I’ve come to really appreciate biblical translations and scholarship that work to capture the weirdness of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.
Between generations of translations that have sought to make the biblical text more readable and the mental callouses many of us have built up through Sunday School memorization contests as kids and repeated readings throughout our lives, it’s easy to forget just how foreign the world of the biblical writers is to life in the 21st century. Without thinking much about it, we assume the writers of the Bible have the same general mindset and worldview that we do, forgetting even the most basic reality that the Bible wasn’t written in our native tongue and that the work of translation inherently puts us further away from what the biblical writers were actually trying to say. That’s not to say their meaning is lost or that translation inherently corrupts the text. Rather, it should be a reminder that the words we read are not literally what the biblical writers wrote. They’re a translation, a best approximation of what the writers meant. Combine that reality with the radically different world of the first century and certain assumptions of the biblical writers are, well, lost in translation.
One particular example that I confess I never ever considered was the image of the mustard seed.
It’s a now iconic image in the Christian faith that, we assume, captures the idea that great things can be accomplished with just a little bit of faith because, as we’ve been told countless times, a mustard seed is tiny but can grow into a mighty tree.
But what if there was another meaning to the image of the mustard seed? One that’s lost on an audience that aren’t first century farmers or folks with small gardens in their Galilean backyard.
It’s something I never considered until recently when I found myself watching an old PBS special called From Jesus to Christ because I’m the sort of person who uses their vacation time to watch 20 year old religious documentaries on public television. Don’t judge me.
The special is fascinating from beginning to end, at least for history nerds like me, but one point really stuck out to me.
It came from the esteemed scholar John Dominic Crossan as he was, in a much more eloquently way than I just did, reflecting on the foreignness of the New Testament, the radically different lives folks led in the first century, and the strangeness of many of Jesus’ parables that is so often lost on those of us who grew up in the church and assume we already know what they all mean.
As you have probably already guessed, his commentary was on the parable of the mustard seed as an image of the kingdom of God.
As the good professor explained, for Matthew’s original audience, this would have been a particularly confusing parable as mustard seeds were not the iconic image of faith they have come to be. They were seen as an invasive weed that farmers and backyard gardeners went out of their way to remove. They were annoying and unwanted. Comparing the coming kingdom of God to an invasive weed nobody wanted around was…weird.
But from the luxury of our view 2,000 years later it makes a bit of sense when you think about it in the overall context of Jesus’ preaching and ministry.
We tend to have a sanitized view of Jesus as this warm fuzzy sort of guy who was chummy with everyone and never took too strong an opinion for fear of offending anyone and always made sure to let everyone live and let live because love or whatever.
And while there are certainly aspects of Jesus’ personality that could sometimes be like that, this is also a guy who had no problem blasting his opponents as “serpents” and “sons of hell.”
And when he talked about the coming kingdom of God it wasn’t “Hey guys, this is gonna be really cool. You should totes join me!” It was more like “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand” and there’s nothing you can do to stop it and you definitely don’t want to be caught on the outside so if it means gouging out your eyes, chopping off your hand, or selling everything you have, do whatever you have to do because the kingdom is coming whether you’re ready or not.
In that context, the parable of the invasive weed starts to make more sense.
It’s not so much a celebration as it is a warning, as were so many of the other parables Jesus taught.
The kingdom of God is at hand. The gates have been thrown open and there are places for everyone to feast at the heavenly banquet but God is not waiting on our permission to begin this work of making all things new.
It’s happening whether we’re ready or not.
The kingdom of God isn’t waiting for a polite invitation. It’s invasive. And as it arrives it will sometimes be annoying to our way of life and other times frustrating in what it asks of us and it will always be finding new ways and places to establish a foothold that resist even our most ambitious attempts to control it. God is invading the spaces we’ve tried to keep God out of, the places we have tried to control where the poor have been oppressed, the different have been marginalized, and the least of these have been trampled upon. God is coming like an unwanted guest to the feasts of the powerful to flip over their tables and make all things new.
Understood in this light and in the context of everything else Jesus taught and preached about, the kingdom of the invasive weed comes across as a warning to many of us who don’t want the order of this world changed.
But it’s good news for the poor.
God is making all things new and there is nothing the rich and powerful can do to stop it.
Because the kingdom of God is like an invasive weed.
It is breaking into the world and cannot be controlled no matter how hard the powers and principalities of this world work to eradicate it, the kingdom of God continues to dawn.
And unless you’re part of those powers and principalities being toppled, that is good news worth believing in even if its packaging is a little…weird.
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