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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Let’s take a break from our OT sequence detailing the rise to power of the first Israelite kings, and turn today to the parables of Jesus. A parable is a short illustration of a moral or spiritual lesson; essentially, an extended metaphor, consisting of an image, an aspect of reality, and a comparison between the two. The imagery is usually familiar to the audience (that’s the reason it works!), but the lessons are deep. In the Bible, parables represent major themes, such as prayer, love, and the growth of the Kingdom of God.

This literary device is not unique to the Gospels, in which Jesus utilized it precisely because it was so in line with his tradition. His audience was somewhat diverse; yet, they had all been exposed to this form of “veiled education”. His Jewish contemporaries would be familiar with the OT riddles: The Eagles and the Vine (Ez. 17:2-10), Trees Making a King (Jud. 9:8-15), The Wasted Vineyard (Is. 5:1-7), Strong Bringing Forth Sweetness (Jud. 14:14), Poor Man's Ewe Lamb (2 Sam. 12:1-4). The occasional Greco-Roman listeners would know the short fables ascribed to Aesop, recorded in the 4th century BC, and later in a 1st century Roman corpus, contemporary to them. Together with our beloved fairy tales from many cultures, these are the first literary works we still teach to our own kids. The ones that are most enduring are such because they functioned as parables -- the important vehicles of indirect, enjoyable teachings.

Similarly, of Jesus’ own teachings, it is the parables that are the most well-known, most treasured by Christians and studied by others. They never fail to produce new lessons in each period of history and chapter of life. They inspired poetry, hymns, and visual art. Interestingly, medieval artists were preoccupied with only the Ten Virgins, Rich man and Lazarus, Prodigal Son, and Good Samaritan. But in fact, 30+ parables appear in the gospels, forming ⅓ of Jesus' recorded teachings. If we added to these his proverbs and metaphorical statements (e.g., "You are the salt of the earth”), as some scholars do, there’d be 60+. Most appear in Luke (24, 18 of them unique), 23 in Matthew (11 unique), 8 in Mark (2 unique). However, scholars disagree whether the analogies in John are, in fact, parables (e.g., the Good Shepherd, woman in labour).

There are also differences between Jesus’ parables and OT riddles, Aesop’s fables, and fairy tales. First of all, Jesus refers to real aspects of nature and daily living: there are no imaginary creatures, objects or actions, or talking animals. There are simple everyday scenes, such as baking bread, knocking on doors, roadside mugging, and agriculture. (Though of course, what used to be simple and familiar imagery in Jesus’ day might not be so for us!) Second, these images serve a role beyond constructing an analogy: according to some scholars, they actually bear witness to God’s work in the world (which is why they are from our world). The actions and objects in parables are, thus, sacramental, which means that they are the visible aspects of the material world that correlate directly with the important aspects of the invisible, spiritual reality.

Some parables are unique (e.g., the unforgiving servant, good samaritan, and persistent friend at night), but many more appear in pairs or threes, facilitating each other’s interpretation and building on a theme. E.g., the Hidden Treasure and Pearl form a pair of great value attained by effort; the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son are Luke’s trio of redemption; the Faithful Servant and Ten Virgins in Matt. and refer to the End Times (represented elsewhere by the weeds, rich fool, fig tree both budding and barren). The parables we read today appear in similar groups in every synoptic gospel: the Mustard Seed precedes that of the Leaven (Matt. and Lk.), and follows that of the sower (Mk.). In all three gospels, these follow the parable of scattering seed on various grounds.

These obviously illustrate the point that spiritual realities start out in secret, and grow rapidly from tiny to huge -- whether it’s about faith, Kingdom of God, individual communion with God, etc.. However, to me personally, they contain another, more important lesson: that of the importance of the collaboration of human and divine. The seed germinates by itself once in the ground, and there’s nothing we can do to speed it up, or make it happen if there’s something wrong with the seed. Yet, first, the seed will never germinate unless put in the ground by the sower’s effort, and second, its growth is both relentless if the conditions are right, and very fragile if something goes wrong. The yeast, the mustard or any other seed, and even life itself share these characteristics; all are sacramental of God’s grace as that being both freely available, and yet made effectual only by our participation. Many mystics and writers, and scriptural authors such as St Paul have written about it in similar ways.

A mustard plant, of course, isn’t a tree; nor was it a weed in Jesus’ time. But, if you’ve recently been to the Moccasin trail south of Lawrence, you will have noticed that this year, garlic mustard in Ontario is a problem. It is edible and has some practical value, but it rapidly covers the soil, and suffocates all other plant life that would otherwise enrich the diversity of the area. So does simplistic, rigid, conservative faith suffocate all reason, charity, individuality, unique gifts and worldviews. Here I’m thinking of the recent islamophobic killings in London, Ontario, and of course, all other hate crimes. Racism, homophobia, and genocide are all very much on our radar today, and for a good reason. But what could we do? Well, there’s, in fact, something that Jesus did that we shouldn’t do. His parables do ring a bit of exclusivity, an insider message, “those who have ears, let them hear”. Jesus had his own reasons for teaching in this way, but it doesn’t mean that we do. Instead, let’s keep at the forefront of our relationships with the world, and people, and other creatures, Jesus’ words from last week: “who is my mother and brother? The person who obeys my heavenly Father’s will is.” It is not the person who is Christian or Anglican, or has the same traditions or appearance; but, one who does his or her best to hear and follow the voice of God, and love neighbours as themselves. This message is for everyone’s ears, and hearts, and minds. Thanks be to God.