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Our reading this week is from the Gospel of Mark:
He also said, “The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the reign of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 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. (Mark 4:26-34)
The society for which the gospel of Mark was written considered mustard seeds an invasive, noxious weed. If a gardener did not uproot it from their garden, they’d soon not have a garden left to tend. Then, as now, weeds should be rooted out to stop them taking over, crowding out intentionally planted crops .
Other gospels describe mustard seed growing into large bushes with branches, or trees. But mustard seed doesn’t actually grow like that. We have negatively labelled as a weed something that ends up growing into a large bush with branches and that positively benefits those around it. We’ve classified as a weed something that is actually a fruit-bearing tree.
Let me say it again for clarity. Actual mustard plants don’t grow into trees. What we have in this story is something that grows into a tree. It’s not mustard weed. It’s something entirely different from mustard. We’ve made a mistake!
I think that was Jesus’ point.
This week’s reading compares Jesus’ new community of nonviolence, mutual aid, and resource and wealth redistribution to a beneficial tree seen as a weed-like-threat by the privileged, powerful, and propertied. The way 1st Century farmers viewed the mustard plant was the way the privileged and elite viewed Jesus’ teachings and the community of Jesus-followers centered in those teachings. They were to be rooted out. They were as welcome in society as weeds are in a garden.
But then Jesus takes a hard right turn. What people think is a noxious mustard weed doesn’t produce the same results as they all expect mustard to. It doesn’t take over the garden like a weed and leave nothing for anyone. No, instead it becomes a tree, a source of shelter and food for all in its vicinity. It’s originally viewed as a weed, but it does not bear the same fruit as a weed.
The image Jesus uses to represent his community, the tree mistaken for a weed, is from a story in the Hebrew apocalyptic book of Daniel. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was likened to a fruit tree that provided food, a resting place, and shelter to all. Jesus adapts this imperial image to describe his non-imperial community that provides for those the present system fails. Its imagery also communicates to those opposing Jesus’ work, “You’re working so hard to keep me out of your garden as if I’m a mustard weed, and are trying to uproot me completely, but you have misjudged me. My fruit is not harmful. It is life and peace and good for all.”
This week’s reading isn’t saying that all weeds should be welcomed in the garden or that we shouldn’t weed when gardening. It’s asking us to check our assumptions about what we have classified as weeds. What if we’ve made a mistake? What if we’ve judged something to be a harmful weed, but that judgment is quite incorrect?
The elite in Jesus’s society were beginning to view his teachings on nonviolent resistance and wealth redistribution as a weed that must be removed. And so he calls them to see their judgment as a mistake. What Jesus was teaching could lead to justice, liberation and ultimately societal peace, rooted in an expression of distributive justice for all. What they viewed as a weed to be rooted out was actually a tree of life.
Today, too, certain ones in our society are misclassifying life-giving justice work as something to be feared. We’ll discuss this next.