By Jim Perkinson, some timely scholarship for this weekend’s Gospel story
*Note: these comments from Dr. Perkinson are a summary of his “ground-breaking” essay on seeds and soils in Political Spirituality in an Age of Eco-Apocalypse: Essays in Communication and Struggle Across Species, Cultures, and Religions (Palgrave McMillan, 2015)
The seed parables of the gospels are “heirloom” for modern readers. They come across time, hard with unpacked dynamism. As bare kernels, they sit unmoving before the eyes. But given the right nutrients from without, they may sprout with a surprising prolixity.
I want to treat these little Galilean riddles like transportable spore, and see what they do in a plot of contemporary “compost.”
Like a Mustard Seed
The smallest of seeds, mushrooming into sky-kissing shrubbery giving even towering cedars a run for their money, has to be internalized with a guffaw and an eye-glint awake to its bite.
But context is everything here. Myers has the parable completing a lake-front time of strategic debriefing (Mk 4:1-34) on Jesus’ first direct action campaign (Mk 1:21-3:35). His prophetic assault on scribal control of Capernaum synagogue space (Mk 1:21-28) and his torah-based Sabbath-teachings (Mk 2:23-3:5) have resulted in death-plotting (Mk 3:6) and public defamation charging him with channeling the quintessential Canaanite arch-demon, Beelzebul (Mk 3:19b-30). In response, Jesus has gone feral up in the lake-shore hills (favored haunt of those disenfranchised poor who have taken up social banditry to survive the tightening economic conditions in colonized Galilee) to select his inner circle and come back down lake-side to begin schooling the hungry crowds in movement reality (Mk 3:7-20; 4:1).
Like a Tree?
The mustard-seed parable deadpans a kind of 1st century Palestinian “magical realism” in having outrageous smallness suddenly issue in humongous greatness. But the humor only flashes if the cultural background is clear. This is a rural audience hip deep in growing crops and deeply hip to prophetic scripts of towering trees and their demise. Arboreal parables in both Ezekiel and Daniel use the loft and heft of mountain cypress—whose shady cover and leafy branches give safe harbor to all manner of birds and beasts—as code for large-scale political hegemony (Ezek 17:1-24; Dan 4:1-37). And far from celebrating the “supersized” cedars—on prophetic lips, these timber allegories caution imperial powers (like Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian order) about the real source of their own lofty dominance (Dan 4:1-37). Or promise (for the power structure of someone like the pharaoh in Egypt) downfall (wherein the rotting trunk, supine on the soil, becomes the woody dance-floor for cavorting crows doing the two-step hustle on its toppled backside) (Ezek 31:1-18).
Like a Weed
What if, like the arch-story of sowing (that Jesus claims, in 4:13, is key to understanding any of his parables), the mustard parable is a kind of arch-image of growing—what seeds do, when humans do their thing right and soil is ripe?
Mustard is after all, really a weed, wild in both provenience and propensity. In home-use as medicinal or culinary around the globe, such has been found in undomesticated form “from time immemorial . . . as weeds in grain fields” (Oakman, 124).
These tangled edge-zones result in what permaculturists call “recombinant ecologies,” blending natives and exotics in a strategy for repair. But their aim is beyond themselves. The day comes when the new species is “’implicated’ into the local ecosystem, developing natural enemies and encountering unwelcome environments that keep it in check” (Hemenway, 15). At that point the edge stabilizes into an equilibrium with the interior of the ecosystem and the life cycle of the exotics is enveloped and overcome in the much larger cycle of an ecosystem seeking its own maturity (mostly old growth forests, unless otherwise checked or deflected). A plant like mustard, it would seem, does indeed ultimately aim at becoming a tree.
The Messianism of Mustard
Wild as such a chain of thought may be in its proliferating associations, the Markan mustard seed parable remains a scandalously “noxious” send-up from the point of view of settled agriculture and its ownership class. In its figuring, the kingdom is a weed—intrusive, hybridizing, dangerous! And a subtle difference in Mark’s telling from the way either Matthew or Luke relate the parable hints even more provocation. As Crossan notes, these latter assign human agency to the sowing: “a grain of mustard which a man took and sowed . . .” (Mt 13: 31; Lk 13: 19; Crossan, 278). Mark does not. His version simply says, “a grain of mustard, which when sown . . .” (Mk 4:31). It is quite possible to read this as an undomesticated seeding. Here mustard may be sowing itself out in the fields. And if this is right, the real subject of the parable is the ecosystem itself. This would then be a kingdom image whose pedagogical scandal exceeds its own agrarian provenience. It would point back behind plowed fields to a growth unauthored—and unauthorized—by the human project of domesticating life forms. It would simultaneously point beyond such to a question of the ultimate role of wildness and things “uncivilized.”
What if “YHWH’s kingdom”—counter its 1,700 year “Christian” re-codification as imperial and totalizing—were to be comprehended roughly thus: a limited function and tenure on the world stage of history; “sown” at the height of agricultural aggrandizement as a response thereto; “intended” in the mystery of proliferating cultural forms for the sake of recovery of a wild prolixity of articulations of ultimate meaning; serving to ground spiritual rumination in real struggle over real ground—demanding resistance to domination, serving the margins of weed-plants and “weed-peoples,” insisting that real change is necessarily organic and real growth subservient to the whole, anticipating its own fulfillment (and succession) in the enablement of a wild flourishing of multiple religious practices and cultural patterns and spoken tongues and danced rites? What if “God” is mustard and “the kingdom” an entire planet of thriving forest? If so, the deep question for our species is how long the reigning wildness will tolerate the arrogance of our will-to-homogenize and control. After all—we too are an invasive, certainly destined to be succeeded by something much grander. What if that “something grander” is actually an earth no longer decimated by corporatized growth, rather than some imagined “heaven” descending from on high to make up for all our failures? Will it take our extinction to realize this kind of reign?
James Perkinson is an academic, an educator, an activist, and a spoken-word poet from inner city Detroit, Anishinaabe traditional territory. The full essay appears in Political Spirituality in an Age of Eco-Apocalypse: Essays in Communication and Struggle Across Species, Cultures, and Religions (Palgrave McMillan, 2015)