At this time of year our gardens, allotments and the countryside are awash with colour. Of particular delight for me at the moment are the blooming rhododendrons are grouped together by the presbytery kitchen window in an otherwise dark and poorly growing area. However, for all its beauty at this time of year, the plant itself is highly aggressive and when left unchecked will colonise any area in which it is planted. If you’ve ever been to some National Trust estates you will know both how spectacular but wholly invasive the plant really is.
One of the two agricultural images that Jesus uses in today’s Gospel features another highly invasive plant – the mustard tree. It can grow up to two metres high and like the rhododendron will completely take over its environment. For this reason, it was unpopular with farmers in Jesus’ time.
When challenged about the slow growth of the new community or ‘kingdom’ he was founding, Jesus compared it to the growth of a mustard tree. While it may begin as a tiny seed, it will grow high, like the mustard tree, and provide shelter for all kinds of people, just as the mustard tree provides protection for birds from the scorching sun.
In using this image and the previous one of the farmer loosely scattering seeds to describe the growth of his ‘kingdom’, Jesus also was expressing his sense of awe and wonder at the role of God in mystery of growth in nature.
We have to remember that neither Jesus nor the people he was speaking to had the scientific understanding of soil and cultivation of crops that we have today. The role of God in nature and growth would have been all the more awesome for them than, possibly, it is for us today. Of course we too can appreciate the wonder of creation and the beauty of nature, be it the birth of a baby or observing a plant grow on a windowsill or in an allotment. But nowadays, in our highly technological, mechanised and industrial age, perhaps we are losing that sense of awe and wonder that Jesus and his generation had for the mystery of Creation? Perhaps his Word to us today is to challenge how we view Creation, how we care for the earth, our common home, and how seriously we take our responsibility to preserve it for future generations?
About 40 years after Jesus told these parables, they had taken on a new application. It appears that St Mark had recorded them particularly for the Christian preachers who were scattering the seed of Jesus’ teaching but were disheartened by its slow growth. Now they were being reminded that just as seeds slowly germinate in the ground, all under God’s direction, so too in their preaching their duty is, simply, to scatter the seed and wait for God to do the rest. In other words, God is in control. Might this advice be apt for some of us too – God is in control?
In the other image Jesus uses to describe his kingdom, he refers to the farmer sleeping easily while the seeds he planted silently grow without his intervention. That image of resting peacefully reminds me of the scene in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” when Macbeth returns to his chambers after he has murdered Duncan. Overwrought with guilt, he imagines a voice saying to him that he will never sleep easily again. He compares sleep that soothes and restores a tired body for the next day to be like the knitting up of the sleeve of an unravelled sweater so it can be used again. But that ‘balm’ of innocent sleep, he tells Lady Macbeth, will never be his again – in the murder he has committed he has ‘murdered’ such sleep …
Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast,–
Jesus speaks of the farmer asleep and resting easily while his crop grows – God, not he, is in charge. We have sleepless nights when we feel no longer in charge and are restless due to worry or stress, a painful physical condition or, like Macbeth, a troubled conscience. If the Lord’s kingdom is as a mustard tree that provides shade and shelter, we strive together to make our parish a place where people find shelter from their storms; a place, to quote Shakespeare, that is a ‘balm of hurt minds … chief nourisher in life’s feast’; a protective nest for those searching for acceptance in a warm and welcoming community.
Perhaps the past year of lockdowns has taught some of us just what it means to belong (and miss belonging!) to such a community that strives to be the ‘kingdom of God’.
Holy Name, Jesmond
13 June 2021