Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Kingdom of God: "a pungent shrub with takeover properties".

Doing Godly Play again with some kids at church. We told the parable of the mustard seed. Great fun - I'll blog some of their responses soon. Bizarrely it is one of the more disturbing parables...

'What is the Kingdom of God like?' asks someone.
'Well', says Jesus, 'it's like someone planting a tiny mustard seed, it grows, becomes a tree and birds make nests in it...'
(see the technical version here - it's in all three synoptics, and Thomas)

Not particularly profound is it? Surely harmless?

Oddly enough it would have been originally slightly unsettling. The mustard seed is an ungainly shrub that few people in their right mind would ever really want to encourage. It takes up valuable farming land and spreads like wild-fire.

The Mishnah forbade it to be be planted in anyone's garden (which, in Luke, is precisely where Jesus says it is planted). Although it can be used for seasoning, it can be poisonous in large quantities to livestock, and its relative white mustard can be toxic to the touch.

Nor is it a large plant - it only grows to a paltry 1.5m. Can this be the Kingdom?!

Commentators note that the references to the size of the plant and to birds nesting link up with several Old Testament metaphors for great kingdoms.

Funk writes, "The mustard seed is an unlikely figure of speech for God's domain in Jesus' original parable. His listeners would probably have expected God's domain to be compared to something great, not something small and insignificant."

Behind the image he notes the traditional picture of the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor for a towering empire (Ezek 17:22-23) and the apocalyptic tree of Daniel 4:12, 20-22. In Daniel, the crown of the tree reaches to heaven and its branches cover the earth; under it dwell the beasts of the field and in its branches nest the birds of the sky.

Jesus' implication is that his father's kingdom is not like a mighty cedar, or an oak, it is a deliberately counter-imperial image. There is no oppression or over bearing authority in God's realm.
Another writer, Crossan, picturesquely puts it thus: "The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed... 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 Jesus, 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."

(Quotes taken from this useful source).


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