June 9, 2005

Mustard Seed (Mark 4:31)

Category: Bible - NT - Mark :: Permalink

In His parable about the mustard seed (Mark 4:31-32), Jesus uses the language of Daniel 4 and Ezekiel 17 (and especially 17:22-23) to describe the amazing growth of the kingdom. It will become so large that the birds will seek shade in its branches.

But in Ezekiel 17, what grows into a huge tree is a cedar branch, whereas in Jesus’ parable, however, what grows is a mustard seed. It appears that Jesus is using slightly different imagery, but I wonder why. He doesn’t change the picture of what the kingdom will look like in the end (a huge plant, sheltering the birds) but He does use a different image for the beginning, an image that emphasizes the smallness and apparent insignificance of the starting point.

I’m not persuaded that Jesus is being ironic by depicting the kingdom, as Donahue and Harrington suggest, “not as a lofty cedar but as a mustard bush.” I certainly don’t think that Jesus’ imagery is meant to replace the imagery of Ezekiel 17, as if that earlier imagery was wrong. But perhaps Jesus is correcting some notions of what the kingdom would be like. If Israel thought that being a cedar tree meant being exactly like Babylon (Dan. 4) or the other nations of the world, then hearing the kingdom compared to a gigantic mustard bush might have been shocking.

Of course, the image that Jesus uses, the mustard seed, emphasizes the smallness of the beginning. Perhaps it was possible that when Israel heard the promise in Ezekiel 17, she prided herself on still being a cedar branch and so Jesus uses a different image to correct that pride. The point in Ezekiel’s parable is the same as that of Jesus: the essential nobility and kingdom-worthiness of Israel (“We’re a cedar tree!”) but the smallness and apparently unpromising character of the beginning.

Furthermore, that mustard seed is thrown down on the ground and then rises again. And that also corrects a false image of the kingdom. Ezekiel’s parable simply speaks of a return from exile, of a branch being transplanted into the soil of the Promised Land again. Jesus’ parable speaks of a seed being put in the ground and rising. The kingdom doesn’t simply start with a world conquest. It grows into a world empire because it starts with death and resurrection.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:40 pm | Discuss (0)

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