Progressive reflections on the lectionary #22

Mark 4:26-34 Mustard seeds, birds, and all that.

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #22

In the passage from Mark this week we have the famous story of the mustard seed - preceded by a slightly less famous story about sowing seeds. The mustard seed story is famous because its colourful: Jesus basically says ‘the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, it starts off tiny but then it grows massive and birds come and nest in it.’ On a number of levels, the birds bit is a nice touch, I think.

In the first place the birds bring some colour to the story - they also operate as dual purpose signals to the listeners

Let’s begin with the first bit - the less colourful part. In this whole part of the book Jesus is talking a lot about ‘the kingdom of God’ and what it means. What we hear first in this passage is that it takes time. People who are saying “is this ever going to happen?” Have to hold their nerve. Change will come, but you have let the seed grow. So far, so straightforward.

But then we get to the more complex bit - where Jesus describes what the kingdom of God is like.

And this is where Jesus drops a bomb - because if there are two things farmers of the time don’t want in their fields it is the two things that Jesus talks about. First of all, the mustard seed - an invasive weed that just sprawls and takes over fertile ground, and then self seeds. What an absolute pain of a plant to have invading your fields. So that’s what the kingdom is like, an annoying pest of a plant that gets in the way of things.

But worse is yet to come - because not only does the mustard plant ruin the planting scheme and take up good fertile soil, it also attracts birds. Birds are not what the farmers want hanging about in their fields - they eat seeds, peck at young plants, make a general mess. So the arrival of the kingdom of God brings disruption to the carefully ordered fields.

But there is more meaning to be found too - most commentators are happy to accept that the passage is a call-back to the imagery of Ezekiel 17, in which God plants a tree that all the birds take shelter in. Where there is less agreement is in what this means - my view is that Ezekiel 17 is, like much of Ezekiel, full of messianic imagery. In other words this has to do with the restoration of the full house of Israel.

The more conventional (and thoroughly Christian rather than Jewish) reading is to say that the birds refer to Gentiles (us) rather than the lost tribes. It’s hard, I think, to get that from the Ezekiel reference - it takes some imaginative work to reach there from here.

What we have, then, potentially at least, is Jesus speaking of his view of what the messianic mission is - it takes time, but when it happens it is disruptive - unwelcome even, and it is in the disruption that the promise is fulfilled. It’s not fancy or impressive like the great trees that were used to symbolise kingdoms in the past, it’s a scruffy, annoying, weed.

As so often he uses the language of the dispossessed, the underclass - the non land-owning folk to say that ultimately fulfilment will come not through the order of legalism and tradition, but the subversive movement that he’s spearheading, and about which the authorities are (rightly) concerned.

We should also acknowledge the fact that the mustard seed parable exists in all three synoptic gospels, but differs somewhat in each - suggesting that there were two versions in circulation, Mark’s and another. In the New Testament, then, Mark takes it one direction, Luke another, while Matthew occupies a sort of middle ground. The parable appears, too, in at least one non canonical text. Taken together this evidence makes it highly likely that Jesus actually told a version of this parable, and that in his own thinking about the role of the Messiah, he referred back to Ezekiel.

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Image: Photo by Mehdi Sepehri on Unsplash


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