THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I know that parents are not supposed to live vicariously through their children, but I have to confess that I do just that. I enjoy the achievements of my daughters in their mastery of biblical and classical languages that far outstrips my own just as if they were, in fact, my own. In a different way, I live vicariously through my son, an evolutionary biologist who took the road I abandoned to enter the ministry. Like him, I spent a good part of my youth schlepping through swamps and tide pools, turning over rocks and logs to find sea cucumbers, salamanders and snakes. Living things fascinated me then and they still do. I can’t look at a body of water without wondering how deep it is, what fish and other aquatic animals inhabit its depths. A part of me has always regretted not having taken the alternative road at the fork. Now I feel that, in some measure, I am privileged to travel both roads.
It was my son who first made me aware of the profound ecological consequences flowing from the introduction of an invasive species into an established ecosystem. For example, at least 25 non-native species of fish have entered the Great Lakes since the 1800s. These newcomers alter the environment, preying on native fish that have no defenses against them, driving them close to extinction. This, in turn, creates a vacuum in the food chain allowing other native fishes and plants to multiply to unsustainable levels. This all sounds like pretty bad news and it is-from the standpoint of the existing ecosystem. But nature has a way of balancing things out. In time, a new ecosystem will evolve. To be sure, it will be different from what now is, but as my son points out, this has been going on for millions of years. Animal species, our own race in particular, tend to migrate given the opportunity. They invade new territory changing it for better or for worse wherever they go.
Jesus uses the example of an invasive species in one of his parables from Sunday’s gospel lesson. Mustard, though it has some practical uses, is not a plant you would want growing in your cultivated field. Once it takes root, it comes to occupy and stay. Like any weed, it is tougher than anything else growing around it, especially the plants you are trying hard to cultivate. Yet Jesus speaks of the coming of God’s kingdom as resembling the sowing of a mustard seed. The kingdom, says Jesus, is like a tenacious weed. Its seeds are so small you cannot even see them. Yet it gives rise to an invasive plant that digs in, takes over and grows big enough give shelter to the birds.
What does it mean to compare God’s kingdom to an invasive plant? How does the coming of God’s reign disrupt the ecology of our predatory economic system? Our power structures infected with racism? The maintenance of privilege for a relative few at the expense of the world’s poor? If this parable doesn’t scare the socks off us, then I think we must not yet have ears to hear it. Make no mistake about it, the parable of the mustard seed is good news. God has broken into the world through the ministry of Jesus to alter radically the human ecosystem. As the prophet Ezekiel tells us, a lot of big trees must fall in order for the languishing trees to thrive. Or, to put it into Jesus’ words, the last will be first and the first will be last. The end result will be a new heaven and a new earth. But the transition for some of us on the higher end of the food chain will not be easy. In fact, Jesus tells us that those of us who are rich will find entering the kingdom downright hard. Yet we are also told that hard is not impossible. Being last in the kingdom is still being in the kingdom. That is what I hold onto as this parable disrupts my orderly little ecosystem.
You can’t grow a new cedar simply by planting a twig from another cedar. Vs. 22. That is just not biologically possible. Moreover, cedars do not bear edible fruit. Vs. 23. But that only makes more emphatic the work God is doing here. The allegory of the cedar is filled with messianic and eschatological (consummation of the age) imagery. The messiah is frequently spoken of in prophetic literature as a “branch” or “shoot.” See Jeremiah 23:5-6; Zechariah 3:8. The exaltation of Mount Zion is a common prophetic term for the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel and the world generally. See Micah 4:1-4; Isaiah 2:1-4; Psalm 87. From a mere twig cut from the tree out of which it draws sustenance, a twig that by all rights is as good as dead, God grows a tree on the highest mountain that will tower over all other trees. Vs. 23. It will give shelter to animals and a home to birds of every kind. Vs. 24. By this great act, “all the trees of the field,” that is, the nations “shall know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Vs. 24.
The phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” appears frequently throughout the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Ezekiel 6:7, 10, 14; Ezekiel 7:4, 9, 27; Ezekiel 12:15; Ezekiel 13:23; Ezekiel 14:8; Ezekiel 17:21. It is important that God and God’s works be made known to Israel. In this passage, however, God is to be made known to all the nations, not merely by name but by action. God is to be known as the one who brings mighty empires to nothing and raises up a people that, to all appearances, appears to be nothing. Echoes here can be heard of the Exodus-God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt to make of her a nation of promise. In a culture where the greatness of a god is measured by the political and military might of its patron nation, the God of a defeated and exiled people would seem hardly worthy of worship. But God does not belong to Israel only. God is God of all nations, raising them up and disposing of them as best serves God’s redemptive purposes. Moreover, God’s glory is not tied to Israel’s military might or geopolitical influence but to Israel’s faithfulness. This portrait of Israel’s exultation is therefore not comparable to the rise of great empires such as Assyria and Babylonia that dominate and exploit the lesser nations. Israel’s exaltation will be a life giving event for the nations of the world. This will be a different kind of kingdom ruling a different kind of world!
It is always worth asking how disciples of Jesus articulate and live out the prophetic confession of this God who raises and brings down empires for God’s own purposes in a nation that believes itself to have been uniquely selected by God to further God’s purpose through advancing its own national interests. The identification of God’s purpose with that of America, known as “American particularism,” is deeply imbedded in the American protestant psyche. Nowhere is this heretical notion better expressed than in our standard practice of placing the American flag in our sanctuaries, frequently on the same level as the altar and the cross. Sometimes I long for an encyclical from our ELCA presiding bishop condemning this idolatrous practice. I know full well, though, that no such directive will be forthcoming. First, American Lutheran bishops don’t issue encyclicals. Second, such a decree would generate more opposition than an order to shorten the worship service by omitting some of the appointed lessons. The latter is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of the church!
The superscription, “A Song for the Sabbath,” indicates that this psalm was used in connection with Sabbath observance in later Judaism. According to one commentator, the psalm most likely originated in public worship at a festival at some sanctuary lasting for several days. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 614. It is possible that the festival in question was the New Year celebration instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25. Ibid. The strict injunction against work of any kind during this holiday would help to explain its later use for Sabbath worship. The sanctuary in which this liturgy was first used could have been the one at Shiloh referenced in I Samuel or the temple in Jerusalem.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” Vs. 1. That is a simple yet important reminder. To live well is to live thankfully. Thankfulness does not come naturally for most of us. Many of us are stuck in the entitlement mentality, believing that God, the world, our families or our churches “owe us something” and never quite pay up in full. Or we are caught up in the deadly sin of envy that can never recognize God’s gifts to us as anything other than second best to what is given to others who seem to be better off. Of course, in a culture that values accomplishment and achievement, thankfulness is practically an admission that you received something you have not earned or deserved. Why thank God or anybody else for what I earned by the sweat of my own brow?
A thankful worshiper understands quite simply that s/he lives by grace. S/he lives life at a leisurely pace, refusing to be rushed. S/he savors the smell of fresh coffee each morning, the warmth of the sun, the refreshment a spring rain brings to thriving vegetation, the songs of birds and the shouts of children. A thankful worshiper understands that each day of health, strength and vigor is an undeserved gift and that there is no entitlement to the same tomorrow. S/he knows that on the worst day there is still always plenty for which to give thanks and praise.
It is not altogether clear what is meant by a “ten stringed lute” in verse 3. The lute was a medieval predecessor to the guitar, but whether it was anything like the instrument described in the psalm is unknown. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 161. That it had “strings” suggests that it was something like a lute, guitar or lyre.
Verses 12-14 are reminiscent of Psalm 1 which speaks of the prosperity that flows from choosing the way of righteousness over wickedness. The fate of those who lack the sense to recognize God’s works and ways is discussed in verses 5-9 which are not included in our reading. For my cautionary remarks on the interpretation of psalms such as these, see my commentary on Psalm 1 in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 92 in its entirety.
For my general comments on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, see my post of June 7, 2015.
The most puzzling piece of this passage is Paul’s remark that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Vs. 6. Shorn of its context, this sentence is rife with potential for misinterpretation. Paul is not suggesting that the body is the prison of the soul or that salvation is liberation of the spirit from bodily incarceration. Paul is merely stating a fact. As pointed out earlier in II Corinthians 5:1, “the earthly tent we live in is [being] destroyed.” We are dying as is the creation. Nonetheless, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16. So far from separating soul from body, salvation consists in resurrecting the body. Thus, “while we are still in this tent [body], we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.” II Corinthians 5:3. There is no advantage to being a naked spirit even if such a thing could exist. To be human is to be a body. It is only through the body that we can know each other. We are dependent on speech, hearing and sight. Critical to communication are the subtle tones of voice telling the hearer that, whatever our bear words might convey, we are speaking in jest. Facial expressions, hand gestures, hugs, kisses and so much more can only be conveyed by creatures with bodies. That is precisely why God has always spoken to Israel and the church through the words of Moses, Elijah, the prophets and apostles. That is why in the fullness of time the word became embodied. Jesus’ resurrection was the resurrection of his Body. His ascension to the right hand of the Father did not dispense with that Body but extended its reach to every scrap of matter in the universe. God remains embodied in God’s holy people. It is for this reason only that we can say God is in some measure knowable.
That said, we are in a limited sense imprisoned by our bodies. However much we might think we know another person, there are depths we cannot reach even with our best communication skills. How much more so with our God! Our bodies are imperfect communicators, lacking the ability to “know as we are known.” We cannot know each other or our God perfectly. As Paul says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” I Corinthians 13:12. Thus, our hope is not that we shall be liberated from our bodies to become naked spirits, but that “we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” II Corinthians 5:4. God is even now working the miracle of this transformation in our bodies giving us manifestations of God’s Spirit within the church as a guarantee of all that is to come. II Corinthians 5:5.
Knowing this, Paul is confident in his ministry. He is well aware that some in the Corinthian Church are critical of his personal appearance and what they judge to be his deficiencies as a public speaker. II Corinthians 10:10. There is also a suggestion that some in the congregation believe Paul to be mentally unstable. Vs. 13. Paul does not waste his breath disputing any of this. “I may stutter, I may be uglier than a baboon’s butt and mad as a hatter,” says Paul (highly paraphrased). “But it’s all for your sake that we do what we do.” Vs. 13. Paul is motivated by the love of Christ who died for all. Knowing that, it is impossible for Paul to view or judge anyone from a purely human perspective. Vs. 16. Paul once judged Jesus from just that perspective, but having encountered him as the one God raised from the dead, Paul cannot view him anymore as just another misguided teacher with some radical notions who came to a bad end. Vs. 16. Neither can Paul view women as subordinates, slaves as mere property or gentiles as unclean. Galatians 3:28. The resurrection is a game changer. Seen through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection, creation is altogether new. Vs. 17.
Sadly, the lectionary moves on next week to chapter 6 of II Corinthians passing over what I believe to be one of the most powerful articulations of the church’s mission to be found in the New Testament, namely, II Corinthians 5:16-21. I invite you to read it and reflect on it as it follows directly from what Paul has just told us in today’s lesson and explains what follows in next week’s reading.
The first of these two parables of God’s kingdom follows upon the Parable of the Sower told in Mark 4:3-9. This parable is not an allegory, though Jesus later resorts to allegory in order to explain it to his clueless disciples. Mark 4:10-20. The kingdom of God is to be seen in the totality of the circumstances: the sower who spreads his precious seed indiscriminately over soil both receptive and resistant; the varying degrees of response to that sowing and the resulting fruitfulness. Building on the same imagery, the parable of the planting, growth and harvest in verses 26-29 illuminate the kingdom from a different angle. The sower, though powerless to make the seed sprout, grow and mature nevertheless takes an active role in the process. The sower both plants and takes in the harvest. But that is the extent of the sower’s power to act. Growth comes of itself without the sower’s activity. For all that takes place between planting and harvest, the sower can only patiently wait.
So is Jesus intimating that the kingdom may be a long time in coming and that his disciples must sow the seeds of their ministry and wait patiently for growth? (Weiss, J., Das Markusevenelium (in Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, Vol. I, 3rd ed. Revised by W. Bousset, c. 1917) cited by Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark, Second ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor) p. 266)). Or is he saying in effect that the time of growth is over and the day of harvest has arrived? (Schweitzer, A., The Quest for the Historical Jesus (c. 1906 by W. Montgomery, English Translation) cited by Taylor, supra.); Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 167; Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 142. That the reference to the harvest has strong eschatological overtones (e.g. Joel 3:1-13) suggests that the interpretation favored by the weight of scholarly authority is in fact the better view. The conviction that the time for harvest has already come comports with Jesus’ inaugural declaration that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to recognize the parable’s emphasis on the growth and maturing of the crop as beyond the control of the planter. As Mark will make clear to us, the disciples’ understanding of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims is laden with misconceptions and clouded by self-interest. Nevertheless, that kingdom is erupting into the world under their very noses and the opportunities for harvest are plentiful but as yet unseen.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed in verses 30-32 should likewise be understood against the backdrop of Jesus’ declaration that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Just as the parable of the planter concludes with an allusion to the final judgment pronounced by the Prophet Joel, so too this parable concludes by echoing the messianic proclamation in our lesson from Ezekiel. Yet there is a striking difference between the Parable of the Mustard Seed and Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle about the miraculous growth of the great cedar. Unlike the stately cedar, mustard is an invasive plant that can readily take over a field cultivated for more profitable crops. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a weed. Whereas Matthew and Luke dignify the parable by characterizing the mustard plant as a tree (Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19), Mark is content to call it what it is-a bush.
However one wishes to characterize the mustard plant, there is an obvious contrast between its seed which is proverbially small and the grown plant. Moreover, mustard is a fast growing plant that is highly disruptive. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 136. Thus, it is unlikely that the parable is stressing the need for patience as the disciples wait for the gradual, progressive evolution of God’s kingdom through the institutions of democratic societies. The seed carries in it the immanent incursion of God’s reign into the well-ordered imperial garden. Be afraid, Caesar. Be very afraid!