"To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?"
Sunday's gospel gives us two parables for the reign of God, the farmer's field and the mustard seed. The choice of the first reading, from Ezekiel, about the restoration of Israel after the exile, indicates that someone wants us to focus on the mustard seed that seems to grow into a tree. It seems that way also because of the responsorial psalm today, which refers to the proverbially mighty "cedar of Lebanon," an apt metaphor for the reign of God, one might think, as well as for the one who believes in God.
On the surface, we can glom onto aspects of God's reign that appeal to us: big things come in small packages, from small starts great things appear, God is in control and all is right in the garden. But it might also be possible that there are cracks in those interpretations, or maybe that by focusing on them, we are missing important truths that Jesus is trying to communicate, to help us break out of our competitive nature, of being-in-rivalry with whatever we see. Ultimately, we want to be the winner, and we suspect that, by being on God's side, we will be the winner, and that being the winner will make us better than somebody else. Maybe.
Bernard Brandon Scott and Dominic Crossan point to inner language in the parable of the mustard seed as it appears in the gospels (and probably appeared in Q, the collection of Jesus's sayings that was a source—quelle— document for the synoptics) to indicate that Jesus might well have been parodying his listeners expectations about the reign of God. In other words, it's as though Jesus said, "What on earth is the reign of God like? Well, you think that it must be like a cedar of Lebanon with huge branches that birds can nest in, and whose wood builds temples and palaces. Maybe it's more like something you don't want in your garden that grows there anyway, and grows so fast and large that birds nest in the branches anyway."
Other commentators point out the detail that the mustard seed was a weed, and that its presence was forbidden in kosher gardens, though mishnah from just a century or two later than the time of the gospels indicate that this was not universally the case, and that at any rate there were different kinds of mustard seed around. It's hard to hear these parables with peasant ears, and ears in a different culture, time, and political status at that!
Scott suggests that whatever Jesus might have said, his own language might have done him in, precisely because what we hear in the phrase reign of God is so subsumed by our notion of empire that we manage somehow to turn a subversive metaphor about a tiny seed, a weed, a forbidden plant, into a metaphor of grandiosity because, for us, an empire can't be any other way! Perhaps Jesus's intent was that the empire of God was "more pervasive than dominant." (Scott, p. 30) So the parable asks, which kind of empire do you want?
Sown in Caesar's field, in Nebuchadnezzar's field, in Monsanto's or Bechtel's or AIG's field, the kingdom of God is a weed that threatens the harmony of the pretender's order. But as Amy-Jill Levine writes, in her somewhat iconoclastic take on the parables (she relentlessly puts down the opinions of the very scholars upon whose shoulders she stands), one doesn't need to see the mustard seed as a "weed in the garden" either, or from the point of view that she calls "anti-empire." Rather,
...the kingdom of heaven is found in what today we might call “our own backyard” in the generosity of nature and in the daily working of men and women. We need not adopt an “anti-empire” image here. Better would be the notion that the “lust for big-time success” is misplaced. The challenge of the parable can be much homier: don’t ask “when” the kingdom comes or “where” it is. The when is in its own good time—as long as it takes for seed to sprout or dough to rise. The where is that it is already present, inchoate, in the world. The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do—to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well. (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus)There is a story told about a farmer named Martin who had received a parcel of land that had not been developed for farming. He spent years removing rocks and tree stumps, then weeding, preparing the land, plowing and seeding the field. After some time, he had a magnificent farm, aesthetically beautiful, lush, and fertile. His cousin, a priest, came to visit him in the summer, and after dinner they were on the porch, looking out over the beautiful geometric expanse of greens and browns. The priest smiled and said to him, "Martin, this is just a wonderful sight. What a beautiful piece of land God has given you!" The farmer rocked back in his chair, and with one eye cocked to his clerical cousin retorted, "Beautiful it is, Father, but you should have seen it when God had it all to himself." Another aspect of the reign of God, as articulated so well by Dom Crossan, is this: we can't do it without God, and God won't do it without us. The meaning of baptism is salvation by participation; we "opt in" to the life of the spirit, the life of service and enemy-love.
The reign of God is among us, we are "among" it, it's God's work, and evidence of it pops up every time someone refuses to take revenge on another person, every time someone puts the needs of a stranger or friend ahead of her own, every time we love an enemy, every time we use the gifts we've been given, any kind of gift, to make the world of the poor and the outsider better. The kingdom is not like the other political, economic, or other empire that makes a claim on our allegiance. When Jesus looked for an image of God's dominion, it was the lowly but generous mustard, not much of a seed, but enough of a plant that birds can nest in its branches. As he would teach without parables at another time, greatness in God's reign is determined by service, not power. The least among you will be the greatest. What is understood there is: the greatest will still look small. Being the one who serves will still be service. It will simply be revealed to be what it always was: a making-present of the unseen life of God, the incarnation of God's Word. The tiny seed may not grow into a cedar of Lebanon, but it will be enough for life, and it's growing and spreading, without being noticed, all the time.
If you would like to investigate the texts:
Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine.
Re-Imagine the World by Bernard Brandon Scott.
Here's what we're singing this week:
Entrance: Gather Us In (Haugen, GIA) or The Reign of God (Dufner, MCKEE)
Psalm 1: Roots in the Earth (Cooney, GIA)
Presentation: The Reign of God (Dufner, MCKEE) or O Agape
Communion: Within the Reign of God (Haugen)
Recessional: Thy Kingdom Come (Cooney, OCP)