Another attempt to short-circuit the parable of the mustard seed

Mustard still-life
Matthew 13:31–32 in John Dominic Crossan's presentation in the Essential Jesus (Castle Books 1998, p. 51).

The Kingdom of God is mustard
a seed small enough 
to get lost among others
a plant large enough
to shelter birds in its shade.

A couple of weeks ago I looked at the very odd saying of Jesus' preserved in the Gospel of Thomas. Given that I thought it was worth re-visiting another of his parables of the kingdom, this time the more familiar, and apparently easily interpreted one of the mustard seed.

But, 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 differently; his was a teaching aimed at changing our *whole* way of life, our whole way of being-in-the-world so that things in it showed up, shined, for us in not only new and different ways but also, on occasions, showed up for the first time.

In this parable Jesus makes us 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. It has come to read 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 very small and compact.

But it is clear that this ways of seeing what the story means - though not untrue - can stop other important ways of interpreting the parable from emerging into view. With this thought in mind 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, might usefully be recovered by us. 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).

We can turn now to a fine example of the art of short-circuiting in connection with the parable of the mustard seed offered by the NT scholar John Dominic Crossan. The first "minor" author Crossan uses as a lens to look at Jesus' parable through is 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' (Natural History: 19.170-171)

The second "minor" author, or rather authors, Crossan uses as a lens to look through are those who redacted the early third-century AD Jewish text, the Mishnah - this text later formed part of the much better known Talmud. In the Mishnah 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). There is a very high degree of probability that Jesus would have been aware of this teaching and, given this, 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).

Now, before I go on I want to make a distinction between the kingdom of God and religion which, in its various extant forms, has sometimes thought it was itself (in practice or in principle) a sufficient and complete concrete incarnation of the kingdom of God. (Naturally the phrase "kingdom of Heaven" is associated with the Christian religion but there are analogous ideas in many other religions and, of course, secular ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism).

The first thing that the parable as short-circuited by Pliny and Mishnah seems to say to me is that the kingdom of God and its pungent and fiery values (e.g. justice, love and compassion for all including those perceived as enemies) will always be perceived by those who oppose such values as a weed with dangerous takeover qualities. Also it may be said that, filled with a passionate desire to see the kingdom's values enacted in the world, it's supporters will always seem to the "powers that be" to be very much like unwanted birds in the areas of influence cultivated by those same powers. This is, I think, one possible and obvious reading of parable once you know how mustard was viewed in first-century Palestine.

But as someone once wisely quipped, although Jesus promised the world the kingdom of God, what the world actually got was the Church. It did not get the kingdom but, instead, got religion.

So, what might the parable say to religious communities and traditions in our contemporary secular, civic culture whose members are still trying to express and help actually to bring about the kingdom of God in the world? I think that our own secular Western culture helps to bring out another possible reading that stands as a necessary warning. Here's what I mean.

The first thing the parable suggests to me is related to mustard's 'pungent' and 'fiery' qualities. Mustard is wonderful stuff and no good kitchen and dining table is complete without it. Religion has always had some fiery ideas and insights that over the centuries have contributed enormously to the overall flavour of the complex dish that is our contemporary secular Western culture. But it should be clear that no one in their right minds would want mustard (the condiment) to become, itself, the main ingredient of any meal. What is true of mustard seems to me true about religion. I'll return to this thought in a moment.

The second thing the parable suggests to me 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 society has an innate tendency to want to impose on its citizens a certain kind of ordering and to cultivate in them regular and generally efficient ways of proceeding. This is not something simply to be sniffed at or mindlessly rejected; think of the incredible usefulness of laws that insist, for example, that we drive only on a certain side of the road and not the other. Also never forget the wonderful comic illustration of the positive aspects that can emerge in a society that is capable of bringing about a certain order and conformity given by the Monty Python team. You will remember that Reg, the leader of the revolutionary "People's Front of Judea" (PFJ) asks his members "What have the Romans ever done for us?" And the answer? Well, it was 'sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, public baths and brought peace.' But it should be clear that the kinds of societies which can bring such helpful ordering, cultivation and efficiency, when they are left wholly unchallenged, all too easily become synonymous with the promotion of values that run wholly counter to those of the kingdom of God. Religious communities have, at their best, consistently fulfilled the role of challenging every system that has descended into such dysfunctional patterns of behaviour; they have successfully sprung-up in all kinds of unwanted places - unwanted that is from the powers that be - and have, thankfully, proven impossible to get rid of. We have ourselves, at times, been such an unwanted mustard bush.

But this positive point brings me to mustard's 'dangerous takeover qualities' and here I can return to my earlier point in which I said that, despite it's indispensable quality as a condiment, no one would want mustard to become, itself, the main ingredient of a complete meal.

Fiery religious pungency is a good and necessary addition to the common Western secular table and religion's hard to get rid of radical presence ensures that it can always be ready to play a necessary corrective role in the life of our wider secular society. However, the passionate energy that is required to play this corrective role in our society is always in danger of getting way out of control; all of us know that, at times, various religions (or major expressions of that religion) have succumbed to the hubristic belief that what they have to offer the world should take over the whole of society and become itself the "main course". This tendency is even visible in our own liberal Christian tradition. So, for example, the leading nineteenth-century British Unitarian and Free Christian, James Martineau, once wrote in an essay on Joseph Priestley:

"Unitarianism, we think, must avail itself of more flexibility of appeal, must wield in turn its critical, its philosophical, its social, its poetical, its devotional powers, before it gain its destined ascendancy over the mind of Christendom" (Essays, Reviews and Addresses, London, Longman Green and Co., 1890 - emphasis mine).

All of the above leads me to paraphrase some of John Dominic Crossan's words I quoted earlier for it seems to me that formal religion (even my own preferred liberal form of it) is something, like mustard, that as a whole society we only want in small and carefully controlled doses - if we can control it.

To extend the food metaphor a bit (as I was encouraged to do by a member of this morning's congregation), what I think this means is that, in our contemporary secular, highly plural civic context, religious bodies must always be encouraging our own members and those of other religions to recognise that we are at our best simply different condiments which can usefully and pleasurably help flavour in different ways the main ingredient (the "carbohydrate" and "protein") that is Western secular, civic society.

And what, you may ask, is this main dish of "Western secular civic society? Well, along with Don Cupitt, it seems to me that "the secular 'West' is Christianity itself now emerging in its final, 'Kingdom' form" (from the blurb to "The Meaning of the West: An Apologia for Secular Christianity, SCM Press, 2008).

Many formally religious people feel that secular culture is, just like mustard, taking over society in all kinds of unwanted ways. But what if it has achieved this because in all it's radical plurality it is, in fact, a better expression of the kingdom of God, than any single religion - including Christianity in all its church forms?

Now there's a thought.