Reading the parable of the mustard seed after Christendom

As I see it, a narrative-historical theology is bound to recognize that the collapse of western Christendom is a profoundly significant event in the story of the historical people of God—as significant as the exodus, the exile, Pentecost, the destruction of Jerusalem, the conversion of the empire, the Great Schism between East and West, or the Reformation. The story does not begin with Jesus and it does not stop with Jesus. Our theology, therefore, is unavoidably post-Christendom and should be aware of the fact: the context is not incidental.

For this reason I think that the Anabaptists, who have embraced the current marginalization of the church more enthusiastically than most, are worth listening closely to. Closely, but not uncritically. Anabaptists have been so quick to embrace the post-Christendom reality of the church because they have always been resolutely opposed to the cosy collusion between church and political power that began with Constantine. But this entrenched antipathy, like any ideological bias, can lead to distortions.

I think this was apparent in Lloyd Pietersen’s attempt to blur the distinction between the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus: there are good reasons why Jesus did not ask of the one what he asked of the other.

In his book [amazon:978-0836196177:inline] Pietersen offers further some intriguing readings of Jesus’ parables “from the margins”, readings which are “sensitive to their political and socioeconomic setting”. But I would suggest that here too what we are given is not so much a post-Christendom reading as an anti-Christendom reading.

A subversive mustard plant?

I have argued that the parable of the mustard seed (Mk. 4:3-32) functions within an overarching Jewish narrative of kingdom. In the Old Testament Assyria and Nebuchadnezzar are depicted as large trees in which the birds of the air make their nests and under which the beasts of the field find shelter (cf. Ezek. 31:6; Dan. 4:12). In these instances the tree is an image either of an empire which provides shelter for many nations or of the king who rules an empire.

In Ezekiel 17:22-24 it is an image for the restored kingdom of Israel. The exile was punishment for Zedekiah’s rejection of his covenant with YHWH (Ezek. 17:11-21), but God will take a sprig from the top of a cedar and plant it on a high mountain in Israel, and “under it will dwell every kind of bird; and in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest”. Then all the trees of the field will know that YHWH is God, because he brings low the high tree and makes high the low tree (17:22-24).

Pietersen notes the view of most commentators that this is a parable about the kingdom of God and suggests that this interpretation “fits well with Christendom as the triumph of Christianity”. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that Jesus is predicting precisely the fulfilment of the core Jewish expectation that a king would arise in Israel who would rule over the nations, that the family of Abraham would become a righteous empire, to the glory of the God of Israel. It is a parable about the kingdom of God, but not in the spiritualized “Christian” sense.

But why in that case, Pietersen asks, does Jesus not tell a parable about a large tree like a cedar? Why the lowly common-or-garden “mustard bush”? He thinks the answer is to be found in Pliny’s Natural History 19.170-71, where it is said that the mustard plant

has so pungent a flavour, that it burns like fire, though at the same time it is remarkably wholesome for the body. This last, though it will grow without cultivation, is considerably improved by being transplanted; though, on the other hand, it is extremely difficult to rid the soil of it when once sown there, the seed when it falls germinating immediately.

Not only that but we have just learnt from the parable of the sower that birds are a nuisance when you’re trying to cultivate a piece of land (Mk. 4:4). So what Jesus is really saying is that the kingdom of God poses a problem to the establishment.

The source of the interpretation appears to be Crossan (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, 278-79):

The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses—if you could control it.

That sounds much better from a post-Christendom perspective. Much more radical. Much more subversive. But is it what Jesus was trying to say?

Size does matter

The parable is short and to the point. The significance of the mustard seed, in the first place, is that it is the “smallest of all the seeds on earth” but when it is full grown, it is “larger than all the garden plants”. It is, therefore, a parable about size. The kingdom of God is like something which goes from being the smallest to being the biggest. Why did Jesus choose the mustard plant? Because it has very small seeds, which is not an element found in the Old Testament antecedents. No further explanation is required.

There is only one seed involved. The problem of eradicating the plant, which Pliny describes, arises only once the plant has grown and produced further seeds. That is no part of Jesus’ story.

Nor does anything in the parable point to the idea that the mustard plant becomes a problem to the establishment. Like the preceding story of the grain of wheat that grows mysteriously and eventually produces a harvest, the thought is entirely positive. There is no judgment motif, no suggestion of failure, no hint that the scribes and Pharisees might be unhappy to have such a plant growing in their garden.

The attraction of the birds of the air to the grown mustard plant may just be circumstantial detail, but in such a terse little story that seems unlikely. I don’t see how we can escape the conclusion that the reference to birds making their nests in the “large branches” of what Matthew and Luke will call a tree (Matt. 13:32; Lk. 13:19) in a parable of the kingdom of God would have brought to mind the images of empire from Ezekiel and Daniel.

What Jesus is saying, therefore, is that from the small beginnings of his ministry a movement will develop that will eventually provide shelter for the nations, just as the pagan empires of Assyria, Babylon and Rome formerly provided shelter for the nations. We look back on that now and call it Christendom.

I had also intended discussing Pietersen’s understanding of the parable of the talents here. It will have to wait until next time.