Sermon preached by the Chancellor, Dr Mark Hocknull, at the 9.30 Eucharist on the second Sunday after Trinity 2012
Earlier this week I was in despair over the Church, but then I read the gospel set for today and despair began to turn to hope. I’d like to offer an alternative way of reading the parable of the mustard seed from the one that we usually hear. I think this is a perfectly legitimate thing to do because parables by there very nature are open ended and capable of sustaining more than one interpretation. I suspect that is why Jesus was so fond of using them. They spark the imagination and continue to cause controversy even today. Parables speak around things rather than directly about them. We have to wrestle with them and puzzle them out to get at their meaning.The only parable of Jesus that comes with its explanation is the parable of the seed and the sower, found earlier in chapter four of Mark’s gospel. Even that explanation doesn’t take us very far into the meaning of the parable. So with this in mind, let’s turn our attention to the parable of the mustard seed.
The standard Interpretation
Normally, you hear the parable of the mustard seed interpreted and preached as if it were an allegory or a fable with a moral at the end of it. In this case: big things can grow out of the tiniest beginnings. This might be applied to faith: our faith will grow if we tend it and look after it. It might also be applied to our actions, no matter how small. From the smallest most insignificant of starts something big can come. God can use the smallest of deeds to do great things.
This always reminds me of the quotation attributed to Alexander Graham Bell when asked about how extensive telephone use might become in the future. He said ” I do not think it is beyond possibility that one day, there will be a telephone in every city in America.”
The power of the telephone has far outstripped the vision of its inventor, whose vision turns out to be rather limited.
Its not that there is anything really wrong with this standard interpretation of the parable, its just that it isn’t big enough. This standard interpretation does convey something important. It says that the kingdom of God and its importance are not always obvious. It can seem quite modest and yet exert significant and surprising influence.
My problem is that there is a world of difference between an allegory and a fable on the one hand and a parable on the other. Allegories and fables are meant to instruct, to teach and to edify. Parables on the other hand serve quite a different purpose. They are meant to overturn our expectations, to deconstruct the way we look at things, to cause frustration, and for those who stay with them to bring about transformation.
No one has ever been transformed by a fable! With a parable you just might be.
So while the standard way of looking at the parable of the mustard sees is safe enough, that’s just my problem: it’s too safe. So let me offer another, darker, perhaps even subversive interpretation.
An alternative interpretation
Whilst some mustard seeds have been cultivated and used as spice or as medicine for centuries, uncultivated or wild varieties can be quite a nuisance. Wild mustard is incredibly hard to control once it has taken root. In the ancient world mustard would only occasionally be found cultivated in a garden. It was more likely to be found running wild on the hillside or taking over an abandoned field. so pick your favourite garden weed: bind weed perhaps dandelions. for me it would be nettles. When we first moved into the vicarage in Meols, the back garden was small paved area surrounded by a sea of four foot high nettles. Try as we might we couldn’t get rid of them. I’d dig them up, pull out all the roots I could find, but still they’d find a way back again. This is the kingdom of God: tenacious and impossible to eradicate once its begun. It may not be a very pretty image, but it is a powerful one I think.
And what of the birds of the air that come and make their nests and find shelter in the fully grown mustard plant? Maybe its meant as a comforting image: birds finding shelter, but if you cast your minds to the parable of the sower, you will remember that birds there are a negative element. They come and snatch the exposed seed away before it has a chance to germinate.
So, I wonder if there is a less cosy view of the birds in the parable of the mustard seed. Could it be that just as the mustard plant when fully grown attracts all sorts of wildlife, some of it undesirable, so the kingdom of God as it develops attracts all sorts. And as the kingdom of God grows, all sorts of things begin to happen, not all of them entirely desirable. To change the image the Kingdom of God is a building site and building sites are inherently messy places.
The point is not that mustard seeds are proverbially small and grows into a shrub three or four feet across, but that it tends to takeover where it is not wanted. It gets out of control and attracts bird to cultivated areas where they are not particularly desirable. And that said Jesus is what the kingdom of God is like. not a mighty cedar tree, but a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would only want in small and carefully controlled areas in small and very carefully controlled doses. Only you can’t control it!
So what has this to do with hope?
Earlier this year a film called the Hunger Games was released. The film is set in an apocalyptic future in the fictional nation of Panem, where resources are scarce and government is totalitarian. The majority of the population is oppressed and constantly hungry, but the citizens of Capitol, the seat of power are wealthy and well fed. Every year teenagers from different parts of the country compete in the hunger games in the hope of winning the people from their region a better standard of living, though of course that never happens. The President of Panem explains that this controlled measure of hope that he drip feeds the people is one of the tools he uses to keep the people under control. hope he explains is the only thing more powerful than fear, but for that very reason hope is also a dangerous thing. “A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous” he explains.
It’s just a science-fiction film of course, but it seems to me that this idea of little doses of hope is exactly how the national lottery works. Spend a pound and you might get a few millions. The odds are against you, but some people have won. So while people continue to hope for a win, the world trundles on exactly as before. I was intrigued to read somewhere that this country had a national lottery in the eighteenth century, but what killed it off was the Methodist revival. As people found a deeper hope through the Christian faith, they abandoned the more shallow hope of a lottery win.
I would like to suggest that this is how to interpret the parable of the mustard seed. That what Jesus is offering is the dangerous hope that God’s kingdom is coming and is unstoppable.
Those of us who are comfortable in the world, who do relatively well out of the status quo of uneven distribution of the world’s goods and limited justice may well find this a difficult interpretation of the parable to accept or even see value in. But for any that have ever thought there might be a better way, then this interpretation offers dangerous hope indeed.