Reflections and Questions
1. Bernard Brandon Scott, in Hear Then the Parable, remarks that Jesus does extend the logic of Ezekiel 17 to some degree by changing from a cedar to the more lowly mustard shrub. The theme of God bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly is definitely a theme of this passage, especially in verse 24: "I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree." The overall image of God breaking a small twig off of a mighty cedar to plant his own also conveys the lifting up of the lowly. Jesus seemingly furthers this trend by substituting a bush for a tree (though Q was apparently uncomfortable with this substitution, as shown by the transformation of the mustard bush into a "tree" in Matthew and Luke).
2. This passage speaks to the wisdom of the Catholic lectionary in matching First Lessons to the Gospel. In my comments on the Gospel, I present the Parable of the Mustard Seed as a joke, a joke that would be difficult to get without Ezekiel 17 in the background.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13), 14-17
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 124-125. In a section on Jewish life and life according to the flesh, Hamerton-Kelly gives a paraphrase of 2 Cor 15:16-17 as follows:
We once saw everyone in terms of whether they were Jew or Gentile, whether, if Jews, they obeyed the whole Law or not. This caused us to kill Christ and persecute Christians. Now that is no longer possible for us, because in Christ the new creation has come, and the chief mark of the new creation is reconciliation between God and humanity whose sign is reconciliation between Jew and gentile.A related remark can be found on p. 160:
A grand soteriological category like "new creation" therefore has as its practical application a way of reading Torah that at last enables one to see its revelation as the disclosure of sacred violence and the command for agape love.2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 69-70. In a very interesting point, Hamerton-Kelly uses 2 Cor 5:14 in talking about a "redefinition of the meaning of sacrificial terms." The point of mimesis in the scapegoating/sacrificial events generally comes before the victimization; it comes with the mimicking of the accusatory gesture that leads to a victimization. But with Christ the point of mimesis is with the victim himself!
Reflections and Questions
1. I wish this passage went one more verse into the "ministry of reconciliation." I may go one more verse in my sermon, anyway. I'm considering bringing in "Generation X" as an example of the birds who have come to nest in the mustard bush. As the Paraclete has brought the kingdom to branch from the seed, one of the marks of Generation X has been a high degree of tolerance for those who are different. Greater tolerance is, I think, an effect of the growing kingdom of God, the work of the Paraclete. But there is still a vast difference between tolerance and a ministry of reconciliation. It is akin to the difference between birds who come roost in the branches of a mustard bush and a farmer who sows it and cares for it. Without the intentionality, today's tolerance for some folks may turn into tomorrow's intolerance for someone else; the bird may simply take flight and roost on someone else's branch (namely, a branch under the care and nurturing of Satan). In fact, a case may be made for this happening to Generation X's parents. The baby boomers were iconoclasts in the 60's and gave up many of the previous generations divisions between peoples -- only to take up their own later on. And so each generation comes to roost in the branches of this growing bush at one time or another. The real difference comes in intentionally caring for the bush; that's the difference between tolerance and a "ministry of reconciliation."
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 83ff., provides a helpful overall viewpoint on the parables.
2. Bernard Brandon Scott's Hear
Then the Parable, chapter 19, is my favorite
commentary on the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Much of my
commentary has been informed by it.
3. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia
Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, "Say to This Mountain": Mark's
Story of Discipleship, Ch. 5, "Sowing Hope." On the
parables in general, Myrs and his team write:
Parables have typically been preached in North American churches as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” That, however, is exactly what they are not. Rather, Jesus is describing the sovereignty of God in the most concrete possible terms, using images any illiterate peasant could understand. The genius of parables is that they offer recognizable scenarios, drawing listeners in, then throw surprise twists in order to challenge listeners’ assumptions about what is possible. Jesus no doubt struggled to explain his vision because it was so much at odds with the prevailing order and thus with the expectations of his audience. (p. 39)A strong theme in this book is that Jesus came to begin fulfilling the Jubilee, the prophetic call to cancel debt every fifty years. On this section of parables, after elaborating Old Testament parables about trees (including Ezekiel 1), they write:
Jesus’ allusion to this tree-parable tradition in his conclusion, then, places the entire sermon firmly in an anti-imperial context. In Mark’s time, Judea was once again a tiny client-state being “fed by the streams flowing from” the imperial center of Rome (see Ezekiel 31:4). And, within Palestine, Mark’s community was a small, persecuted minority. What chance did followers of Jesus have against the power of the Judean Temple-state, much less against that of Rome? The parable of the mustard seed proposes exactly such a mismatch: “All the trees of the field shall know that I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree” (Ezekiel 17:24).
With such parables, Jesus “spoke the Word to them,” carefully interpreting their political allusions to his disciples (Mark 4:33f). This Jesus is no guru dispensing arcane secrets, pedantic theology, or pious platitudes. He is a popular educator using language that peasants can understand, images they can relate to from their experience, and stories which portray them as subjects of the sovereignty of God. In so doing he sows hope among them, insisting that the tall trees can be brought down and that the smallest of seeds will bear Jubilary fruit. (p. 44)
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred,
5. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2015, titled "New Things Have Arrived."
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2015 I was more heavily influenced by Myers'
reading of Mark (above), which is to understand the prophetic
critique of empire. Is Jesus half-joking in using the image of a
mustard bush to lampoon empire a sow seeds of hope for their
small, persecuted community? A dominant image for me became
people's live who feel like weeds in someone else's garden. Our
youth were preparing to go to the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit
in July, and part of the preparation was to try to understand
white power and privilege due to racism -- and to understand how
many people in Detroit can feel like weeds in someone else's
garden, the flip-side of privilege. They were going to help sow
seeds of hope to the people of Detroit. But are we as white
suburbanites open to the seeds of hope already sown there? To the
gift of reading Mark's Good News from their perspective, as a call
to repentance from privilege and lives of compassionate solidarity
with the poor and marginalized? The sermon, "Helping to Sow Seeds of Hope,"
was extemporized from PowerPoint slides with embedded video clips
about white privilege.
2. Last week (Proper 5B) I suggested that a good translation for "parable" in Mark would be "riddle." This week, I'd like to suggest that the Parable of the Mustard Seed is a humorous riddle, if not a joke (link to sermon on this theme entitled "Parable Power"). Unfortunately, for the 20th century person, it fits into that joke-response category of, "I guess you had to be there." We don't get it. It does at least help to read Ezekiel 17 only minutes before, but we still tend to listen to scripture with our 'serious ears' on, so we probably miss the rather burlesque element of Jesus changing Ezekiel's metaphor for the kingdom of God from the mighty cedar tree to that greatest of all ... shrubs!
Moreover, this is the mustard shrub Jesus is talking about, so most of us modern city dwellers don't realize that this farmer is also sowing a weed into his garden (if we take Luke's "garden" over Mark's more vague "ground"). Now, if we'd change that to something like a man sowing dandelion seeds into his lawn, I think we'd finally realize that this is a joke.
It is a joke, of course, with a serious message behind it. But the vehicle of a joke is more gracious than that of a diatribe. These series of parables began with the Parable of Satan casting out Satan, last week's text, which is closer to a diatribe, though in riddle form it tends to be 'heard but not understood.' The issue at stake is to either live by the power of Satan, which is the power of accusation followed by casting out, or to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the power of forgiveness (or to use St. Paul's word, reconciliation). The only unforgivable sin, then, is to not believe in the power of forgiveness; the only way to not be reconciled is to reject the offer of reconciliation.
We are faced, then, with a choice of households, or kingdoms, to live in. This week's parable of the mustard seed prepares us that this may seem, in the eyes of the world, like a crazy garden to live in if we choose God's. We will seem like weeds to the world, very out of place as we try to live out of forgiveness in a world based on vengeance.
Yet we are reassured that these mustard shrubs will continue to grow and become substantial. After two thousand years how substantial is this shrub? In what ways has the power of the Holy Spirit shaped this world we live in? (See the suggestions above, concerning Generation X, under the Second Lesson.) I think we are called not to just come roost in this shrub's branches but to join with the sower in caring for it and seeing to its spreading. We are called to a ministry of reconciliation in a world based on conflict. To that world those who accept the call must seem like weeds that best be "destroyed" (which, of course, is Mark's word in 3:6 for what the world would try to do to Jesus).
3. When Easter is mid-April, we miss the Gospel for Proper 5, "the Parable of Satan Casting Out Satan," one of the most important passages for interpreting Mark according to mimetic theory. See last week's page.
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