In Small Packages
It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
After a lifetime of witnessing his rituals, I would expect, by mid-June my dad would have re-staked the borders of the garden, most likely enlarging it. The rototiller, overhauled in February, would have hammered through the soil, breaking up clumps, mixing in fertilizer or compost or whatever would enrich it. (Although when we lived in Iowa, with the blackest soil imaginable, it was not as vital as when we lived in the hard clay of the south.)Every time I go to a nursery — of the Chalet sort that sells plants and trees and not the nursery down the hall with toddlers — I think of my dad and his springtime rituals. Although the tenderness of my dad’s gardening would rival any grandmother’s dotting in a children’s nursery.
His seedlings, started in the basement, under a grow lamp would have been separated, nursed to withstand the outdoors and measured into place in the garden, equal distance apart, enough room to grow, but also close enough to maximize yield. Growing up on a farm, yield management became a part of my dad’s DNA along with all the other arts and sciences of raising fruits and vegetables.
Early radishes and spring onions would be staples on the table by now. From those rhubarb bushes he transplanted from house to house my mom would be working her way through her inexhaustible recipes from cobblers to sauces to chutneys.
Before he retired, my dad traveled for work each week. When he returned home, the first thing he would do, even before coming in the house, would be to inspect the garden’s weekly progress, tie up any fallen tomatoes and then come to kiss my mom. Usually with a handful of something for her to “put up”.
This was part of my life growing up. Now, I have my own springtime rituals of planting even though it is limited to containers in a stamp-book-sized, city yard.
With this ingrained in my memory, the first parable from Mark seems too far-fetched for me to consider. In that parable a sower scattered seed and then just ignored them, by going to sleep, and yet a harvest was possible. The parable that followed of the mustard seed appears in Matthew and Luke, but they drop the story of the sower who reaps without a lick of labor. Perhaps it was too unbelievable for them as well.
The word “parable” comes from the Greek para, meaning “alongside” or “next to” and the verb ballo, translated, “to throw”. Parables are stories thrown alongside our lives. In Mark, Jesus spoke primarily in parables.
Jesus told stories from common life, inviting hearers into his message, provoking them to use their imaginations. As difficult as parables may be to parse, they are the way God speaks to us, through Jesus, in language of earth and seed and season and daily life we can understand, startling us to see other people, God and ourselves in a new light.
But, parables can be disruptive. They interrupt what you thought you knew, not just to teach you something, but also to confront you with an unwanted or surprising truth. Parables are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult — whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe. Remember, as I introduced our gospel reading, sharing Jesus’ first words in Mark, the backdrop against which all of his sayings are to be measured were, “Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”
So let us imagine, as Jesus asks, what good news we are to trust when he offers a common plant to describe how the kingdom of God could be working its way into something in our world.
Mustard is an herb with medicinal properties and one that is useful for flavoring and preserving food. The mustard bush, though, is a garden pest. No one would sow