Mustard seeds and short-circuits


Given that we've been talking about it recently this week my head and heart has remained with the matter of what we, as a church are about. As we know one clear and present truth is that we are very small in size. And, when you are small but think you might have something to say that can contribute to the making of a better world, the kingdom of heaven if you will - and I think that we do have something to contribute to this work -, then the temptation is to think that a certain kind of numerical growth would be good for us. As a sign of hope that this kind of growth is possible we might be tempted to cite Jesus' parable of the mustard seed in which he said:

'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' (Matthew 13:31-32).

But today I want to push against this 'growth' reading of the story a little bit - not absolutely, as you will see - in order to reveal something else we need to think about first.

Like all of Jesus' parables, just what he was on about here was, and is, far from self-evident - indeed his whole teaching style seemed designed, not to offer simple answers to the problems of life but, by encouraging us to *look* at the world, his was a teaching aimed at changing our *whole* way of life, our whole way of being-in-the-world (cf. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value V, 53e) so that things in it showed up, shined, for us in not only new and different ways but also, on occasions, for the first time.

In this parable Jesus makes us to look at a very small thing indeed. But what most of us *see* when we look at this seed is really only what tradition silently bequeaths us. One important bequest is a long tradition of use which reads off the surface of the story a simple and straightforward lesson about growth - i.e. something which will be large and expansive begins with something small and compact. A second important bequest is related to the way Jesus' image has almost always been read in connection with other, similar, Biblical images - images almost certainly known to Jesus and certainly to our own church's founders. Good examples for those minded to look them up are Daniel 4:10-12, Psalm 104:12, Ezekiel 31:3,6. The parable of the mustard seed has, like honeysuckle or bindweed, woven it's way through these and other stories and, in a number of cases, become indistinguishable from them.

There is nothing absolutely wrong with these bequeathed ways of seeing because this is the way humankind structures meaning and worth, it *is* how we shape a world and it is the process by which anything at all can show up for us as meaningful. Anyway these two bequests, and more, have lead us to see the story today as generally speaking about a certain kind of desirable growth related to physical and/or numerical size.

But it is clear that these and other inherited ways of seeing - though vital and important - can obscure other important ideas and can keep them firmly unthought and, for a time perhaps, even unthinkable. With this thought I can begin to move us to a way of reading the parable that can help us see just such an obscured and, for us, unthought thought that, in my opinion at least, needs to be recovered by us before we can meaningfully worry about numerical growth. That marvellous modern encourager of unthought thoughts, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, points out that:

' . . . one of the most effective critical procedures [is] to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion) and read it in a short circuiting way, through the lens of a "minor" author, text or conceptual apparatus ("minor" should be understood here in Deluze's sense: not of "lesser quality", but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a "lower", less dignified topic). If the "minor" reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions' (Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ, Slavoj Žižek and John Millbank, MIT 2009 pp. vii-viii).

Žižek thinks that this process doesn't simply bring to light something new in the text or tradition, but also serves to make us 'aware of another - disturbing - side of something [we] knew all the time' (ibid p. viii).

(By the way my recent address about Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar" is another version of this kind of short-circuiting process.)

We can turn now to a fine example of the art of short-circuiting performed on the parable of the mustard seed displayed by the NT scholar John Dominic Crossan:

The first "minor" author he uses as a lens to look at Jesus' parable through - "minor" that is for Christians - is, in the first case, the Roman author, naturalist, natural philosopher, naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD). Crossan reminds us that Pliny wrote:

'Mustard ... with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.'

The second "minor" author, or rather authors, Crossan uses as a lens to look through - again "minor" as far as Christians are concerned - are those who wrote the second-century AD Jewish text, the Mishnah - the text which later formed part of the better known Talmud. In it the authors tell us that, because of its tendency to run wild, the planting of mustard seed in a garden was forbidden in Jewish Palestine.

(Mishnah Kilayim 3:2). That this is recorded in the Mishnah means that there is a good chance that Jesus would have been aware of mustard's tendencies and Crossan feels, along with the historian of first-century Palestine Douglas Oakman, that: 'It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus deliberately likens the rule of God to a weed.' Crossan, continuing to look through these lenses concludes that the point of Jesus' parable:

'. . . 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, but like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover qualities. Something you would want only in small and carefully controlled doses - if you could control it' (John Dominic Crossan, Jesus - A Revolutionary Biography, Harper San Francisco 1994, pp. 64-66).

It seems to me that this reading of Jesus' parable speaks directly to us as a church which grew to its first maturity in a tradition of radical Christian reform and dissent. Here's what I mean.

The first thing to see is related to mustard's 'pungent' and 'fiery' qualities. Mustard is wonderful stuff and it is an indispensable addition to the range of culinary ingredients. Basically you want it, you even need it, on your kitchen shelf and on the common table. We have had some fiery ideas and insights that have contributed and still could contribute enormously to the overall flavour of that complex dish that is the Christian faith and wider civic society (For those interested in knowing what they are here are two links to pdfs of Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Earl Morse Wilbur's books on the History of Unitarianism and here is a link to an html version of the text. Additionally, here is a link to a pdf of a very accessible address given by the Revd Dr Arthur Long entitled Look unto the rock from whence you were hewn which was very influential upon me when I was deciding whether to leave my journey towards the priesthood in the CofE and towards ministry in a Unitarian and Free Christian context. I later got to know Arthur very well and had the pleasure of working with him in a number of contexts.). Having said this no one would want mustard to become, itself, the main ingredient of a complete meal. I'll return to this thought in a moment.

The second thing to see relates to mustard's 'tendency to take over where it is not wanted and also that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired.' Every religious and/or political system when it gets into power wants to impose a certain kind of ordering on society, to cultivate it in regular and efficient ways. This is not something to be sniffed or mindlessly rejected. Never forget the question put to us by the Monty Python team, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" and always remember the answer - 'sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, public baths and brought peace.' But the kinds of systems which can bring such helpful ordering, cultivation and efficiency when left wholly unchallenged all too easily become synonymous with dreadful repression and coercion. As a radical dissenting church we have, historically, fulfilled the role of challenging just such systems that have descended into dysfunctional patterns of behaviour and we've successfully sprung-up unwanted in all kinds of places and have been impossible to get rid of. Not only this but all kinds of problematic birds - problematic, of course, for the powers that be - have found good homes in our branches; literally thousands upon thousands of religious and social reformers (here is a link to a pdf of Raymond Holt's The Unitarian Contribution to Social Progress in England) have flown from nests in our boughs down into the fields of humankind to do their freeing and liberating work.

The third thing to see relates to mustard's 'dangerous takeover qualities' and here we find a warning directed at us. Our fiery pungency is a good and necessary addition to the common table and our hard to get rid of radical Christian presence plays a necessary corrective role in the life of wider political and religious society. However, the passionate energy that is required to play this corrective role has always been in danger of getting out of control and, at times, we have succumbed to the hubristic belief that what we have to offer should become itself the main course. But, inevitably, we discovered that no one wants mustard shrub for a main dish. So, particularly in recent decades, we have slowly been trying to dilute our distinctive, pungent, fiery radical Christian taste in an attempt to become some all purpose universal flavour. The result? Well, to paraphrase Jesus (Matthew 5:13): 'You are the mustard of the earth; but if mustard has lost its taste, how shall its pungency be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot.'

This is one major reason why we are not growing - we've lost our flavour - and who wants to spend time growing and nurturing a useless plant? However, I remain convinced that we have a future and will grow to an appropriate size whenever we have the courage to re-embrace our historic role as a radical and critical but necessary and distinctive Christian guest at humanity's common table humbly offering our own very particular pungent and fiery flavour as a small but valuable contribution to the many courses that make up humankind's delicious common feast.

Growth remains needed but only in so far as we first remember to grow, not into a mighty cedar of Lebanon or a common weed, but a 'problematic' mustard bush. Let's sow ourselves like seed and bear fiery fruits according to our kind.


Anonymous said…
Radical? Critical? Surely that is the easy part? We can all knock down to a greater or lesser degree and point out the failings of others. It is easy to see the 'speck' in our neighbour's eye. However, the kernel of the Christian message focuses upon restoration and regeneration and a radical transformation of mindset as demonstrated by Jesus, that 'Jewish peasant with attitude' (Crossan). Surely it's the tangible working out of this attitude (practicalities and consequences) that should be adopted and then some sort of meaningful lasting legacy might endure?
Dear Anon,

I couldn't agree more. My address was, I should make clear, given to a congregation just beginning to address such issues. It is clear (to me) that Unitarian and Free Christian churches (and liberal Christianity in general) have over the last century become wildly disconnected from the practicalities and consequences of Christian living and I can report to you that it is truly a painfully slow process to turn around years of doing otherwise. However I am pleased to report that, at last, one or two people are getting involved in the local church who are prepared to get 'down and dirty' in the world. If you are local to this church please get yourself down here. I need all the help I can get.