For the better part of thirty years I have been a die-hard vegetable gardener, and probably a little snootier about it than I should be. In my mind, flowers have always been a nice embellishment to the practical task of growing enough tomatoes, corn, carrots, and potatoes to keep me going well into November, but nothing more. So it was a bit of a surprise for many of my closest friends when a few years ago I decided to get into perennial flowers. Actually, the choice was pretty much made for me as I had just moved into a small house in town that did not afford the kind of space or sunlight I had been accustomed to in the country. I could still have my vegetables, of course, but they wouldn't be right out my backdoor as in previous seasons. My backyard attention turned to flowers.
Being a novice, I was not sure what to plant, so like any consumer gardener I hauled out the seed catalogs that I tend to keep lying around – visual therapy during the stark and barren winter months – and, feeling a little like a traitor to my true calling, turned to the flower section. I was immediately overwhelmed by the variety, of course, but also by the dynamics of knowing what to plant, where to place it in the garden – the border or the back – and then trying to figure out when every last species was going to bloom. I was no longer engaged in gardening, it seemed. I felt more like a concert master attempting to orchestrate some complex floral symphony through four months of sun and shade, rain and drought, heat and frost.
I was taken by one unique flower – Zebra Mallow (Malva sylvestris), an apparent relative of the hollyhock. Perhaps more than any other plant, this little peppermint-striped beauty has taught me not only a lot about perennial gardening, but also about one of Jesus' best known parables. When I first planted it two years ago I was under the mistaken impression that it would be popping its pretty little head through the soil at the same time and in the same place for years to come. But it was not to be. What I didn't realize was that this little gem – whose seed is certainly not as small as that of Jesus' mustard plant (Sinapis nigra) but probably as prolific – would in no time become the undisputed master of my backyard. Like Sinapis, it is a reseeding annual, and reseed it did. I now have Zebra Mallow growing just about everywhere it's not supposed to be: in the borders, in the grass, in the cracks of the sidewalk, even in my neighbor's yard! Try as I may, I cannot seem to set my little corner of creation in order on account of this hearty little space invader.
My guess is that many of Jesus' disciples, upon hearing the parable of the mustard seed, probably had a similar reaction when they realized that a gardener was deliberately sowing a tiny time bomb in his plot. Let me try to place it in a biological context; think mint, or bamboo, or kudzu. If you plant mustard, it's there to stay. That's about as close as we can come to the kind of response that someone "in the know" might have had to Jesus' allusion.
But there is much more to this parable that we cannot even begin to fathom. In the first place, we have become accustomed to hearing about the mustard seed in our own relatively comfortable contexts and assuming that it is a compelling and inspiring metaphor for our personal faith. After all, doesn't Jesus say it's the measure we need in order to move mountains (Matt. 17:20)? But if we stick exclusively to this approach we only arrive at a kind of "camp song theology" – you know, "it only takes a spark to get a fire going."
Though the parable of the mustard seed can be interpreted in this way, I think we fall far short of its original intent if we simply stop here and content ourselves with having received another facile nugget of spiritual wisdom. This is no aphorism; it does not belong in a Christian fortune cookie. On the contrary, this parable is perhaps one of Jesus' most radical sayings, and it is unfortunate that the church has allowed its fuller meaning to become obscured. Indeed, its highly political and revolutionary tone may have been one of the fundamental reasons for Jesus' eventual crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.
In Jesus' day, Jews would have been immediately struck by the fact that it is specifically a mustard seed that Jesus identifies as being introduced into a garden plot. Many of the Am ha Aretz, the people of the land, to whom Jesus directed his teachings would have no doubt known how invasive this species could be, but being observant Jews, they would more likely have been struck by the unorthodox nature of the act itself. In effect, it amounted to an offense against God's covenant with Israel. Sowing such a plant in the midst of a garden, which was designated exclusively for vegetables, would have been a clear violation of the law of diverse kinds:
You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your fields with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials (Lev. 19:19).
Though this statute seems ludicrous to most of us living in the twenty-first century, the intent of the proscription was to honor the order of creation and thereby faithfully revere the Creator who had deigned to choose Israel as God's people. So in offering this allusion Jesus appears to be making at least two important points.
First, the Kingdom of God, which has been inaugurated through Jesus' teaching and ministry, transcends in an unorthodox and even absurd way anything that a truly observant Jew might expect from the law. A new covenant has been introduced in which the disruption of the old order has begun. Mustard can now flourish alongside like species, just as Gentiles can be welcomed into the Jewish fold. Whereas in the past the will of God was made manifest in the law, now the mystery of God would be made known through the peculiar grace of God's Kingdom.
Second, this new covenant will undermine the former dominion – and especially the oppressive aspirations of the most obvious invasive species, the Roman Empire – in the same way that Sinapis nigra eventually comes to occupy a field of wheat or a patch of vegetables. Try as we may to contain it, in the end the work of the Kingdom has less to do with our initiative than with our cooperation in God's grace and Spirit. Yes, the mustard seed is an inspiring metaphor for what our individual faith might accomplish, but ultimately its real power lies in the ineffable love of God and the redemption of all creation.
Finally, I think it is important not to overlook another possible interpretation for this parable, one that has been brought to light in Bernard Brandon Scott's excellent book, Hear Then the Parable. It is difficult for us to know the varying allusions that the image of a mustard seed might have offered in first-century Palestine. We have seen how the people of the land probably had a very intimate relationship with this tiny seed, knowing that it could disrupt not only their agricultural but also their religious lives through its unchecked presence in a field. However, as Scott points out, mustard had another important function among both Jews and Gentiles in Jesus' time. As the Roman historian Pliny makes clear, the pungent taste of the mustard seed was often used for seasoning, and not least of all for medicinal purposes:
Pounded it is applied with vinegar to the bites of serpents and scorpion stings. It counteracts the poisons of fungi. For phlegm it is kept in the mouth until it melts, or is used as a gargle with hydromel. For toothache it is chewed…. It is very beneficial for all stomach troubles…. It clears the senses, and by the sneezing caused by it, the head; it relaxes the bowels; it promotes menstruation and urine (Pliny, Natural History, 20.87.236-237; in Scott, Hear Then the Parable, 380).
In other words, this apparently insignificant seed not only wreaks havoc on the order of creation, as many farmers could attest, it is also invaluable in curing many of the ills that beset us as mortal beings. How much more appealing to think about the spread of this invasive species, this metaphor for the Kingdom of God, as a reintroduction of health and healing into our world. So often, as I have lamented elsewhere (perhaps ad nauseum to some), we conceive of God's Kingdom as existing in some nether realm where "moth and rust do not destroy," some heavenly sphere far removed from the drudgery of our day-to-day existence. In so doing we too often overlook our true vocation as citizens of this new world order (God's Kingdom, that is) to be a healing presence here and now.
So this parable is no simplistic allusion to the miraculous growth of any old seed; it is about mustard, mustard, and more mustard. Yes, we can apply it to our personal lives, knowing that even the smallest measure of faith can move mountains. But more importantly, we need to begin acknowledging its significance for our social and political lives as well. The inauguration of God's kingdom has begun, and through the creator's grace it will soon come to its full disruptive fruition. In the meantime, we have two roles to play. First, we must in all things act as an equally disruptive presence in the midst of "the old order," "the way things are," the status quo. But perhaps our greatest calling is to be what mustard had long been in the Mediterranean Basin of the first century CE, a healing presence. Maybe this was the original reason for the gardener sowing this plant in the first place. If so, how much more so should we allow ourselves to be cast as seeds of shalom into a broken world?
I have grown tired of trying to rid my garden, my yard, my sidewalk, and even my neighbor's lawn from the Zebra Mallow I so innocently planted just two years ago, and I know if I don't stay on top of the task I'll have more of the little beauties to contend with next spring. Mallow, mallow, and more mallow. But if nothing else, my experience has given me an insight into how Jesus' disciples must have reacted when they first heard that some foolish gardener was sowing that pesky mustard plant in the midst of his well-tended corner of creation. Ridiculous, they would have thought. Disaster. Certain ruin. Only later would they realize – and only a handful at that – that such is the folly of the Creator, bound by no clear covenantal logic, but intent all the same on sowing and harvesting the wisdom of the Kingdom.