Like a Mustard Seed

BindingToday, we continue our celebration of the 30th anniversary of Binding The Strong Man, Ched Myers’ extraordinary political reading of Mark’s Gospel.  Each Sunday, we will post excerpts from Myers’ comments on the lectionary reading of the day.  Today’s passage is Mark 4:26-34.

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom 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. (Mark 4:30-32)

In the famous parable of the mustard seed Mark one last time expands upon the theme of sowing in the earth (4:30-32).  There can be no question that this similitude concerning the disproportion between the seed and the mature plant is meant to instill courage and hope in the small and fragile discipleship community for its struggle against the entrenched powers.  As in 4:29, the appended scriptural citation places the parable firmly within a political context.  Mark adopts the conclusion of Ezekiel’s cypress tree parable for his own: the “small sprig” planted by Yahweh will bear fruit, and its branches will give shelter to birds (Ezekiel 17:22f).  In late biblical literature the sheltering branch was a common metaphor for political hegemony.  Daniel explains the image to Nebuchadnezzar:

The tree you saw, which grew and became strong…in whose branches the birds of the air dwelt–it is you, O king…our greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth [Daniel 4:20,22]

The tree image is a two-edged sword, however, for it can be used to criticize imperial hubris, as in Ezekiel 31.  This oracle, directed to the pharoah’s Egypt, is also intertextually present in the mustard seed parable:

Whom do you compare to (LXX, tini homoiosas) in your greatness? [Ez 31:21]

How shall we compare (Pos homoisomen) the kingdom of God? [Mk 4:30]

Ezekiel’s description of Egypt expands upon the tree/forest image as a metaphor for the geopolitics of empire:

It sent forth its streams to all the trees of the forest. So it towered high above all the trees of the forest; its boughs grew large and its branches long…All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs [Ez 31:4c-6a]

But this flowery prose is satirical, for the purpose of emphasizing Egypt’s demise.  In a startling reversal of the image, Yahweh causes the imperial tree to be “cut down,” and “upon its ruin will dwell all the birds of the air” (31:2f).

In so invoking Ezekiel’s caustic reflections Mark surely had the Roman empire in mind.  Israel was merely one of the nations “dwelling under its shadow” (Ez 31:6c), one small client-state being fed by the streams sent forth from Caesar.  What, then, of the minuscule remnant-seed within Israel, the little band of commoners whom Jesus had boldly set up as a kingdom confederacy?  The idea of this smallest of sprigs surviving in the forest, much less overthrowing the mighty Rome, was absurd.  Yet the concluding mustard seed image proposes exactly such a mismatch!  Such was Mark’s firm apocalyptic conviction that Yahweh would “bring low the high tree and make high the low tree” (Ez 17:24).





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