Good morning Christians, Seekers, and Friends!
How are you?
Okay, so I have a question for you. How many of you here LOVE poetry? How many of you like poetry? And how many of you think it is a bunch of pretentious BS that nobody really understands but that we’ve been taught to respond to with phrases like, “Wow, that’s so deep…” or some other supercilious comment that lets everyone know that we ‘get it?’ We are the folks that snap our fingers at poetry readings. We are lit AND woke!
And as I trained as a Humanities teacher, I get it. I really do. There is this thing inside of us human beings that struggles with similes and metaphors. We want one-to-one correlations. So, if A=B and B=C, we know that A=C. That makes sense. But with figurative language this doesn’t work even though we try really hard to do so. For example, while we find similes a little easier (she smiles like the sun is clearer to us than she is the sun on a cold November morning), neither really pins down what it is supposed to “mean.” Today’s gospel from fourth chapter of the Book of Mark is a case in point. Chapter 4 is chockablock full of parables—one of Jesus’ favorite ways of teaching. In fact, in this chapter we read, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” Apparently trying to understand poetic analogies has been a problem for over two thousand years. But I would argue that for the important things in life – the things of the heart and the Spirit, it is never easy to truly understand.
As a species, we are always interpreting one another beyond the words we say—no matter how precise. We interpret each other through our facial expressions – both macro-expressions that remain on our faces from ½ a second to five seconds to micro-expressions which last only 1/15 to 1/25 of a second. While a freeze frame of either looks exactly the same – our micro-expressions are an attempt to obfuscate our true feelings. We also interpret one another’s body language; how we stand, how we hold our arms or use our hands—even our, for lack of a better word, auras – or the energy that folks put off. You could literally say, “If A=B, and A=C, then B=C and while you were doing so, different folks would have different reactions based on so many different variables.
The beginning chapters of Mark only contain one parable and they set the stage for Jesus’ ministry. We read of his baptism, his temptation in the desert, the calling of his first disciples, and his many works of healing and casting out of demons as he traveled around Galilee. All of his miraculous works were added to his spreading of the Good News of God in which he clearly told all who came to him that the time that the prophets had prophesied about – that John the Baptist had spoken was right here and now was being fulfilled and the Kingdom of God was near… But people were still confused or angry, or dismissive or hopeful. And we know that at the end of Jesus’ life, his disciples with whom he took all the extra time necessary to explain his teaching and his parables, still didn’t get it.
So, all of this last bit has been my apology for poetry – because I am someone who loves poetry. I love that poetry doesn’t seek to pin down an exact meaning when, as I see it, the “facts” are very seldom understood in the same way by different groups of folks throughout time. Our understanding of the “facts” of and in our lives have changed again and again since the time of Jesus.
But what about the seedy parables that we find in Chapter 4? Well, we might not ourselves, be from Jesus’ region of Galilee, but most of us, even my born-and-bred New Yorker husband, know something about seeds. And the imagery is still accessible. After first using a parable in chapter 3, vs. 23 and beginning chapter 4 with the first parable, Jesus gives us an extended explanation of why he uses parables in Mark 4 vs. 10: “When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that:
they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
Listening to these words, out of its context, it seems as if Jesus is valuing insiders rather than outsiders and setting a barrier between those “in the know” and those left out. However, if we look at this through the context of those alive in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime, Jesus’ parable means something entirely different. This might be surprising because the parable of the mustard seed is a pretty well-known, right? It’s one that sticks in our minds. And so, we’ve probably all heard A LOT of descriptions of, and explanations about, the mustard seed. What kind of mustard seed it is: (brassica nigra); how small the seed is (I’ve been known to occasionally pull out mustard seeds to illustrate it for folks who, of course, have to take my word for it as they are typically too far away to see); so we get a rather large part of what Jesus is saying about the Kingdom of God which is, of course, that the smallest of seeds when sown grows into “the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Now I know that we have been trained to take the Bible seriously, (so seriously, in fact, that we can’t “read” it every day like we would a regular book) but this parable would have been farcical to the Jewish folks listening to Jesus! Jesus would have probably had at least a little sardonic smile on his face when teaching this parable because, to put it mildly, he was using a completely unorthodox example to illustrate the Kingdom of God. Our Hebrew scripture reading today from Ezekiel is the glorious vision of Israel that many Pharisees held. If Jesus wanted the Kingdom of God to be available only to God’s chosen people, he would have compared it to the lofty cedars of which we heard from the prophet. And Jesus makes that connection for us if we don’t get it, because he actually echoes part of Ezekiel’s text. But of course, he is using it the phrase to describe talk the mustard seed bush. And while the brassica nigra does, indeed, grow quickly, can reach heights of up to 10 feet, and is drought proof with the ability to lie dormant for long time periods of time, Pharisees and those observant of the law would not have planted this seed because the Talmud, the ancient Jewish commentary of the Old Testament, prohibited planting mustard seeds in a Jewish garden. From the Talmud’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 22, Jewish gardeners were not to mix different seeds together and since the mustard seed would definitely spread quickly and mix with the other plants, it would make their gardens unclean.
For the non-Jewish Gentiles living in Galilee, this would have also seemed funny because it would be like planting a noxious weed in one’s garden. Mustard seed was like an ancient day ragweed or thistle or bamboo that could overtake and choke out the planted crop and, as we mentioned above spread rapidly. Pliny the elder who wrote Natural History in 78 CE referred to both the plant’s benefits and its weed-like qualities when he said:
“[The mustard] is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
So guess what? God’s kingdom isn’t meant to be inscrutable for most a heavenly like a heavenly private club for the “cool kids.” The Kingdom of God that Jesus describes is something more ordinary, and yet also something that happens naturally and something that spreads inch by inch which finally takes over the whole field. Some folks might deem the unsown, uninvited plant to be nothing more than a noxious weed or a nuisance, but I wonder how the birds who make their homes there feel? My guess is they will not notice what we say about or how we refer to mustard bush. It is their home, its roots are deep, and it is one of the first plants to spring back to life after a season of drought. So, Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed upends our grandiose notions about God’s kingdom and our worldly way of keeping folks in their proper “places.” And as Matthew Skinner notes: “The reign of God will mess with established boundaries and conventional values. Like a fast-replicating plant, it will get into everything. It will bring life and color to desolate places. It will crowd out other concerns. It will resist our manipulations. Its humble appearance will expose and mock pride and pretentiousness… and as a result, some people will want to burn it all down in a pointless attempt to restore their fields.”
As someone who genuinely loves poetry, I am not too proud to admit that the first poem I ever loved and which led me to beg my parents to buy this touristy book of the Grand Tetons was not an obscure, stuffy and unintelligible piece of work. With an AA BB rhyme scheme, I guess some folks would deem it rather pedestrian. But it led me to Robert Frost, and Dr. Suess, and Coleridge and Shelley, and William Carlos Williams, and it expressed to my child’s mind exactly how magnificent God is. Perhaps you have heard it.
BY JOYCE KILMER
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
And maybe Jesus, if we listen to what he teaches us in today’s parable, would echo the words of another woman poet (Ella Wheeler Wilcox) when describing his vision for God’s kingdom:
A weed is but an unloved flower!
Go dig, and prune, and guide, and wait,
Until it learns its high estate,
And glorifies some bower.
A weed is but an unloved flower!
All sin is virtue unevolved,
Release the angel from the clod–
Go love thy brother up to God.
Behold each problem solved.
All sin is virtue unevolved.
And if these poems don’t fit your vision of “good poetry” maybe that is a good thing! Being lit and woke does not equal being pretentious and condescending. At least not in God’s kingdom. And if that is the only thing we “get,” it is enough. God is working on it for us….