Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
June 17, 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 6B
Psalm 92:1–4, 11–14
2 Corinthians 5:6 –17
My Friends: A story is told about a young man who reported to his Freudian psychoanalyst that he had a recurring dream in which he always smoked a cigar. Because he was not a smoker of any sort, the man was convinced that the cigar must have some hidden meaning for his neurosis. Freudian psychology, after all, held that every object in a dream—especially in a recurring dream—has a symbolic meaning very often linked to some childhood trauma or inhibition. So, the patient and his analyst spent a good deal of time and effort exploring the possible significance of that “dream-cigar” with no success at all. Finally, after several fruitless—and expensive—sessions, the exasperated psychoanalyst threw up his hands and exclaimed, “You know, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar!”
Jesus’ parables often hold the same sort of fascination for preachers and modern biblical scholars, and this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Mark is a case in point. There has been no end to the imaginative speculation about the hidden meaning of the ground, the seed, its size, the shrub and its stature, and the birds in this particular parable. It ranges from Jesus’ opposition to colonialism and empire to a resounding critique of Judaism’s ritual purity code. And all too often, these rather fanciful explications of the parable tell us much more about the biases and concerns of the interpreter than anything about Jesus and his proclamation concerning “the kingdom of God.”
So, this morning, I’m going to take my cues from that frustrated Freudian psychoanalyst in the anecdote and boldly assert that, sometimes, a mustard seed is just that—a mustard seed! By following the method of interpretation used by the teachers and sages of Jesus’ own time and place, I propose to look first to the peshat, the literal meaning of the story in its historical context and, only then, to venture any derash, or interpretation from that primary meaning.
In Jesus’ agrarian setting, mustard was deliberately planted for two primary reasons: it was a savory used to add some spice to otherwise bland food—just as it is in our own time—and it was thought to have medicinal qualities for problems ranging from toothache, indigestion, asthma, and constipation to snake and scorpion bites, tetanus, and leprous sores. It was not regarded as an invasive weed, as some modern biblical scholars claim, and its cultivation did not violate any biblical “holiness” laws, as some others have claimed. If allowed to grow to its maximum height of about four feet, its branches might indeed provide some shade in a very hot climate, as well as shelter for “birds of the air,” a favorite biblical idiom for Creation as a whole. In contrast to the mighty “cedar of Lebanon,” a royal idiom in biblical literature, the mustard shrub was small in stature, but, as the parable aptly illustrates, good things often come from small and apparently humble beginnings, even if the mustard seed is not in fact “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” Apparently, that dubious distinction belongs to the orchid!
So, you may be wondering, what’s the fuss? Why would Jesus go to the trouble of creating a parable—intended to both reveal and conceal its meaning—for such an obvious and banal bit of homely agrarian wisdom? And why would he reserve the explanation of its alleged hidden depths for his disciples “in private”?
Saint Mark, I think, hints at an answer to these questions in the parable’s concluding statement: “With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it…” That phrase, “as they were able to hear it,” is the key to the riddle of most of Jesus’ parables, and it accounts for the need for private explanations to his disciples. Because they so often question, challenge, and contradict conventional expectations and received wisdom, they only make sense as we are truly “able to truly hear” them in their first-century Jewish context. Then—and only then—may we tackle the derash, the “interpretation” of the story.
When we apply this method to this morning’s “parable of the mustard seed,” we see clearly that it does indeed stand the conventional expectations of Jesus’ original audience concerning the “kingdom of God” right on their head. And, with some perseverance, and by the grace of God, the parable might very well challenge our own hopes and understanding as well regarding that elusive “kingdom” or reign of God.
We know that in first-century CE Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, many of the Jewish people were “looking for the redemption of Israel”—understood as its land and its people—from centuries of foreign occupation. They were waiting for God to act in some decisive and final way to free them from their oppressors and to fulfill God’s covenantal promise to restore the sovereignty of the Jewish people in their ancestral land. In addition, many of them also expected God to make this political restoration the opening act of God’s providential plan to restore and to consummate God’s whole Creation by bringing “the nations,” the “Gentiles,” into the blessing God had promised to bestow on all peoples through Abraham and his descendents. In short, they expected the “eschaton,” the “end of days” to come through God’s direct intervention. An “anointed one,” a “meshiach,” would inaugurate this new era of peace, justice, beatitude, human flourishing and, eventually, God’s promised “shalom”: the absolutely unique and inclusive “peace and righteousness of God.” This would signal an end to history and a “resurrection of the dead” for final judgement, after which “God will be all in all” in a “new heaven and a new earth.” It’s a bold and breathtaking vision of both historical and cosmic regeneration, and it ought to strike a note of recognition because it is—to this very day—the normative belief of all Jews and Christians. About this, there can be no controversy. How this will unfold, however, was and still is a matter of considerable controversy: then, in Jesus’ own day, and now.
In Jesus’ time, the Jewish Zealots and the Essenes sought to force God to hasten the end-time: through revolutionary violence, in the case of the Zealots, and by punctilious observance of the laws of ritual purity and Temple worship for the Essenes. The Sadducees, a wealthy and mostly priestly elite, sought to maintain the status quo by collaborating with foreign rule. In the telling words of the High Priest Caiaphas, “Better that one man should die than the whole nation be destroyed.” The Pharisee sages, with whom Jesus had the most affinity, encouraged prayer, Torah study, Shabbat observance, and “tzedekah” or “charity,” as well as the extension of Temple piety to the synagogue and the home. They were content to leave the times and details of the Messiah’s coming and the end-time to the will and purposes of God alone. Their motto, which found its way eventually into the Pirkei Avoth, the Sayings of the Elders, was “Be like the sons of Aaron the priest, loving peace and pursuing it always.”
So, when we hear the parable of the seeds in this context, it turns out that Jesus is telling his disciples—then and now—a great deal about the coming “kingdom of God” in his deceptively simple parable, but only as we are able to hear it. The reign of God will never come, according to Jesus, as a result of human agency alone unaided by God’s sanctifying grace. It is God who “gives the growth” in all circumstances—then and now. Our vocation is to scatter the seed of the “Gospel,” the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” by word and deed until the time of the great harvest in the biblical “fullness of time”—that is, God’s time. And, to those who would try to force God’s hand by using violence to usher in the “kingdom of God,” such as the Essenes and Zealots of his own day, Jesus issues a resounding “No!” through his parable. God’s kingdom is an organic reality and it grows slowly and silently over time. Humanity will never create any sort of homemade paradise through violence and war in our fallen, but not forsaken world. The murderous totalitarianisms of the twentieth century are a testimony to that grim realization. God’s reign will come through the working of God’s providential will in which, according to Saint John Paul, “there are no mere coincidences.” Our task is to spread the “good news” of humankind’s restoration in Jesus Christ, who reveals humanity to itself, together with God’s intention to restore and to consummate God’s “very good” creation in “the fullness of time.” We do this best, in the words of the holy prophet Micah, by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.” And we are summoned to do this, not through any spectacular, world-historical event, but through the humble circumstances of the daily and the ordinary in our own small corner of the world. God will do the rest. The holy prophet Ezekiel in this morning’s echo of Jesus’ parable assures us of this when God, speaking through the prophet, thunders: “I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
Because the “kingdom of God” is both an interior and exterior reality, Jesus’ parable of the seeds also applies to the journey of our soul into God’s infinity. Wherever the Spirit of Christ is, there is the “kingdom of God” in all its fullness and splendor. And it too is best understood as an organic and developmental reality, evolving by the grace of God through what Father Thomas Keating describes as the “four consents” that God invites us to make over the course of a lifetime: the consent to our basic goodness as a creature made in the “bet’selem,” ”the image and likeness of God”; the consent to use our human creativity in the service of God’s “very good” Creation; the consent to our non-being in due course; and, finally, the consent to our transformation. These “four consents” are only possible through the grace of God whose Holy Spirit is the sole director and sanctifier of our souls. “Fortunately,” Fr. Keating also reminds us, “God has a whole eternity to make us disciples.” Another great Cistercian writer of the twentieth century, Father Thomas Merton, captures the organic nature of the “interior kingdom” when he writes about the deliberate location of Trappist monasteries in remote settings in these terms:
Forest and field, sun and wind and sky, earth and water, all speak the same silent language, reminding the monk that he is here to develop like all the things that grow around him. He is planted in the garden of the Lord, and his existence now has one meaning only: to reach out for the light and truth and the waters of grace, to sink his roots into and raise his branches into God’s good air and breathe heaven and absorb its wonderful rays. (Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe, 274)
In another place in the Gospel, Jesus told his disciples that they were “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”: salt, which preserves and adds spice; light, which guides our feet into the way of “shalom,” “the peace and righteousness of God.” This morning, Jesus is telling us Christians that, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, “who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine,” (BCP) we are also like a mustard seed: medicine and savor that “becomes the greatest of all shrubs…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” We, Jews and Christians, are covenant partners with God in God’s still unfolding restoration and perfection of Creation and God’s perennial summons to growth and human flourishing. God asks no more of us, but also no less; and always as we are “able to hear it.” AMEN.