It’s not just the mustard that’s hot in the Bible.

Signpost for Sunday 14 June 2015, Third Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Samuel 15:34-16;13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

Footnotes are fascinating. How else would we learn that the parable of the mustard seed is not so much about the mustard seed itself but about the earth that nourishes and transforms it? Fair enough for the first little parable in today’s reading, but when it comes to the better known of the two, it is quite plain that Jesus himself was likening the kingdom of heaven to the mustard seed. He goes on to say it is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, which must present difficulties to the Literalist as there are still smaller seeds, but – no worries! – in Palestine the mustard seed was proverbially used as the prototype of anything that was infinitesimally small. Didn’t Jesus on another occasion and in a different connection mention “faith the size of a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20)?

The tiny seed grows into the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade – another well known metaphor of the time for a great empire protecting many nations, a picture used by Ezekiel (chapters 17 and 31) and by Daniel (chapter 4).

The parable points to a universal truth – that the greatest things start from the smallest beginnings. It would have had special significance for the listening disciples, few in number, weak and possibly discouraged, who may have begun to realise they were the small beginning of the Christian Church.

It has a special significance too for those of us whose Christian journey does not include a Damascus Road experience. We may be on the journey because we were born into a family where Bible stories, prayer and worship were the way of life. We may be there because of an unemotional decision at some point in our life to try Christianity out. We may be there for other reasons. But we grow deeper and deeper into it as we learn more about it, and gradually we are convinced that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (the creed in four words).

A lot can be said about the tree and the branches, but a Signpost article is short, and I want to mention the Old Testament reading, albeit in a very shallow way. In it we have one of the very few physical descriptions in the Bible. David was “ruddy, had beautiful eyes and was handsome”. His eldest brother Eliab must have been quite a looker too – he was rejected as king because “mortals look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”. We are told earlier in 1 Samuel that Saul, the first king of Israel, was “a handsome young man… he stood head and shoulders above everyone else”. We are aware that Jacob’s wife Leah had lovely eyes and that her sister Rachel was graceful and beautiful (Genesis 29:17). Who else do we know about?

Sheila

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