"Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
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."
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples." Mark 4:26-34
Living in Southern California almost my entire life, and hearing the passage from the Gospel of Mark in last Sundays' assigned lectionary creates a ready image. The landscapes of our state often have vast patches of mustard. While there is a quaint bidding that says "may all your weeds be wildflowers" I have yet to encounter someone that delights in the presence of mustard growing in their own gardens. Perhaps it seems better than dandelions in the lawn, but not much.
This may be an apocryphal story, but I recall reading in a book about the Missions of California that Fr. Junipero Serra and the other Fransican friars would scatter mustard seed along their route from one completed mission, on to the next location, as a way of creating their own yellow road. I laugh at that thought today because I see the incredible ability of the seed to go in all directions. I wonder, how did they really follow that trail after the third or fourth season, with the wind scattering the seed to the four corners.
If the image now has you scratching your head and wondering how in the world Jesus would have meant the disciples to act within this kind of kingdom, it should. Using parables for teaching in that time was typical. In Jesus' case, its' use allowed the teacher to separate out those who were touched by the Wisdom of God from the average ben Judah, who thought in strictly literal terms. The added bonus was that it created a protection against the authorities picking up any scent of a trail of subversive behavior. While Jesus never took advantage of his ability to motivate his followers toward direct conflict in arms, Jesus was all about challenging his listeners to engage in self examination. In response to his understanding of God's authority over him, Jesus was trying to teach his followers about the enduring and ever increasing presence of Gods' Kingdom.
God, everywhere, and the Kingdom of God ever expanding!
This was revolutionary thinking for the age; truly a revelation about the nature of God and the relationship between humanity and the Creator of all things.
As I think about the nature of Mustard, and the mustard seed there are several points to hold in mind. The mustard plant itself, although Jesus describes it as becoming "like a tree", is in actuality just a simple annual. with a very short life span. It sprouts, puts out flowers, is germinated and quickly forms seed. The plant itself dies; its' "fruit" is never seen by the plant, nor are the future generations ever known to other generations. Jesus never used the image of a tree for the kingdom of God. While a tree puts down strong roots and has the ability to see the next generation at least begin the transformation from seed to tree with fruit, the mustard plant operates blindly, repeating endlessly a cycle, but never the same mustard plant, just yet one more new generation. It does so not knowing what will come after its' passing into the earth.
This is a solid spiritual truth. Except for the fact that we have longer spans of life, still we have no way of knowing the length of our days, nor with absolute certainty what lies beyond our final breathe. The spiritual life of a religious person requires the ability to follow a path through life that is often filled with mystery, and uncertainty; there often feels like some incompleteness for those who are programmed to measure quantifiable results. Such a path rubs against the dominant paradigm of the present age. We want fast, and certain results, no error, no mystery; only quantifiable results.
Our well developed abilities to intellectualize and investigate using scientific methods bumps heads with the spiritual path. Yet, in this present period of great economic uncertainty and global change, in this VUCA world, we all would experience greater serenity if we would abandon attempts to measure and quantify results in the short term, and appreciate the prospect of a much longer and fully retrospective view.
Since parables point to allegories, the mustard represents the disciples being an ever expanding citizenry of the kingdom of God.
When my children were growing up they always seemed to get a kick out of quoting lines from movies, shows, and commercials. With a very proper stiff upper lip British accent they could be heard "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?" at the oddest times.
They didn't even like the mustard, but they enjoyed hearing their own voices rattle the imaginary marbles in their mouths as they mimicked the gentleman in top hat and morning coat.
Next time you and I are trying to measure our productivity in the Kingdom of God, perhaps we should try to muster up the image of Jesus saying to us "Pardon me, pass the Grey Poupon!"