A Home for Everyone
What are we to do when a parable of Jesus gets the facts wrong? The mustard seed doesn’t take the prize as the smallest seed in the world. That honor goes to the orchid. We could think that Jeus was using the best available local knowledge of the time. But what happens when new evidence, from science, for example, shows that something in the Bible is not true?
In earlier times, such discoveries sent waves of excitement through atheists determined to disprove God by disproving the Bible. Such trivial pursuit no longer really matters as people have found more compelling reasons to not believe in Church or God. Only places like Answers in Genesis keep attempting to drive a round peg into a square hole.
Creationists are obsessed with what they perceive as any attack on the literal truth of the Bible by evolutionists and old-earth creationists. As Answers in Genesis writer, Harry F. Sanders claims, “In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus calls it the smallest seed. But was it really? Both evolutionists and old-earth creationists latch onto this parable, evolutionists to discredit the Bible entirely, and old-earth creationists to prove that the Bible does not have to be taken literally. Both approaches attempt to undermine the authority of God’s Word and challenge the foundation upon which the Christian faith is based.” Sanders proceeds to make a literalistic mountain out of the mustard seed. At no point does he even approach the visual metaphorical truth of the parable. The biblical text becomes a sacrificial lamb on the altar of literalism. Extra-biblical materials supersede the truth of Jesus.
The parable is not a botany lesson. The truth of the parable doesn’t depend upon the size of the seed or the size of the tree. The defenders of biblical literalism claim that progressives are attacking the authority of Scripture, when in fact, we are only challenging the validity of literalism.
Ideas about mustard that congregate in my mind are nothing like the tortured explanations of Sanders. I think hot dogs and baseball. I think yellow mustard on my ham sandwich, Dijon mustard, and of course, Grey Poupon because the ad offers us a Rolls Royce if we use Grey Poupon.
Mustards are bisexual plants, which implies that an individual mustard tree can have both male and female reproductive organs.
But this is not really a parable about all our different varieties of mustard. The kingdom of God provides a home for all the birds of the air. The kingdom of God produces shade from the searing heat. The kingdom of God provides shelter from the storms of life.
The Tree of Life: A Home for Everyone
I have an emotional attachment to this idea of making a home for everyone – nesting places Jesus calls them. Major League Baseball, as you know, is my favorite sport. Baseball – God’s sport. The words of George Carlin fill my mind: “In baseball, the aim is to be safe at home.” That’s the goal of Christianity: safe at home.
Old Testament scholar, Ellen Davis says that holiness is hospitality toward God, living in such a way that God may feel at home in our midst.” Making a home for God and for one another – now, there’s a mission.
In Clyde Edgerton’s humorous novel, Raney, Charles tries to tell Raney that Jesus would not have a kitchen, a living room, or a bedroom. Raney, having nothing to do with Charles and his liberal ideas retorts, “Well he would if he lived in Bethel (her small southern hometown). No matter what your mama thinks.” While I may have suspicions about what it means for Jesus to have a house like ours, I still can’t suppress the thought, that I am attracted to Bethel and its down-home understanding of having a home. In a world were so many are economically homeless and where the churches have made so many spiritually homeless, I am for doing all we can to provide shelter for those who have no place to lay their head and no place to lay down their burdens, especially since you never know when your hospitality is making a space for Jesus.
The mustard seed serves as a conduit, moving the truth about the kingdom of God from an ordinary, everyday subject – mustard seed- to the truth of the metaphor – God’s kingdom grows from small and insignificant to providing a home for everyone. Ulrich Luz notes: “In Jesus’ parables we find, again and again, that Jesus’ parables are not simply meant to be theoretical. Their significance points again and again to everyday life: they ask to be lived, not to be grasped by the intellect.”
No Strange Birds in God’s Tree
There are no strangers in God’s kingdom tree, no weird birds. There are no strange birds. There’s a vision of a giant tree with enough branches and foliage to provide homes for a diverse and expanding variety of human beings. The vocabulary of God’s kingdom is not scientific in the sense of categories, labels, and division into species. There’s the human race. “God has made of one blood all nations.” Words like strange, stranger, alien, foreign, or “less than” do not exist in God’s kingdom.
There are a lot of strange-looking birds on our planet. The parable claims that the mustard tree provides home for all birds. All the birds are welcome. None are insignificant. Jesus is teaching us to see the significance of the insignificant; he is not encouraging a debate over the size of a mustard seed.
Everyone Has Significance
Jesus says there’s no such thing as insignificance. But I think we struggle with the idea of significance – of whether we count. Our culture doesn’t give a hoot about the insignificant.
We can feel like we are nobody in a world that idolizes wealth, power, beauty. Jesus accents that what the world thinks is insignificant really is significant. God doesn’t see with our eyes. David was originally left out of the lineup to select a new king. He was on the back forty tending ship. A nobody. Not even worth considering.
There’s evidence that we spend too much energy worrying about significance. The indicators are words like identity, significance, status – these are the issues we are fighting a “cultural war” to define and defend. Cultural warriors fight like “hell” to exclude some birds from the tree.
I have a scientific analogy for you. The smallest seed may be compared to a cell. Kenneth Miller, Brown University cell biologist, reminds us, “The cell is the smallest unit of an organism that is truly alive. The cell is the level of organization where life truly begins.” And it took billions of years for the results to be human beings. From a seed a mighty tree. From a single cell has evolved the human race. Good theology. Good science.
As the poet puts it,
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”