i hate mustard [and other reasons why us americans have a hard time being like jesus]

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Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

i hate mustard [and other reasons why us americans have a hard time being like jesus]

i really do hate mustard. i hate the flavor and just as much (or even more), i hate the smell. admittedly, i don’t like many condiments. i can eat ketchup in relatively limited quantities and i like barbecue sauce (in relatively limited quantities) and, well, a couple other condiments in—you guessed it—relatively limited quantities. but most condiments, i just don’t like (in limited or unlimited quantities…).

and mustard ranks very near the top.

but i’ll get back to that shortly.

as i’ve mentioned very recently, i’m currently a part of a book group at our church in which we’re reading shane claiborne’sjesus for president. it’s been great to re-read it (i read it a couple years ago and blogged briefly about it here) and now revisit it in the context of community. i was reading last night and this one particular passage stood out to me regarding jesus, christians, the church and the issue of power and influence.

here in america, we like being king of the hill. we love to be on top, the ones with the power. not only politically and economically do we love having the upper-hand, but those who call themselves christians have often basked in the majority of citizens who share that moniker. we are truly one of the most christianized nations in the world. but what people are often surprised to find out is that it isn’t the united states of jesus america—the land of religious freedom and separation of church and state—where christianity is flourishing. rather, it’s oppressed peoples in nations where christianity isn’t the king of hill like many african countries (ethiopia and the congo are predicted to more than triple their christian population by 2050) and china. christianity is growing rapidly in underground churches and in places where the people are powerless.

which brings me back to mustard, naturally.

see, i hate mustard and whereas most people do not, they might hate mustard seeds if they knew anything about them. i certainly knew virtually nothing about them, but many farmers know about them far too well. such was the case during jesus’ time, which made it all the more powerful when he used them as an analogy for the church and god’s kingdom. claiborne writes a bit about this and i thought it was worth sharing here. it’s somewhat lengthy, but well worth the read and your consideration.

Yeast and mustard, both of which were known for their infectious spreading qualities, seem to be unlikely metaphors for God’s kingdom.

Jews were not big fans of yeast, which is why Jesus used it to describe the infectious arrogance of the Pharisees that everyone was to beware of. So, the, for the folks not digging the year imagery, he said that God’s kingdom is like mustard. Probably they didn’t like that any better.

We’ve all heard plenty of cute sermons about the mustard seed parable, how God takes little seeds and makes big trees out of them, but there’s much more going on here.

Matthew strategically place the mustard parable in the middle of the story about the weeds and wheat. He told his listeners that that the kingdom of God is like mustard, which grows like a wild bush. Farmers say it’s like kudzu, and a cit preacher once compared it to the wild weeks that grow out of abandoned houses and crack the sidewalks. The mustard seed’s growth would have been familiar to first-century Jews, since many of theme were framers and peasant well acquainted with its way of taking over gardens. It might even have been growing in the wild around them where Jesus spoke.

Jews valued order and had very strict rules about how to keep a tidy garden, and one of the secrets was to keep out mustard. It was notorious for invading well-trimmed veggies an other plants and quickly taking over the entire garden. (Kind of like how yeast works its way through dough…hmm.) Jewish law even forbade planting mustard in the garden (m. Kil. 3:2; t. Kil. 2:8). When those first-century peasants heard Jesus’ images, they probably giggled, or maybe they told him to hush before he got himself killed for using this infamous plant to describe God’s kingdom subtly taking over the world.

Plenty of people had lofty expectations of the kingdom coming in spectacular triumph and were familiar with the prophets’ well-known “cedars of Lebanon” imagery, which described the kingdom as a giant redwood—the greatest of all trees. The cedars of Lebanon as a metaphor for the kingdom would have brought some enthusiastic amens from the crowd, gotten some people dancing. But Jesus ridiculed this triumphal expectation. After all, even mature mustard plants stand only a few feet high—modest little bushes.

What Jesus had in mind was not a frontal attack on the empires of this world. His revolution is a subtle contagion—one little life, one little hospitality house at a time. Isn’t it interesting that Saul of Tarsus went door-to-door (Acts 8:3) trying to tear up the contagion, like it was a weed? But the harder people tried to eradicate it, the fast it spread. When mustard is crushed, its potency is released. AS we say, “in the blood of the martyrs lies the seed of the church.” Paul caught—the mustard weed grabbed him. Another convert we love is Minucius Felix, who, as a persecutor of the early Christians, had this to say about the followers of the Way: “They form a profane conspiracy” infecting the Roman Empire, “and just like a rank growth of weeds…it should at all costs be exterminated, root and branch.”

Mustard also has always been know for it fiery potency. IN the days before the Roman Empire, ti was a sign of power. Darius, King of the Persians, invaded Europe and was met by Alexander the Great. Darius sent Alexander a bag of sesame seeds as a taunt, indicated by the seeds the vast multitude of soldiers he had. Alexander send back a bag of mustard seed with the message, “You may be many, but we are powerful. We can handle you.” And they did.

So there goes Jesus spinning power on its head again. His power was not in crushing but in being cursed, triumphing over the empire’s sword with his cross. Mustard must be crushed, ground, broken for its power to be released. John’s gospel describes Jesus’ death and resurrection as a seed that is broken: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seed” (John 12:24). This is the crazy mystery that we celebrate, a christ whose body is torn apart and whose blood is spilled like the grains and grapes of the Eucharist that gives us life. Mustard was also known for healing and rubbed on the chest to help with breathing, sort of like Vicks vapor rub. Mustard, a wild contagion of a weed, a healing balm, a sign of upside-down power—official sponsor of the Jesus revolution.