grains you may have planted. This was, in fact, common knowledge about mustard, not just special scientific knowledge. Pliny is just reporting what everyone knew.
So, did the people who were listening to Jesus know all of this about mustard? They almost certainly did. The crowd would have been full of farmers and agricultural workers who knew very well that you did not let a mustard plant take root anywhere you wanted anything else to grow. And I can well imagine that those farmers and agricultural workers and everyone else were scratching their heads and wondering why Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God was like the most notorious weed they had to deal with in their gardens and that Jesus was even putting emphasis on how extreme the plant’s spread and growth could be.
So what on earth did Jesus mean by comparing the kingdom of God to such a dangerous and generally unwanted weed? Did he just not know what he was really saying – I mean, we are told that he was a carpenter, not a farmer, after all. Maybe he just didn’t know how destructive a mustard plant in a garden could be. No, I think that Jesus knew exactly what he was saying and exactly how shocked people would have been to hear him speak of God’s kingdom in this way.
As I said, all of the parables of Jesus that are collected in this chapter of the Gospel of Mark seem to be saying the same key thing about the kingdom of God – that it is something that grows. Jesus is teaching that growth is as essential to the kingdom of God as water is essential to a fish. To apply that to the church, Jesus is teaching that, if the kingdom of God is present in a church, that church should exhibit growth in some significant ways. But Jesus is also saying that sometimes things can happen that get in the way of the growth that is natural to the kingdom. And so, in each of the parables in this chapter, he is telling us about the things that inhibit that growth.
So what could he be teaching us about what we sometimes do that prevents growth by comparing the kingdom to a grain of mustard? I believe that he intends for people to bring everything that they know about mustard plants into this discussion of the kingdom of God. He is saying that the kingdom of God will grow in this world – will grow wild and out of control just like a mustard plant in a garden and will actually overpower other cultivated plants.
So what, therefore could possibly prevent the growth of the kingdom? The only thing that could prevent it is the same thing that could prevent the growth of a mustard seed – if you never let it take root in the first place.
And, friends, I think that sometimes we do exactly that. We do recognize the explosive growth potential of the kingdom of God in this world, and we’re afraid of it. We’re afraid that it might overtake our whole lives. We’re afraid it might make us make changes that we don’t even want to consider. We are afraid that it will disrupt this comfortable little garden that we have planted by introducing into it plants that are different from what we are used to and might just take over.
First-century gardeners would have shuddered at the thought of introducing a mustard plant into their well-organized garden and Jesus was expecting exactly that reaction. He was saying that one of the things that would prevent the growth of the kingdom of God among us is our own fear of disruption and change within our well-organized lives and our well-organized churches.
I believe that Jesus wants the church to grow – wants this church to grow – as a part of the growth of God’s kingdom in this world. He wants us, like the mustard bush in the parable, to put forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. But, I wonder, will our resistance to change and our resistance to disruption be the very thing that prevents that growth? I believe that Jesus was worried about that very possibility.