Mustard plants in Galilee (I think the sign says ‘no trespassing’ in Hebrew)

Mark 4 (NSRV). 2[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Sunday’s gospel reading, I was delighted to learn when we watched Sunday’s online service on YouTube, is one of my favorite parables. It’s the parable of the mustard seed — more an analogy than a story, really — and it first put me in touch with the historical Jesus in a way other scripture readings hadn’t before. More to the point, I draw encouragement from it because Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a common weed. Since I have weedy moments of my own, it suggests there’s hope for me, too, in the kingdom.

And, as kind of a bonus, when I looked up the parable in my copy of John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, out fell a clipping from a 25-year-old column of Don Wooten’s in the Rock Island Argus.

Wooten was quite a guy. Still is, in fact. He started his broadcast career in 1950, and at various times he’s been a TV weatherman in the Quad-Cities, an Illinois state senator and general manger of WVIK public radio on the Augustana College campus. Retired now as general manager, he’s still on the air, hosting jazz and Saturday morning talk shows, and he’s still “the driving force” behind a theater-in-the-park guild he founded in Rock Island. He also taught six periods a day in Rock Island’s Catholic high school and edited the diocesean newspaper across the river in Davenport, Iowa.

And occasionally he writes about religion for his column in the Argus and Moline Dispatch, which have merged in recent years. His 1995 column in the Argus, published on Palm Sunday that year, hit a home run with me, because it perfectly summed up what I think about Crossan — and the historical Jesus.

“As a kid, I always figured there was something dangerous about Jesus of Nazareth,” Wooten wrote, “that he was really attacking the foundations of human social organization and that ‘respectable’ people weren’t his true concern.”

To which I figure amen, brother.

John Dominic Crossan is an emeritus professor at Chicago’s DePaul University, a key member of the Jesus Seminar and the author of more than 30 books, most of them dealing with the historical Jesus. His work is controversial, since it’s mostly about the Jesus of history rather than later Christology that focused on the divinity of Christ. I think the subtitle of his book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant rather neatly sums up his approach. In an “Overture,” sort of a prologue to his prologue, he sets the stage:

He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.

Crossan’s Jesus is a healer and a teacher. He casts out demons, he welcomes everyone to his table — the academic word for it is commensality — and his ministry is a model for the new kingdom he proclaims. Crossan adds:

To those first followers from the peasant villages of Lower Galilee who asked how to repay his exorcisms and cures, he gave a simple answer, simple, that is, to understand but hard as death itself to undertake. You are healed healers, he said, so take the Kingdom to others, for I am not its patron and you are not its brokers. It was, and is, and always will be available to any who want it.

There’s more to it, of course. But that, to me, is the sum of Jesus’ message. Simple enough to say, but hard, hard to carry out.

Basically I approach my religion and spiritual life through the historical Jesus — that’s how I get around trying to pin down the incarnation and the Trinity. So John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus is my Jesus. He — or they — reeled me in as soon as I picked up Crossan’s book and read those first few pages back in the 1990s. Crossan’s Jesus was everything I would hope to aspire to be. A teacher and a healer. And somewhere, in one of his books I read later, he said Jesus had a sly peasant’s sense of humor. I’ve never been able to track down the quote, but it stays with me as I read the gospel stories and find that humor in abundance.

It certainly shows up in the parable of the mustard seed.

Before I read Crossan, I knew what mustard seeds looked like — my friends from India in grad school cooked with them — but I don’t think I realized mustard plants were weeds, not only weeds but invasive weeds. More recently, when Debi and I were touring the holy places in Galilee, a tour guide pointed out some mustard plants growing along the roadside. So, remembering Crossan, I snapped the picture at the head of this blog post. Sure enough, they were scraggly roadside weeds. (They’re the ones with yellow flowers in the foreground, in front of what looks like a barbed-wire fence and what I think may be a “No Trespassing” sign in Hebrew.) Anyway, I think Galilean peasants of the first century CE would have enjoyed the joke. Crossan explains:

The point […] 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 Jersus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses — if you could control it.

That’s the other thing about Jesus’ parables. They make you think. Often there’s something about them that’s disturbing. And always they give you something that doesn’t quite add up, that you have to chew on. Dude must have been a wonderful teacher!

Here’s something else about parables, especially the ones about the kingdom of God.

“The parables are poetic explanations of spiritual concepts impossible to comprehend fully,” says Fr. James Martin, SJ, my go-to guy on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. “The reign of God is far too rich to be encompassed by any one definition, no matter how theologically accurate.” So whenever I think I’ve got a parable figured out, it’s a very good sign I’m missing something.

This may be especially true with the parable of the mustard seed.

If I’d heard Jesus preach oh the shore of the Sea of Galilee 2,000 years ago, I think I would have been struck by Jesus’ reference to the kingdom of God, to “God’s imperial rule,” as the Jesus Seminar’s translation has it. (The seminar, by the way, concludes the earliest written version of the mustard seed parable is strictly authentic — “Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it,” which a member paraphrases as, “That’s Jesus!”). The seminar thought “kingdom” was anachronistic, more appropriate for King James’ day than our own, but their translation has the extra benefit of conveying to a 21st-century reader why Jesus of Nazareth was going to get in trouble with the Roman Empire.

Jesus began his ministry at Capernaum. It was a border town, and the Romans had a garrison there. So Rome’s imperial rule was a daily presence, but it was primarily a fishing village. Trying to place myself in the story, following a spiritual practice called Ignatian contemplation after St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order, I imagine myself taking time off from the family business — fishing and selling our catch to the fish processing plant in nearby Magdala — to hear this young guy from Nazareth who recently came to town. He had quite a reputation already, healing a guy in the synagogue who was possessed by demons and attracting crowds from as far away as Jerusalem and the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon with his preaching. As Crossan suggests in The Historical Jesus, I’d be going mostly out of curiosity.

When I catch up with Jesus, he’s preaching a little way out of town, next to the Seven Springs where the fishing is so good. He’s seated in a boat anchored offshore, and he’s telling those stories of his. Maybe 50 or 100 people are gathered on the shore to hear him, and his voice carries over the water.

Frankly I’m a little nervous when he mentions God’s imperial rule. Hoo boy, he’d better be careful! Herod Antipas doesn’t like that kind of talk. Look what happened to John the Baptist just a little while ago. So i’m relieved when he starts talking about folks planting seeds and plants growing. Safer that way! And he’s gonna start this new empire of his with a little seed that grows up into a great big plant? I like it! But he’s saying it’s like a weed? Now that’s funny! Instead of the pomp and glory of the Roman Empire, and all those damn soldiers and tax collectors in Capernaum, we’re going to get something that grows like a scraggly weed along the roadside? I’ll have to go home and think about that.

Which is probably exactly what Jesus intended.

Looking back on it with 20 centuries of hindsight, I’m not inclined to read too much into the parable of the mustard seed. The earliest version, that of the Gospel of Thomas according to the Jesus Seminar, is a bare-bones metaphor about a little seed growing into a large plant that shelters the birds. Mark’s version is a little more elaborate (Matthew and Luke go whole-hog and call it a tree), but they all start with a common roadside weed. Not only a weed, but an invasive weed that’ll take over your garden if you let it. Mustard has its uses (it even contains omega-3 fatty acids). But Crossan quotes Pliny the Elder, who liked its “pungent taste” but added, “when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.”

I think there’s also a whiff of down-home humor in the mustard seed parable. When I lived in the South, we had all kinds of jokes about kudzu, another invasive weed that takes over highway cuts, embankments and, occasionally, back yards and gardens.

“Kudzu should always be planted at night,” says a tongue-in-cheek home gardening tip. “If kudzu is planted during daylight hours, angry neighbors might see you and begin throwing rocks at you.” Here’s another: “The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn’t need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves when the kudzu starts its rapid growth.”

Is there a echo in the parable of the mustard seed of a first-century Palestinian kudzu joke? I’ll bet there is. I think it was a way of getting across the idea this new kingdom of Jesus’ — God’s imperial rule — was going to be nothing like any kingdom or empire the world had ever seen.

Left unanswered was the question of what the kingdom was going to look like. Well, maybe a hint or two. The parable suggests it will offer comfort and sustenance in its leafy branches for the birds of the air. Enough to leave folks thinking — now just what did he mean by that? — when they went back to Capernaum to mend their nets or cook supper that evening.

In other sermons — and other parables — Jesus fleshed out the kingdom a little more. But he still left plenty of room for interpretation. Just what did he mean by that? The kingdom is coming, when the sun will be darkened, the stars will fall from the sky and the son of Adam descends from the sky. At the same time it’s here now among us. We can’t say “Look, here it is!” or “Over there!” It’s right here, right now.

That’s the part that keeps me thinking 2,000 years later. What does the kingdom of God look like? I know what it certainly doesn’t look like. Rome. Babylon. Jeremiah’s or Bob Marley’s Babylon alike. Washington. London. Brussels. The list goes on. But the kingdom of God? What, exactly, is it? Where do I fit into it? And how? What does the kingdom call me to do?

From those small beginnings as Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed God’s imperial rule from a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, came a world religion. But am I any different from the folks who stood on the lakeshore and heard him preach? I still have to ask, just what did he mean by that? Rome and Babylon are always with us. And the parables are always there, too, waiting to be interpreted again today. What can I do to grow? To help others grow? To shelter the birds of the air? To heal and become a healer? To serve the church that grew out of those small beginnings in Galilee?

I wonder if Don Wooten had something like that in mind as he wrote his Palm Sunday column about the historical Jesus. It concludes:

All [Jesus] left behind was the memory of a new way of dealing with people and some sayings, all of which have been elaborated and interpreted in ways which range from the logical and necessary to the capricious and bizarre.

Afloat on the great tide of contemporary Christianity, it is humbling to look back at the tiny ripples which set it all in motion and to remind ourselves that we still haven’t gotten it exactly right.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get it right. But maybe it’s enough if we keep trying. Maybe that’s what was intended from the beginning.

[Published June 15, 2021]

Works Cited

John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranian Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), xi-xii, 276-79.

“Don Wooten, Host of  ‘Saturday Morning Live!’ and ‘Jazz After Hours’,” WVIK Quad-Cities 90.3 FM https://www.wvik.org/people/don-wooten.

Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 36-37, 40-41, 56, 136-37, 484-85.

James Martin, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 195-96, 200.

Michael H. Warfield, “Kudzu Jokes,” Rec.Humor.Funny Jokes https://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/90q1/kudzu.1018.html.

Sean Salei, SJ, “Father James Martin: An Introduction to Ignatian Contemplation,” America, Sept. 21, 2016 https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/easing-contemplation.

Don Wooten, “Lent Spurs Interesting Religious Readings,” Rock Island Argus, April 9, 1995, A5.

Marcela Zapata-Meza, “The Fishy Secret to Ancient Magdala’s Economic Growth,” Bible History Daily, Aug. 9, 2016 https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/archaeology-today/the-fishy-secret-to-ancient-magdalas-economic-growth/.

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