by Linda McMillan
Sometimes things are not the way we think they are going to be. They may be much better or much worse, or just much different, but it’s not like what we imagined. I suspect it was this way for Jesus’ disciples too. They thought the Kingdom of Heaven would be one way, but Jesus knew that they were mistaken and he tried to manage expectations.
Jesus was not a plain-spoken man, at least not in the way that we think of plain speaking. It was hard, though, because he was really speaking to two groups: The insiders and the outsiders. After spending a few months in Arab culture I am beginning (only just) to see this pervasive practice at work. The insider group, often one’s family, may know where the skeletons are buried, but honor has to be maintained for the outsider group. This often results in misunderstandings.
In the reading about the mustard seed, Jesus is telling the disciples, his insider group, that the Kingdom of Heaven is not like they imagine, but he is allowing the outsiders to continue thinking whatever they want. As outsiders, it’s confusing for us because the metaphorical power of big trees and middle-eastern agricultural practices are foreign to most of us.
The Holy Spirit is always at work to bring us into the insider group, to help us understand, but most of us remain perplexed.
No pixels have been spared in attempts to explain that trees were often used to talk about other things. In the very beginning, our origin story, for example, there was the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. These trees have meaning related to how humans relate to the world, to beauty, and to God.
When Abraham left Ur he traveled as far as the great tree of Moreh. Morea means teacher. There might not have even been a tree there, but surely there was a teacher, if not a school.
There are the great cedars of Lebanon which were perfect for building: Tall, strong, impervious to insects, and free of knots, but at 120 feet tall and 40 feet around, they also reached right up to Heaven where God was.
Oak trees have a much different, but equally spiritual, meaning. We find idols buried under oak trees, heathens worshipped in oak groves, and Absalom died when he got tangled up in an oak tree, King Saul was buried under an oak tree.
Speaking of kings, King Nebuchadnezzar even had a dream about a tree. The dream foretold his demise.
The famous fig tree which Jesus cursed is not the first fig tree in the Bible. The first fig tree provided clothing for Adam and Eve and another gave a boost to Zacchaeus, Sycamore being a type of fig tree).
Olive trees are still revered in the Levant as symbols of peace and prosperity. Finally, Jesus was crucified on a tree.
Sure sometimes a tree is just a tree, but in the ancient near east, trees were also a spiritual gateway, a bridge between heaven and earth. And, in the case of King Nebuchadnezzar, they could reveal the future. This was all outsider knowledge, though. It may be news to some of us, but everybody that Jesus was talking to would have gotten that. Trees mean something.
The mustard tree, or bush, is not actually important to today’s reading. It is only the seed that matters. The passage just prior to this is clear that the seed and the ground, like yeast in a wad of dough, know what to do by themselves. We shouldn’t worry too much about what will actually grow from the mustard seed. Mustard will grow. That is how it is. You may tend the mustard seed carefully or not at all, still, all you will get is mustard, not dates or figs.
It’s the size of the seed that matters. It’s small. It is not, technically speaking, the smallest seed. Jesus’ listeners probably knew that too. It’s more outsider knowledge. It is, however, really small. Something much bigger will grow from the very small seed. So, we might rightly take this to be a lesson about how the small things matter. That’s a good lesson. But, if we read this little story with the story just above we can see that it’s above all an agricultural story. A seed is only a potential plant. To become part of the living world, it has to die and be buried, or planted.
Now, here’s the insider knowledge. It is only out of sight, in the ground, that the seed is transformed into a plant.
See, the dirt has meaning too. The first people were made of it, God entered into it, and things grow out of it. It is a hiding place for the soul and a place of transformation: Adam and Eve became fully human; God became a savior and friend; and, we too might become something. The secret knowledge is not that the Kingdom of God will grow into a great bush, but that it is mainly hidden.
Somewhere in your dirt body and mine are the seeds of God’s dream for us. The seeds know what to do. Some may have sprouted, others may be in full bloom, others may be waiting for the frost to pass, but they are there and we need not fret too much about them because they know what to do.
What we can do is give the seeds of our lives the nourishment of scripture and prayer, and the cultivation of community, work, and spiritual practice.
Take an inventory. What has blossomed and perhaps faded? Even the loveliest rose does not bloom forever, you know. That’s how it is. What seeds have become strong and sustaining cedars for you? Those are the things that will see you through the seasons. What have you buried under the Oaks? Is anything new starting to sprout? Even at the end of life, there is new growth, sometimes lovelier than any before it.
I urge you to learn all you can this morning about trees and seeds because all that is interesting and good. But, even more, much more, I urge you to spend some time thinking about what seeds lie dormant and hidden in the earth of your life. Even if it seems like winter, there just might be life in there!
Linda McMillan is traveling in Jordan and Israel.
Image: Pixabay, released under the Creative Commons CC0