James 1:1-18

Reading:  James 1:1-18

My relationship with James is kind of odd — out of all the books in the Bible, I’m most familiar with it. It takes just over 10 minutes to recite, and as a teenager I think I was able to do so. I know the text of James very well, but I’m not always very sure what to do with it. James is hard; and if you don’t think it is hard then think of the last time that you had to go to a hospital, or your car broke down; or the money ran out before the month and you had a moment when you didn’t know that everything would be all right — did you experience this as joy? My teenage self redefined the word `joy’ to mean those things I didn’t want — I knew the words, but I’m quite sure that entirely missed the point.

James is also hard because we really don’t know much about the epistle. Tradition tells us that it was written by James the brother of Jesus — and, ancient tradition has three competing traditions on what this means, one is that James was one of Joseph’s children from a previous marriage; and there are ancient writers who believed that they were Joseph’s children by Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome’s theory is that James is the son of Cleopas, Joseph’s brother, who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (and thus Mary the mother of James, mentioned in Mark, is Cleopas’ wife, and Jesus’ aunt.)

What tradition agrees on is that after Jesus was taken up into heaven, James became the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and he remained there until his death in either 62 AD or 69 AD depending on which source you use — James was killed by Jewish leaders by being thrown off the temple, then beaten to death with a club.

Tradition tells us very little about the book of James, other than who wrote it. I cannot look at the great ancient preachers and read their sermons on James; I cannot even say that James meets the description used for scripture that it was “accepted everywhere from the beginning”, because it is missing from several of the “local” canons, and according to the 4th century church historian Eusebius James was a disputed book.

This, and a few internal issues causes many scholars question the tradition that James wrote the epistle of James, and suggest that it might be the last book of the New Testament, written as late as the 2nd century. They have the idea that James is either an ancient sermon, or perhaps a piece of wisdom literature that somehow had “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” added to the beginning.

The scholars who accept the tradition that James was written by James the brother of Jesus, and the head of the Jerusalem church obviously date James before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. One of the proposed dates is before the council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15, which would explain why this letter is only addressed to Jewish Christians; the decision that a person could be Christian without becoming a Jew had not been made yet. This is my favorite theory.

If I go with this theory, then this epistle would come between the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and the council that decided to accept Gentile Christians in Acts 15, sometime before 50 AD. When the Jewish leaders persecuted the Jewish Christians; many left Jerusalem for safer places. The church didn’t spread when everybody was content to stay in Jerusalem, but it did spread under persecution — and, James would have had people under his spiritual care who had left Judah for safer places. I like to picture this as a letter to religious refugees, and as the oldest book in the New Testament.

One reason I like the early date is that it makes James very interesting because James quotes Jesus a lot, and when not quoting, there seems to be an allusion to the words of Jesus. An early date for James is interesting because this would make James the earliest extant source of the teachings of Christ. I can read “Consider it pure Joy” and notice this is a lot like the sermon on the mount which begins:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)

To put the first words of James into the formula of the sermon on the mount:  “Blessed are you when you face diverse trials, for the testing of your faith brings endurance and leads to maturity.”  This sounds a lot like Jesus.

James jumps from this to telling those of us who lack wisdom to pray for it, and to trust God to give it to us. Following this, James tells the poor to talk about how they are raised up, and the rich to talk about how they are brought down — Christ is an equalizer, and in Luke’s gospel Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven… but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

James follows this by reminding everybody that when we are tempted, we are tempted by our own desires. I know it is an old joke, but I smile at the person who prays the Lord’s prayer, and when he gets to “Lead me not into temptation”, adds: “for I already know the way.”

Today’s section ends with the verse that tells us every perfect gift comes from the Father; I tend to see this as God is the source of generosity and the generous spirit — so, even if I give, it is God who gave and give the desire to be generous, so our generosity, as well as any wisdom we receive is ultimately a gift from God.

Mark 16:1-8 “They were afraid”

Reading:  Mark 16

I’ve told you before that one of the challenges of reading Mark is that we fill in the details from other gospels. Matthew and Luke contain almost all of Mark — but both give much more detailed accounts. For this, and likely other reasons Mark is likely the least read gospel. Whenever a person chooses a reading from one of the events in the gospel, Matthew or Luke generally has one that seems more complete. There are, for this reason, very few ancient sermons on Mark.

Mark is however the most interesting gospel to those who speculate on how the gospels were written. It is generally accepted that Mark is the first gospel to be written down — tradition tells us it was written down by Peter’s companion and interpreter Mark, from memory, after Peter died. Mark is interesting, because Matthew and Luke both follow Mark, and when one disagrees with Mark the other will agree with Mark; Mark is clearly not only the oldest, but the authors of Matthew and Luke clearly had a copy of Mark on hand while they wrote their gospels.

Mark’s account of the resurrection is extremely interesting to those people who study old handwritten gospel texts, compare them, and try to decide which reading belongs in our Bibles. I first learned about this in a class where I was assigned to compare Mark 16 according to various translations, and what I found is that Mark 16:9-20 is not in everybody’s Bible. I learned that there are four different ways that Mark ends; The oldest copies of Mark end with verse 8 “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” There were other copies that had a “Shorter ending.” which reads “And all that had be commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter, And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Of course, the majority of ancient copied approved to be read in church contained our traditional verses 9-20 which ends with Jesus being taken up into heaven; of these some contained the shorter ending as well, but most did not.

If you look at your Bible, you will find one of three things; If you look at a King James Version, you will find Mark 16:1-20 with not even a note. If you look at a Revised Standard Version, you will see that it ends at verse 8, verses 9-20 might or might not be in a footnote. If you look at a New international version, or the New Revised standard Version, you will find a note that the oldest copies have nothing beyond verse 8, and you will find both the shorter and the longer ending of Mark. If you look at the English Standard Version, you will find a note that “Some early manuscripts do not include 16:9-20″, but you will not find the shorter ending.

The work done to decide which of these 4 options to print in a Bible is known as “Textural criticism”. Personally, my favorite choice is providing us with both the shorter and longer endings — of course I’m also the sort of person who likes critical editions of just about anything, especially when they are full of editor’s footnotes.

What I personally think is going on here is that the original ending was: “They were afraid.” We all know the story did not end there — we also know that it is not a very satisfying ending — but, in a real way it is the right ending. On Thursday, the disciples scattered, of the 12, only Peter followed Jesus to the trial. In Mark’s account of the Crucifixion, only the women were there — and the women were the ones who figured out where Jesus was buried so they could embalm the body on Sunday. I imagine Peter ending the story here, with the women while Peter and the disciples are still scattered and confused.

Two things that I want to point out — the first of which is a product of culture, and the second something in the phrasing. The first thing I want to observe is that from Thursday to Sunday, if there is any action that requires courage or strength of character the disciples don’t do that action; but the women did. While the disciples abandon Jesus, the women are there, all the way to the cross. Greek culture did not have a flattering view of women if you say somebody is womanlike, you would be calling that person a coward and possibly suggesting that the person had other moral weaknesses as well. If this gospel were accounted to a Greek audience, the point would be that Peter and the disciples were even more cowardly and morally inferior to women.

The second point is that when the angel spoke to the Mary’s and told them to tell the disciples and Peter. What stands out here is that Peter is named as somebody separate from the disciples. The last we saw of Peter — he was denying that he was a disciple — and, now we have the women sent to tell the disciples, and Peter who is at this point outside the number. In my mind I hear Peter telling this story, and I know Easter morning this is how things really were — Jesus was risen, but the disciples were still scattered, and Peter still had denied being a disciple and Jesus still had not restored him. I like the idea that Peter may have stopped telling the story here.

The thing is, we all know that this isn’t the end of the story — if it were, Peter would not be standing there telling it — there is much more to be said; shall we say, there is an epilogue. You see, the story does not end at the cross, nor does it end at the graveside — nor even with the angel telling Mary to tell the disciples. There is a reason why most Bibles have an Epilogue — because the story went on. Jesus met the disciples, specifically restored Peter, gave them a mission to spread the gospel to the ends of the Earth, ascended into heaven and put the story into the hands of the Disciples.

As you can see, I’m here speaking about this grand story of the gospel — the epilogue we read still does not go to the end of the story. The story continued after Peter and the others died, it continued after everybody who they taught died, and for generations following. The story of what Jesus is doing in the world is continuing today. The story of Easter is not just that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that Jesus became truly present. The end of the story is that not even death can keep our Lord away; even when we are unfaithful, Christ never abandons us.

Mark 10:46-52 Bartimaeus the last disciple

Reading:  Mark 10:46-52

The healing of Bartimaeus is unique; there is nothing like it in the book of Mark. I know, it seems familiar; Mark has three stories of Jesus healing blind people, and there is a way that it strongly resembles when Jesus healed the man blind from birth in Jerusalem — but as far as Mark goes there is only one healing like it. I found three things unique in the gospel account: How the Blind man was introduced, how he addressed Jesus, and how he responded once he was healed.

If you notice, Mark’s gospel tells us that Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus was sitting by the roadside. Now, you’ve likely noticed that when Jesus heals people in Mark, a very common description is: “And Jesus healed many who were sick.” Sometimes, there is a longer description of the healing — such as the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof when Jesus had a chance to go home, but it is rare that we can identify who was healed from the passage. Even when Jesus healed Peter’s mother in law, or Jarius’ daughter, the person who was left unnamed. Bartimaeus is the only person Jesus healed who was significant enough to be given a name.

As you might know, name-dropping is generally something you do with names that are familiar to the group. When this story was originally told, it is fairly safe to assume that people hearing the story when Peter told it in person would know who Bartimaeus was; this lead me to an observation that I find curious; I have no idea who this man was outside of the Biblical text. Usually when I see a name in the New Testament, I can find what Christian tradition has to say about the person; but as far as I can tell, Christian tradition is silent on this man. While Peter named the blind man healed in Jerusalem, Luke apparently edited the name out. Bartimaeus was important enough to name when the apostles were still preaching the gospel, but the reason has been forgotten; then again, perhaps the other two unique things in this story may offer us a hint.

The second unique feature of this story is when Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, He cries out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” When we see this, we see the blind beggar publicly saying something about Jesus that nobody else says; that he is the son, and perhaps the Heir of David. Peter might have recognized that Jesus was the Messiah privately, but this blind beggar publicly proclaimed who Jesus was while he was calling for mercy. He wanted to be healed, and he asked for healing — but he knew that Jesus was more than just a healer.

The final feature of this story that is unique is how the blind man responded to the healing. I’m going to get back to this idea in a little bit, but first, I want us to consider what happened when Jesus healed people. Generally, when Jesus healed people, after they got what they needed they went home, and presumably went on with their lives. Perhaps the best example is Luke 17, where Jesus heals ten lepers — he tells the ten to go and show themselves to the priests (so they can be accepted back into society.) All ten of them are healed, but only two return to Jesus to say “Thanks you.” While Jesus asks where the other 8 are, if I look at all the stories of healing, I get the idea that even 2 out of 10 coming back to say thank-you was an extraordinarily rare event. Once people get what they want, they go away.

Now, I know that this is much like the experience that we have in real life. If you talk with people who work with soup kitchens, or food pantries, or any number of aid charities, you will learn that you don’t get very many thank-you notes for your work. People know that you are there for those who need something, and they take what they need and go home. Whether we like it or not, this is the nature of things — the relationship is purely one of providing a service to someone who needs the service.

Many of us also know somebody who only calls when he or she needs something, but who is never there for us. This was the relationship Jesus appears to have had with almost everybody that he healed. Bartimaeus was different; he got up from where he was begging, and followed Jesus on the way. This is exactly what the disciples did — they left their familiar old life and followed Jesus. If I were to guess why Bartimaeus was named, I would guess it is because he was one of the disciples.

After this, there are no more stories of those Jesus healed in Mark’s gospel. We are now in the last week of Jesus’ life; immediately after Bartimaeus follows Jesus, Mark moves on to the triumphal entry. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way, but at this point the cross is only a week away. Bartimaeus knows something about who Jesus is, he does what disciples do right at the time when it was hardest to be a disciple and even the 12 were scattered. His story is one that I wish were not forgotten.

Mark 8:1-21 — Yeast of Herod and the Pharisees

Reading:  Mark 8:1-21

Like last week, the story of the feeding of 5000 does not stand in isolation — but, if you skip forward a couple chapters you read the story of the feeding of the 4000. The feeding of the 4000 sounds very familiar, so familiar that it is tempting to guess that it is another version of the same story.

There is a pattern to this as well. You might have noticed that last week in Chapter 5, the Sunday school lesson talked about Jesus healing the demon possessed man in the country of the Gerasenes — and the feeding of the 4000 follows the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter and the Greek deaf-mute that I spoke of last week. Chapters 5-8 have important elements that are repeated — whether it is the healing of those the Jews consider enemies, or the feeding of large crowds.

When something is repeated like this, there is a hint that there is something that we are supposed to learn. When Jesus talks to the disciples about what they are supposed to learn from a teaching or an event, it is something that we should pay attention to as well. I imagine that everybody who listened noticed something. I will briefly share what came out when I read this text.

First, I notice that the motivation for feeding the crowds is compassion. At the feeding of the 5000, the disciples had compassion, and encouraged Jesus to send the people to the city where they could buy food. In the feeding of the 4000, Jesus had compassion because they had been with him for three days saying: “If I send them home hungry, they will faint along the way.”

The next thing I notice is that the disciples never expect a miracle. We read any of the gospels, and it appears that Jesus is constantly doing miracles — but, even when it is something the disciples have seen before they still seem surprised. The second time, when Jesus tells the disciples he wants to feed another crowd, the answer is: “How can one feed these people in the desert?” This is all the more remarkable as the writer of Mark goes out of his way to tell the reader that they have seen this before. Mark 8 begins telling us that “there was again a great crowd without anything to eat.” Later when Jesus talks to the disciples and mentions this miracle, Jesus asks specifically about feeding both the 5000 and the 4000, asking: “How many baskets are left over.”

The final thing that I notice is that the disciples never seem to learn. The disciples hear every sermon Jesus preaches, they hear every parable, and they even have Jesus to privately explain what they never understood — yet they never understand. Sometimes, I wonder if Peter and the others didn’t exaggerate their cluelessness, because it is hard to believe that they could have missed everything Jesus said and taught and did while they were standing there and studying under Him.

After Jesus teaches and feeds the people, he leaves, and the next place he goes he has the Pharisees calling for a sign. I find it remarkable that “no sign will be given to this generation,” because it seems like there are huge signs everywhere that Jesus goes. Remember what Jesus told the disciples of John when John asked if Jesus was the messiah? “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and Good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Everywhere Jesus goes, there are signs unless one chooses to ignore them. How can there be a sign for somebody who refuses to read any signs?

When Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, Jesus tells them to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples asked each other if this was because they didn’t bring enough bread, and Jesus reminds them that a lack of bread isn’t the problem because of miracles.

In Matthew, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to yeast — just a little yeast works it’s way through all of the dough. Yeast is, you might say, like mustard or salt, or light; it fills the space it is given. Apparently, the kingdom of heaven isn’t the only thing that one can be full of. Do we not understand what the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees is?

Now, if I were to guess, I would guess that it would be the same yeast. Herod was a puppet king of Rome. The Pharisees were a powerful political party. One of the reoccurring themes in the gospel is that Jesus does not take a place as a politician, nor does he take an Earthly throne — indeed, he insists that his Kingdom is of another place. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the final temptation was political power, if he would worship Satan.

Christian leaders have compromised their faith and Christ’s teachings for the promise of political power on many occasions. I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying: “primitive Church good, Constantine bad”, because I don’t believe that the leaders of the Roman empire embracing Christianity was a bad thing at all; but in some ways having a worldly kingdom as a nominal ally makes Christianity more complex. When Rome was an enemy, Christians were only concerned with how to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. With Rome as an ally, Christians also had to consider how to be a good Roman. No man can serve two masters — even when a kingdom of Earth is friendly, it still isn’t the same thing as the kingdom of God. Because of Constantine, we must be careful that the temptation of political power does not change the mission of the Church.

I do want to observe that this change made Jesus’ final temptation, the temptation to seek worldly power instead of the Kingdom of God became very real at this point. In many ways, a hostile empire would have been easier — the yeast of worldly power can have a way of working it’s way through the church. If we are not careful, we might become more identified with a political position than with a gospel that heals and saves those around us. We risk choosing the kingdom of the world when we choose which master that we serve.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, but beware of the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees. May we choose our yeast wisely, and may the right yeast work its way throughout the dough.

Mark 5:1-17; 7:24-37 — Healing enemies

Reading:  Mark 5:1-17, 7:24-37

When we read the how Jesus went to the land of the Garasenes, many things stand out. There is the fact this encounter took place in a graveyard, that the Demons were named Legion, that these demons went into pigs, and killed the entire herd of pigs, and that when they saw the formerly demon possessed man healed and in his right mind, they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave.

When I think of this, I notice that the land of the Garasenes is a place, so I look at a map. Looking at the map from this time period, I see on the coast of the Sea of Galilee is a city named Hippus, then after that you walk about 6 miles crossing the river Yarmuk and arrive at Gadara. Gerasa is deep inland, located at the same place as the modern Jordanian city of Jerash — which is more like a 40 mile walk. There is some variation in manuscripts however — some appear to refer to Gerasa, other appear to mention Gadara. Either way, to get to his destination, he had to cross the territory of at least one city state, and at minimum he had to walk a couple hours inland and cross a river.

Hippus, Gadara, Gerasa are all cities in a region know as Decapolis. Decapolis was a group of 10 Greek cities founded in the 4th century BC. These cities controlled a relatively large region of land, creating a region that was colonized and largely populated by Greeks. Decopolis used the Greek language, Greek Architecture, and was culturally Greek in a larger region that used the Aramaic language and was culturally Hebrew and Canaanite. Decapolis is a large Greek colony that supplanted those who were indigenous to the region.

Now, I know that for the most part our ancestors were colonists — we know what that looks like. Jerusalem also knew what it looked like to turn a city into a Greek colony. You might know about the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. This is the celebration of the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple. One of the Cities that the Greeks tried to colonize and make culturally Greek was Jerusalem. One of the things they tried to do was to Hellenize the Jews — or, one might say de-Judize them.

The grievances the Jews had against the Greeks were pretty significant. They tried to force them to eat pork, and otherwise violate the Torah so they would better conform to Greek culture, and perhaps the most significant offense was that Antiochus entered Jerusalem and the temple re-dedicated to Zeus. He had an alter of Zeus placed at the alter, and scarified a pig to Zeus in the temple. The Temple was also looted, and copies of the Torah were destroyed.

There was a revolt, and Judas Maccabees and others drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple, and started a new Jewish kingdom — this Jewish kingdom remained independent until it was replaced with Herod’s kingdom; under Herod, they were a client-state of the Roman Empire; meaning they were not colonized but they were not independent either.

Here is the thing, this is a story of Jesus going somewhere uncomfortable for him and his disciples, and there is no obvious reason why he goes there. The city named in Mark implies he walked from morning to dusk into territory run by historic enemies; the last great enemies that the Jewish people fought and drove out of Judah.

His destination was also a place that would have caused discomfort; Jesus goes to a graveyard where none of his own relatives are buried. As you might know there is a taboo of dead bodies, so it violates this taboo for Jesus to enter a foreign graveyard. The Demons introduce themselves as Legion, the Roman equivalent of a modern Brigade — but most important, the demons introduced themselves with the name of what oppresses the Jewish people. When he cast out the demons, they went into a herd of unclean animals — pigs. Everything about Decapolis was something that was foreign to Jesus and his disciples; and the people there begged Jesus to leave when the man was found in his right mind.

What strikes me the most about this story is how one of its elements is not unique, but instead a theme that is repeated. This is not the only time that Jesus goes into a place that makes Jews uncomfortable — it is not the only time he visits historic enemies. The Sunday School lessons skip Chapter 7; in Chapter 7, Jesus goes to Phoenicia, specifically to the region of Tyre; Phoenicia was the last enclave of Canaanites — an ancient enemy of Israel. While Jesus is in Phoenicia, he speaks to a woman and casts a demon out from her daughter. The following miracle has him returning to Decapolis to heal a deaf man.

The pattern I see in this story, and in those following is that Jesus, with no clear reason why, travels to visit Israel’s enemies. Jesus finds a person who is in need of healing, and he saves that person; whether it is a Greek man who is a danger to himself and others, or a Canaanite girl, or a Greek man who is deaf and mute.

In Matthew, I would point to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells those who hear to love their enemies. In Mark, instead, I see this in a series of stories, very close to one another where Jesus leaves Jewish country to deliberately visit the nations that are historic enemies; and while he is there he offers healing and salvation to those who need it. The first time, there is fear and Jesus is asked to leave, but the second and third time people seek Jesus to ask him to heal somebody they know who needs it.

Sometimes it is easy to think about love for one’s neighbor as something passive. Sometimes we think of it as merely trying to get along. There are many times when I think of things this way — I want to be silent and invisible. I don’t want to make peace so much as I want to avoid conflict. I certainly don’t want to go somewhere uncomfortable. Jesus showed me another way though. Jesus shows me that sometimes loving enemies means going where they are and giving them what they need.

When Peter told these stories of Jesus going to the lands of the Gentiles, and even going to places that were unclean, he told a story that prefigured something in his own life. Peter was the disciple who had the vision that told him that the Church was to accept the Gentiles, without asking them to adopt the customs of the Jews. Peter was also the first apostle to go specifically to the Gentiles — he headed up a mission to Antioch, and he was the first to speak on behalf of the Gentiles to the Church in Jerusalem.

When Jesus went to Greek cities, or Canaanite cities he personally demonstrated that His gospel was of a wider scope than just the people of Judah. Yes, Jesus eventually gave a great Commission that called for the disciples to make disciples even at the ends of the earth — but He did more than speak this, he demonstrated that his mission went beyond the boundaries of his own country and his own people. Jesus saving a Greek man in a Greek graveyard from demon possession is more than another miracle story — it is a story that shows that the gospel is for everyone.

Mark 4:21-34 The kingdom of God is like mustard.

Reading: Mark 4:21-34

Last week we studied the parable of the soils — and this week we will focus on the parable that tells us that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; which starts so small, yet it becomes something huge. This is a parable that many of us can connect with. Anybody who has made pickles likely has put whole seeds in the brine for flavor — I have a little jar of mustard seeds myself, though I do not know if these are fertile.

Now, it is pretty easy to get hung up on some of the details of this parable. Jesus talks about how huge the mustard plant is; big enough for birds to shelter in them; but, those of us who are familiar with the plant know that it is generally between three and eight feet tall. It is a large plant for the garden, but it is not exactly a tree either.

Perhaps the best way to explain how the ancients saw the mustard plant is to tell you what an ancient writer said about it. Pliny the elder wrote a 10 volume set on natural history we think was published in 77 AD. Pliny’s Natural history is basically an encyclopedia of plants and animals. Pliny writes on Mustard:

With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being planted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once. (Pliny the Elder, Book 19, chapter 54)

Basically what we are looking at is an edible weed. Mustard is good for seasoning and good to eat. You can eat the greens; the seeds can be used as a spice, they can be pressed for oil, and they can make a flour that is quite nutritious. The problem is that the plant does not need any human help or effort to grow. It is not something you would be likely to plant in your garden, because it has a tendency to spread and take over the entire garden. Nobody wants a plant that it is nearly impossible to weed out!

Mustard has always been a weed that plagues field crops such as wheat and corn. When mustard is in a grain-field, farmers will find that their yield is cut in half, and it is even harder on a corn crop than it is on wheat and Soybeans. Farmers will delay planting so they can plow it under, or burn it, or if they have GMO crops that are highly resistant to herbicide they will kill mustard with chemicals.

Even though mustard grows like a weed, and in many contexts is a weed, it has also been domesticated for over 5000 years. Mustard grows well in a wide variety of soils with minimal effort. Mustard is one of those plants that can grow in very poor soil, and somehow enriches the soil it grows in. Because of this, mustard is sometimes used as a cover crop, and a green manure. In addition, mustard grows extremely quickly, produces eatable leaves and seeds that are valuable for both their flavor and their oil.

A single mustard plant will produce thousands of seeds in just 2 or 3 months. The plant produces seed-pods, each with a number of seeds inside. If the seeds are harvested, a single plant will produce thousands of seeds, and if the plant is not harvested, the seed pods will rupture and seed the whole area, and new mustard plants will grow. If the gardener is careless, mustard can spread to take over the whole garden — and the garden will fill with birds who are there to eat the bounty of seeds.

The kingdom of God is like mustard. The seed is so tiny, but it takes root and grows. In one generation, a single seed becomes a cup, or more, of seeds. Before the growing season is over, the scattered seeds take root and another generation comes; it does not take many seasons for a single seed to have filled an entire field with mustard plants. The kingdom of God is like mustard; something that takes root when the soil is less than perfect, and yet it will fill the field giving nourishment to the soil, to the birds, and to people. Once we’ve got God’s kingdom planted and growing in us — we have all of it’s nourishing benefit, but it is not something that is easy to control, nor to free ourselves of it; God’s kingdom will take us over.

Last week, the parable of the soils talked about a sower planting grain — mustard isn’t grain, and if the sower planted mustard instead, the mustard may have pushed out the weeds, given enough moisture it would have grown in the rocky soil, and in good soil it would have produced 5,000, 10,000, and 50,000 fold. I believe that we are invited to have the kingdom of God in us — and that our hearts and lives are where this mustard will grow.

Remember, though, mustard isn’t the only parable that applies to the kingdom of heaven, and to disciples. We see, and are, salt and light. There is a sense that the Kingdom of God isn’t only to sprout and change a few people’s hearts, but it is supposed to enlighten the whole world, to bring flavor to the whole world, to in a real sense bring salvation to the whole world.

When we look at the world around us; it often seems like the kingdom of heaven is the furthest thing away in the world. The west has been secularized. Even devout Christians often seem to prefer the way the kingdoms of this world works to the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes it seems like things are being pushed backwards.

The truth is, it is exactly as Pliny wrote: when the mustard grows, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it. We forget how far we have come. The wisdom of the ancients and the world was that only the wealthy and the powerful had any value — and that the gods had no interest in the poor, only in the most elite. Jesus challenged this, and now the world at large realizes that the poor have value; this is the effect of Mustard.

To get a sense of how strong this view was, remember when Herod killed the babies after the wise men came? Historians do not mention this at all; granted, we are talking about a couple dozen poor kids who would never grow up to be anybody anyways. Today, this would be news, and would be condemned as an atrocity, this is the effect of Mustard.

Ancient Romans would take unwanted babies out into the wilderness to die; today, there is a real attempt to save babies, including saving those who might otherwise be thrown away. Systems have been built with the intent to save such babies; first by churches, but also now by governments. We have gone a long way since churches had ‘baby hatches’ or foundling wheels to collect unwanted babies and make sure they were cared for from about 1000 years ago to when they have become unnecessary in the western world in the 19th century. (Though, the practice has recently been resurrected here in Indiana.) We live in a world that looks for ways to save babies that would once be taken out to the woods and left to die — this is the effect of mustard.

Jesus was born into a culture where most human life was not valued. Blood sports and executions were popular entertainment. Even as Rome became Christianized, the cultural norms of the Roman people still continued. It took centuries for the gladiators to stop killing each other for the entertainment of the masses — however, these ended in the fifth century. A monk, Telemachus went from the East to Rome. While in Rome, he went to the Coliseum and went onto the field where the gladiators were fighting, and asked them to stop. The crowd was so furious that he interrupted their entertainment that they threw rocks at the monk, and stoned him to death. After the audience killed a monk, the gladiator games came to an end, and Telmachus’ name was included in the names of Christian martyrs that people remember. Ever since this time, it would be unthinkable to re-introduce entertainment where two people try to kill each other; this is the effect of mustard. (Theodort’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 5 chapter 26)

The kingdom of God is like Mustard; and that Mustard is growing in the Church, but it also spreads to everything that the Church touches. The world we live in is changed because the Seed grows throughout the world. The Kingdom of God is taking root — and, while there are attempts to weed it out, Pliny the Elder was correct: It is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.

Mark 4:1-20 — Parable of the soils

Reading: Mark 4:1-20

The first 3 chapters of Mark were about Jesus traveling and doing miracles and slowly losing favor with those in power. Chapter 4 is fairly unique in Mark — it is a group of parables: The sower, the lamp and the bushel basket, the growing seed, and the Mustard Seed. Mark chooses very few examples of Jesus’ teaching; so why does Peter want to to tell people about the Sower and the lamp?

The parable of the Sower; or, it might be better for me to call it the parable of the soils is unique not only because it is one of the few teachings of Jesus to be part of Mark, but also because it is one of the few teachings that Jesus interpreted for his Disciples — the interpretation Jesus gives is:

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” — Mark 4:13-20 NRSV

I think of Peter telling this story, and I see one clear thing: We are the soil — Peter was the soil and he was well aware of what kind of soil that he was. Peter was very much rocky soil — he was often the first of the disciples to proclaim his faith, and he withered so quickly. Peter was the one to step out of the boat, take a few steps on the water in faith, and to doubt and fall in. Peter was the one who said he would follow Jesus to his death, and yet on the night of the Crucifixion denied Christ.

Even after this, Peter was the first to call for the church to accept Gentile coverts to Christianity, yet when he was in Antioch he fails to practice what he preached because when those who felt that one must convert to Judaism before Christianity came to Antioch, and when these people refused to eat with Gentile Christians — Peter also stopped eating with the Gentile Christians. Even as a Christian leader, Peter had these rocky soil moments where he failed to live up to his beliefs due to the presence of opposition.

Peter saw the other soil types too. As Peter told this story year after year, he must have thought about all the people he knew, and all the people that Jesus talked with and worked with. Peter was able to see people who reacted in these ways, just as clearly as he could reflect on his own reaction.
Peter saw the scribes and the Pharisees, some of whom sat at Jesus’ feet and asked questions, yet they were like the hard soil of a well worn path. These people fell back to what they knew, and could not receive what came from beyond themselves. Perhaps it was because they listened to answer back, to debate and to be clever. Whatever reason their soil was hard, he seeds sat, and were eaten — they heard, but nothing sank in.

When I think of the seeds that fell into the thorny ground, those who are choked out by weeds makes me think of Judas. Judas was choked out by his greed; this is something that was hinted several times before he sold Jesus. Later in scripture we see that others also grow in this thorny ground — entire churches sometimes seem to be harmed by thees weeds.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve got all these kinds of soil in me. There are times when I, like the Pharisee listen to answer instead of listening to hear. There are times when I’m excited, and then too afraid, and there are times when I have more than one thing in my mind, and there are weeds. There is something about this parable that feels right.

What do we do with this though? There are some who would suggest that Jesus tells us this, because we are supposed to become good soil. There are others who tell us that we spread the seed anyways — but, neither of these makes sense to me — we are soil.

One thing I can say is that good soil does not appear all by itself; the farmer changes soil. Good soil left to itself will become weedy soil. Every garden needs weeded. If the soil is shallow and rocky, the rocks can be broken up and removed. Farmers and gardeners have been improving the land that they have even before the time of Jesus. The gardener we have is one who does miracles.

Think of the Apostle Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament — he was a Pharisee, and somebody who’s heart was completely hardened to the message of the gospel. Somehow, Jesus changed his soil so something could sprout and grow well. Peter might have been rocky, and he might have denied Christ — but his courage grew. Peter kept preaching, even when the authorities attempted to silence him. Peter grew enough in faith that he did follow Jesus to a cross — tradition tells us that Peter died on a cross in Rome when Nero was persecuting the Christians. God changed Peter’s soil.

The seed is scattered, and if the gardener does nothing, our soil is going to be rocky, or weedy, or just too hard for the seed to take root. I’m not going to tell you to weed yourself, or pull out your rocks — because I’m aware that there are things that we cannot change simply by wishing things were different. The dirt is as it is — but, I do believe that we have a gardener that can and will work our soil with a goal to make it the good soil that produces a crop.