Saturday, June 17, 2006

Mustard, again

In the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian, the main character really wants nothing more than a quiet life.  Unfortunately for Brian, he was born in the stable next door to the one in Bethlehem with all the special effects – and spends the rest of his life getting mistaken for Jesus.  Years later, after they spot Brian unwisely painting some political graffiti on a wall – ROMANI ITI DOMUM – or, Romans go home – the local arm of the Peoples Front of Judea begin to take him very seriously.  The Life of Brian manages to offend just about everybody who isn’t too busy splitting their sides laughing – one of the most memorable moments for me, when everything begins to get out of hand with crowds of people turning up outside the house waiting for words of wisdom, Brian’s mum pokes her head out of the window and tells them, ‘E’es not the Messiah!  E’es just a very naughty boy!” 

Which is more or less where Jesus finds himself at this early stage of Mark’s gospel.  At the end of the last chapter, Jesus’ mum and his brothers have even turned up to take him home – his family thinks he is mad or even worse, possessed by Beelzebub, they’re trying to stop him hurting himself or getting himself noticed by the authorities – reading between the lines in Mark’s gospel the relationship between Jesus and his family at this point is pretty strained.  He’s managed to offend the religious folk and unlike The Life of Brian, nobody’s splitting their sides laughing.  Jesus isn’t reverent enough, he doesn’t keep the Sabbath rules, he hangs about with the riff-raff and tells them God forgives them without going through the right channels, without sending them off to sacrifice in the Temple (which, of course, most of them couldn’t afford to do anyway).  It seems Jesus’ early ministry hasn’t got off to a very good start, and he finds himself having to defend himself against some pretty strong criticism.

And he does it by telling some pointed little stories.  More to the point, according to some Bible scholars, he borrows at least one of today’s stories from another eccentric who rubbed people up the wrong way.  Ezekiel.

I heard somewhere that in the old days Jewish boys weren’t allowed to read Ezekiel, in fact, it was considered that until you were 45 years old you didn’t have the maturity to understand what he was on about.  I must be a late developer.  Anyway, Ezekiel seems to have been a bit of a madman.  One of the first to be carried away into exile by the Babylonians, Ezekiel writes that he’s sitting by the river Euphrates, in Babylon, when he starts getting messages from God for the folk back home.  Some of his passages sound suspiciously like modern-day descriptions of bad experiences with designer drugs, but basically his message for Zedekiah, the puppet king put in place by the Babylonians, is that he’s headed for disaster.  Zedekiah apparently isn’t too bright, the Babylonians have overrun Judah and set him up as a sort of lame duck king, but he decides to try his luck with the Egyptians.  Sort of like John Howard deciding to invite Saddam Hussein to give him a hand.  So Ezekiel quite reasonably informs Zedekiah that he’s cactus.  But here’s the point – for Ezekiel, Zedekiah isn’t cactus because the Babylonians are cross with him but because Yahweh himself has taken up arms against him.  If the Temple is going to be destroyed – as Ezekiel predicts it will – then it must be God’s doing.

We need to understand what Ezekiel thinks here, but we don’t need to agree with him.  Remember when some Christian groups tried to say the tsunami was God’s punishment?  We need to be pretty clear about rejecting that sort of logic that not only blames God for wars and natural disasters, but also lets people off the hook for their own moral responsibility.  Zedekiah is heading for trouble because he’s made some bad decisions.

But then we get to the poetic interlude, today’s reading from Ezekiel where he predicts – sometime in the distant future after Zedekiah has come to a sticky end – that God is going to restore Israel, not in the old language of planting a grapevine but as a mighty cedar – a tree on top of a mountain that’s so vast that all the nations of the earth are going to take shelter under it – it’s a vision of the end of history when, basically, everyone else is going to come grovelling to us and see that we were right all along.

You might have guessed that I take this sort of stuff with a grain of salt.  It’s part of the national mythology of Israel that doesn’t quite connect with reality.  Like Jesus, Ezekiel is prepared to talk about hope in a situation where realistically, there doesn’t seem to be much cause for optimism, and that’s a very powerful message.  It helps us to take God’s perspective.  But there’s a subtle difference between Jesus’ message – like the message of prophets like Micah and Amos – that God’s people are blessed when they learn to be a blessing to the people around them – and Ezekiel’s idea that at the end of the day everyone else is going to be at our beck and call.

So Jesus, according to some Bible scholars, basically takes Ezekiel’s boasting imagery and twists it around a bit.  ‘The kingdom of God is like this’, he says – ‘like a mustard seed – the smallest seed of all that grows into a mighty plant so that it gives shelter to all the birds of the sky’.

Well, for a start we know he’s exaggerating wildly – actually the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed of all, and the mustard plant really isn’t that impressively big, either.  So if Jesus is picking up Ezekiel’s image he’s poking fun at it a bit – contrasting mustard, a nuisance weed, with Ezekiel’s rather grander picture.

It’s like he’s saying, ‘God’s reign doesn’t have to be imported from Lebanon – when God’s power goes to work transforming people’s relationships it doesn’t even have to look that impressive.  It’s not something mighty or foreign but rather something close to hand and common – something you find every day out in the back yard – something that unpretentiously grows out of everyday relationships between unimportant and overlooked people.

And here’s the other thing – you get weeds in your back yard you’ve got them for good.  Back in the days before Roundup, anyway.  You’ve heard me talk before about the idea that God’s kingdom is weedy – wild and unrestrained, can’t be contained or tamed or predicted – Jesus it seems is contrasting the power of the ordinary and not very highly regarded with the majestic but fairly easily chopped down.

There’s something a bit disturbing here, for us as well as for Jesus’ listeners who probably got the point all too well that God’s kingdom might be found working in ways that are inconvenient and disruptive to the agendas set by people with power and money.  If God’s kingdom comes in by stealth, like an infestation of weeds rather than a mighty tree, then how are we going to control it?  Is God’s kingdom even going to fit in? - is it going to be a threat to the way we’ve always done stuff?  How are we even going to recognise that suspicious-looking growth as something that’s going to thrive and unexpectedly turn into exactly what’s needed to give life and energy to those who really need it?  It seems that if we are looking for signs of God’s kingdom then we need to be flexible, we need to let go of our preconceptions about the ways God works, and just be ready to cheer for it when we see it.

And here, I think, is the other thing – this – literally – grass-roots idea about what God’s kingdom might be like is really good news for people who don’t seem to be winning by the usual standards of money and popularity and influence.  It seems almost every other day I open the newspaper to read about how out of touch the churches are, how Christianity just isn’t relevant any more – and judging by declining attendances you’d just about have to agree.  Like Jesus, we find ourselves having to defend ourselves against the charge that it’s not been very successful, really.  Except that God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that.  The way God’s relational power works to transform people, and communities and even institutions, working insidiously like an outbreak of weeds – means that it flourishes right where most sensible people have given up.  God’s relational power is the power that makes people see the strength and beauty that comes in living, not just for themselves but for one another.  Ordinary unimportant people who get the point of living outwards, not inwards, loving others unreasonably and giving of themselves wastefully.  In the church or in the world at large.

It’s never going to be catch on.  Or, maybe, if we know where to look, we’ll see that it already has.