Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mustard seeds within us

If you've been reading the Daily Office lately you might conclude Jesus has an inordinate fondness for small things like yeast and seeds and small coins. On Friday came a string of these parables, including one of the most familiar: the story of the mustard seed, from Matthew 13:31-35. Here it is in full:
“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ ”
I once wrote a seminary paper, that was very well received, on the parable, putting forth the proposition that the parable is something of an inside joke. Jesus is making fun of the pomposity of the Temple priests who compare to the Temple to the mighty “cedars of Lebanon,” a building so tall that birds nest in its branches.

It helps to know that in the 1st century world of Jesus, a mustard plant was not a lovely condiment for hotdogs. Mustard seeds grew into big bushes that were the scourge of neatly growing grain fields. Mustard was a weed, and not welcome in the grain fields.

By comparing the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed that grows like a weed, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is unpredictable, surprising, not always respectable – and like the Holy Spirit, will grow where it will and invade the neat rows of grain. The point of the parable was not just the seed; it was the weed that grew from it. The Kingdom of God doesn't follow human rules and is seldom neat. For those excluded from the Temple and the restrictions of the priests, this was a satirical story. The story doubtlessly scandalized the Temple authorities. Who was Jesus to compare their grandiose Temple to a weed?

There is another way to hear the parable as well that is perhaps so obvious that I have not thought of it until recently. You can hear the parable of the mustard seed as a metaphor for the interior spiritual life. God’s spirit grows in unpredictable, surprising and not always respectable ways within us. The Holy Spirit grows where it will within us, and sometimes makes us uncomfortable by invading the neat rows of grain in our life. It is why the interior life can be unsettling, but also a great adventure if we are open to it. Small things do grow within us, and not always as we expect.

Yesterday, retired Bishop Steven Charleston of Alaska, as he is likes to do, posted a bit of wisdom on his Facebook page. Here is the one from Friday, and I leave it with you here today:
“An answer to your prayer is coming to you. It may not arrive exactly as you imagined, but you will recognize it when it happens. The pieces will fall together. The situation will change. Something unexpected will enter into the picture. At that moment, you will realize again one of the deepest truths of human faith: someone is listening when you pray. Someone hears you, cares for you, knows you. From that tiny seed of experience great religions grow. But they all begin when an answer is received to an appeal as ancient as time and a hope as new as now.”
By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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