Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Mustard Seed

Spring flirted with New England yesterday, showing just enough sunshine and warmth to make me believe that winter may end. So, of course, my wife and I spent the afternoon in the garden. A week ago, we planted peas. Yesterday, we were preparing beds for other, less hardy plants. I was delighted that the fall's hard work yielded beds needing little work.

This morning, we sowed seeds for a variety of plants we start under lights in the house. We'll transplant those near Memorial Day, when the danger of all frost has passed. Beets, lettuce, squash in many forms, these and a variety of herbs have all been tucked into potting soil, several hundred plants in all. Tonight we will plant flowers. This summer we plan a new bed toward the front of the house.

Some of the herb seeds were so tiny I could scarely see them. "Just like a mustard seed," I thought. The reference is to the parable of the Mustard Seed. Here it is, as rendered in Mark's Gospel, chapter 4, verses 30-32.

"The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is less than all seeds; but when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the heaven come and lodge in the branches thereof."

In point of fact, mustard is a bush, not a tree, but, like a fig, it can grown wild and harbor birds on intertwining branches. We have several figs which each winter fight off the deer. They stand like rooted tumble weed, defying wind, rain and snow.

This parable seems transparent to me, at least in part. When Mark wrote, in the generation following that which witnesses Jesus' brief career, the end of time was still expected, this all the more because the Romans had just destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem after a three year siege. But I don't expect the world to end any time soon. I am with Kant on the question of time: I am not at all sure whether we are in time or whether time is in us.

While the world may not end, speaking of the Kingdom of God may still make powerful metaphorical sense. Is there not present in the world something that draws us from ourselves? Call it living water, if you will. Whatever the metaphor, it seems obvious that freedom consists of more than the absense of restraint.

I struggle with the figure of the historical Jesus. For decades, I scorned the very topic, scoffing at the need for meaning, and, paradoxically, finding a sort of meaning in acts of mere defiance. But that mustard seed, so small, bordering on the unseen, it can yield powerful and sustaining growth. This parable reminds us that the world is indeed a place of magic. From such small, seemingly insignificant things as a mustard seed comes the power to transform the world. Perhaps it is enough merely to stand back and let blossom what will.