Mischievous Mustard Seed Satire

Posted: June 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 4B

June 17th 2018

Mischievous Mustard Seed Satire

 If we start with all the stuff we have previously heard about this parable, there is a good chance many of us have heard it said this is a story about contrast. About a tiny mustard seed that grows into the greatest of all shrubs. The trouble is that botanically speaking “mustard does not grow to be the greatest of all shrubs, nor is it the smallest of all seeds. Which says that; hyperbole is used to drive home a contrast. On the other hand, wild mustard, an annoying weed, is almost impossible to eradicate once it has infested a paddock or vegetable garden. When you get it in your paddock, like ‘ring fern’ or Scotch thistle’, your paddock is ‘unclean’. So what might the storyteller be suggesting?

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar suggest: “Jesus’ audience would probably have expected God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small.” (Funk 1993:59) And then this interesting point: “As the tradition was passed on, it fell under the influence… of the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor for a towering empire… In his use of this mustard seed metaphor, Jesus is understanding the image for comic effect.” (Funk 1993: 484)

Having said that let’s take a moment to reflect on what the satire might be alluding to given that all the parables are thought to be comments on the realm of God that Jesus is hailing as present and unfolding. The kingdom come perhaps. Lets also take a moment to reflect on how satire is used today.

John Bennison in a sermon on this invites us to start by remembering that radical religious extremists with a distorted view of Islam committed a horrific act of terror a few years ago, executing the staff of a small satirical French publication. The satirists had dared to depict the Prophet Mohammed in cartoon caricature; all the while lampooning those misbegotten adherents who in turn regard such irreverent acts as blasphemous. The Western world reacted with outrage and defiance to such an affront. World leaders joined a million, person protest and unity marched through the streets of Paris, chanting “Je Suis Charlie,” in defense of freedom of speech, and on behalf of the publication’s name. When the modest magazine ran its next issue a week later, the printing presses couldn’t keep pace with consumer demand.

We note that anti-blasphemy laws are common in countries where there are a majority of Muslims. At the same time, it is notable that nearly ninety countries in the world, including France, have laws against the defamation of religion and public expression of hate against religious groups. In the U.S. there are laws that prohibit “hate speech,” where it pertains to words that “offend, threaten, or insult groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” We have recently debated the Australian rugby player, Israel Filau’s comments about homosexuality in the context of hate speech and rights to religious freedom.

While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, more profound underlying questions remain. Once the dust settles and more thoughtful discussion ensues, we are left with what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression? What one might consider merely irreverent, others might regard as not only offensive, but blasphemous and in violation of established law, whether religious or secular. In an attempt to take it out of the legal domain we begin to talk about what is PC and what is not. We talk about false news and political truth as descriptions that almost legitimize dishonesty. When should freedom of expression be curtailed if, and when, it leads to deliberate or even unnecessary provocation? What meaningful purpose might blasphemous satire serve, justifying its use as being of greater importance than the negative consequences that may result? We need strong leaders, or benevolent dictators is the cry. Was it a slip of the tongue or deliberate satire when Fox news announced the meeting of Trump and Kim Jong Un, as the meeting of two dictators?

Again, we are left with a question; While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, … what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression?

In the faith that was the faith of Jesus, the religiously observant person was forbidden from even pronouncing the name of their god, let alone seeing the face of the divine; hence they had the tetragrammaton YHWH commonly pronounced ‘Yahweh’ in English as an acknowledgment that even the utterance of the name was forbidden, and thus the word Adonai (“Lord”) is often substituted. To do otherwise could be considered blasphemous. In the Torah, it states that he that blasphemes the name of the LORD “shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 24:16)

In the canonical gospels of the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ antagonists are continually portrayed condemning the Galilean peasant preacher’s words and actions as blasphemy. The gospel author’s construct their stories to include the gradual, but cumulative, effect of tension and controversy surrounding Jesus. Moreover, they show Jesus as continuously breaking the rules, healing on the Sabbath, usurping God’s exclusive right to pronounce absolution, and making use of political satire in his depictions of the reign of god; until the mounting evidence is sufficient to condemn the offender as deserving death. Here is the collaboration of the Roman empire politically afraid of the Jesus movements political aspirations and the religious afraid of his corruption of their orthodoxy.

Whether it is the religious institution or the Empire of Rome, both the question and consequences may be the same. What useful and greater purpose might “blasphemous” satire serve, to make it worth the risk? When thinking about a ‘Purposeful Satire’ we might acknowledge that at Harvard University each autumn, the Ig Nobel Prizes are apparently awarded for the most esoteric, trivial or simply off-the-wall kinds of scientific research imaginable. As a parody of the prestigious Nobel Prizes, winners of the ignoble (hence the name of the awards) achievements of the last year might include researchers who study how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears; as well as others who investigate whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat; and still others seeking to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. And this is serious stuff, not unlike the debate about the Proctor’s right to ban and remove the Otago University Student publication from circulation.

The award ceremony at Harvard is organized by a science publication that goes by the name of Annals of Improbable Research. It considers itself a humorous, even satirical, magazine. It’s all meant to be good-hearted fun by those who take scientific inquiry very seriously.

Since the Enlightenment and Age of Reason it has long been suggested that scientific theory and empirical evidence is the religion of choice for those moderns, or now post-moderns, who have left primitive cosmologies and mythic theologies behind. We as progressive Christians might be considered as such people but why do we treat serious matters with the use of satire?

Well I don’t think we have time for a full answer to that question but we can offer an observation about the purposeful use of satire, regardless of its possible consequences. Religiously motivated types we might call fundamentalists, or radical extremists, or fanatical adherents of a warped interpretation of their religious convictions for their own purposes, all have a common response it seems. They all consider satire, lampooning, or mocking their deepest held beliefs to be intolerable blasphemy. And, since many religious traditions have a satire component to their text, it asks where does one draw the line, or cross it?

Was Jesus a Satirist and Blasphemer? Well at Harvard the stated purpose of the Ig Nobel prizes has always been to “honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” While the awards are sometimes thinly veiled criticism and gentle satire, they are also used to point out that even the most seemingly absurd can result in new and useful ways of seeing things.

So too, there may be no better way to describe Jesus’ use of satire in what are considered some of the most authentic sayings attributed to him in what we know as the parables. The idea of a good Samaritan, or a foolhardy shepherd who’d forsake an entire flock for one, dumb sheep, or a woman who’d turn her house upside down in search of a single coin are all examples of the kinds of absurd little stories with a bite sufficient to make one first laugh, then think more deeply. This brings us to today’s text of the parable of the mustard seed as another example.

All three synoptic gospels include their own variation on a somewhat briefer and probably earlier version found in the “sayings” of the Thomas gospel: The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on tilled soil, it produces a great plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.” (Thomas 20:2)

When Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed — how from the tiniest planted seed such tremendous and specular growth is possible — any motivational speaker or campaigning politician could adapt such a hopeful message out of context to suit their own agenda. Jesus’ original listeners, however, would have thought it was a joke; as in, “Did you hear the one about the mustard seed that thought it was a mighty tree? …” In fact, the mustard bush was a fast-growing weed that – once it took hold – could become so large it was almost impossible to eradicate. With echoes of the Ezekiel text from the Jewish prophetic tradition about the mighty cedar tree providing shelter and shade, Jesus’ image of the reign of God being compared to a mustard bush that could be equated with — or replace – the mighty cedar might well have made his listeners both laugh and cringe.

Perhaps when the evangelists chose to include and adapt this parable for their own purposes in what later became the New Testament canon, they wanted to encourage their fledgling congregations to put their shoulder to the gospel plow and assure them that everything was possible with God. Just plant the seeds and watch the good news spread. But those who first heard the parable may have first gasped, then chuckled uncomfortably and nervously shifted in their seats when they were invited to imagine the divine as an irascible weed. With a little biting humour, Jesus was poking fun of their traditional image of the reign of God; while prompting them to think differently about it.

As already mentioned, the parable of the mustard seed is only one of a number of such challenging little stories. Almost a folk tale, set in ordinary, every-day secular settings, typically irreligious, they also often portrayed the religious authorities in a less than favourable light and they had a challenging twist about them. Jesus had to be deliberately poking people in the posterior with a sharp stick. Is it any wonder he paid the price when his satirical critiques hit too close to home for the institutional hierarchy.

When the gospel story depicts him “setting his face to Jerusalem,” along with everything that would await him there (Matt. 19:1; Mark 9:30-32; Luke9:51-56), Jesus may well have known his satirical jabs would not only be considered irreverent but judged to be blasphemous.

To his credit, however, it seems clear his use of satire was always used to serve a deeper purpose than a quick laugh. Namely, to think more deeply about the nature about what he called the reign of God. With the stakes so high, he did not seem interested in simply exercising his right to mock, ridicule or castigate those whom he regarded as having lost their way. Amen.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. MacMillan Press, 1993.
Geering, L. G. Christianity Without God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Reid, B. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Mark. Year B. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 1999.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Toronto. Evans & Sanguin, 2015.

John William Bennison http://www.wordsnways.com/

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