Readings: Micah 5:1-5a; Mark 4: 30-32, 9-12.
In much of the Old Testament, we see that the rich are blessed, winners of wars are blessed, and powerful nations are blessed. Jewish prophets frame their visions of the Messiah from this point of view. For example, note the closing of the Micah passage in the Jewish Publication Society translation:
[And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah,
From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me —
One whose origin is from old, From ancient times.
Truly, God will leave them helpless Until she who is to bear has borne;
Then the rest of his countrymen Shall return to the children of Israel.]
He shall stand and shepherd By the might of the Lord,
By the power of the name Of the Lord his God,
And they shall dwell secure. For lo, he shall wax great
To the ends of the earth; And that shall afford safety.
Sounds as if this Promised One might be the Incredible Hulk. But then came Yeshua ben Yosef, whom some of the Jews decided was that Messiah, the one we like to call Jesus. Trouble is, Jesus didn’t talk like a king or any kind of ruler. For one thing, he told puzzling little stories and seemed to love paradoxes that didn’t make a whole lot of sense — the first shall be last; love your enemies; lose your life to gain it; to be rich, give away everything you have. Who is this guy? Shouldn’t he be locked up?
The ancient way of thinking we hear in the Old Testament displays the state of development in most people of that time, and let’s be honest, we haven’t changed much. This primitive thinking, as I’ll call it, is still very much with us. For instance, you can still hear hateful people call, “An eye for an eye!” when their blood boils for revenge. Many of these folks seem to know that “an eye for an eye” is in the Bible, and these same folks often call themselves Christians, but they don’t realize that they’re citing an idea that Jesus was squarely and explicitly against.
This tension between the immature “eye for an eye” thinking and more fully mature Christian thinking helps make the Book of Job so significant and unusual. When Job lost everything and sat in pain of body and soul, his friends, thinking in the old way, told him he must have done something really bad to deserve all this. The book centers on a great debate between these three friends and Job, who maintains he did nothing to earn such pain. And even in that agony, Job also refuses to blame God for his misfortune.
And Job wins the debate, which marks a radical departure from the old “eye for an eye” thinking. This book anticipated the Christian doctrine forbidding revenge by ten or fifteen generations and introduced Jews to the concept of a God who actually has a mind of God’s own. God’s actions are too complex to explain our with simple human logic, and we can’t control God; all we can do is love God and stay faithful.
Yes, the “eye for an eye” code is in the Bible, but it appears in the same list of laws that includes punishment by stoning to death. And some think only the Qur’an calls for stoning. Those who stayed awake in high school ancient history will remember that the “eye for an eye” penalty is older than the Bible. The Babylonian king Hamurabbi authorized the wording we have today, and the Jews may have learned it as prisoners in Babylon. Not that it’s necessarily a unique idea; like it or not, revenge seems to be in our genes, doesn’t it.
So whether ancient Jewish prisoners copied their captors’ law or thought of it themselves doesn’t much matter. The point is, “an eye for an eye” is ancient, primitive, gut thinking. Childish thinking. I remember, way back in the primary grades, that “when somebody hits you, hit ’em back” sounded natural and sensible. Then along came Jesus, a Palestinian under foreign occupation, saying to turn the other cheek and love your enemy.
Whoa. This is an earthquake. Some guy comes along, whom we call the Messiah, and says vengeance belongs to God; we, on the other hand, are to love our enemies. Suddenly, primitive thinking is out of date, and we’re asked to grow up. Jesus has given us modern thinking, advanced thinking, truly civilized thinking.
Not that we’ve become modern, civilized, mature thinkers, even if we call ourselves Christians. Over a hundred generations after Jesus, we’re still not comfortable with his message. Old ways die hard, don’t they. We still call “an eye for an eye” when our rage rises at, say, a terrorist crime, even when the attack is perpetrated by an American who’s white, Republican, and Christian: Surely you remember Tim McVey’s deadly bombing in Oklahoma City. We’ve also suffered the actions of David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, three more fellow Christians. We may say that what they did was antiChristian, but to call for their deaths was also antiChristian, taught them nothing, and lowered ourselves to their level.
Maybe now we can begin to understand why Jesus said those shocking things. Leaving revenge for God to take care of starts to make sense, if you think long range. And loving our enemies — they are fellow children of God, after all — brings them closer so we can learn more about them. Much of our prejudice and hatred comes from ignorance; and what we don’t know, we fear. If we got to know our enemies, we might even make friends. And yes, our immature side loves the truth in the joke that loving our enemies drives them absolutely nuts.
But seriously, this kind of compassion, loving our enemies, can also make us much stronger. Jesus knew what we all at least pretend to know, that it takes more strength to walk away from a fight than to give in to the the impulse to hit, and still more strength to understand the other side’s position. He wasn’t talking about arguments in school, either. The Palestinian Jews suffered under a racist Roman rule. The Jews might have been treated better than the Israeli government treats Muslim Palestinians today, but nobody likes to be occupied by an army, and many of Jesus’s compatriots wanted to strike back. Jesus advocated love, which probably did drive the government crazy, and strengthened thousands of Jews in ways the Romans couldn’t figure out, so they finally decided that Jesus had to be eliminated.
That solved the Palestinian problem, didn’t it. Not if you look at what happened. Jesus left vengeance to the Lord, and his spirit lives today, while the great Roman Empire lies in ruins. Talk about long range thinking.
Other paradoxes from the teachings of Jesus also make more sense when you listen with the ears of an occupied Palestinian. Remember how Jesus would tag a parable with the line, “Those who have ears, let them hear!” Sounds rather rude, doesn’t it. But Jesus is signaling that he’s telling a story in code, so he won’t get arrested; not this week, anyway.
Jesus spoke in metaphors, and in so doing, he was hewing to Jewish tradition. The Bible is full of metaphors, from the two vivid Creation stories to John’s psychedelic vision of the Apocalypse, stories that say one thing on the surface, which we are not to take literally, and something much deeper if you have ears and hear the real message.
Speaking in metaphors, or parables, was the only way Jesus could safely get his message out, because he was speaking truth to a power that didn’t want to hear it.
For instance, Caesar insisted upon being first, and upon being God, while Jesus humbled himself even to the level of washing the feet of his followers. And guess what: The first (Caesar) became the last; and the last (Jesus), has become first.
It sounded too strange to understand for Jesus to tell folks that they must lose their lives to gain them. As many of you know, he was talking about losing our old selves and gaining new lives following God instead of artificial rules. He couldn’t publicly say that Roman rules should be overthrown; he even told his questioner once that he should obey the rules and pay his taxes — render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — but give to God what is God’s. And he let it be known that what is God’s is our hearts and souls, and if we stay in love with God, we can be new people and gain life everlasting. He was willing to lay down his own life to prove this, and that’s exactly how he proved it. He lives larger today than he ever did when he was a dusty little guy tramping around Palestine.
Of all Jesus’s parables, my new favorite is his image of the mustard seed. As a child, I had trouble with this, because I had seen mustard seeds in my mother’s spice cabinet, and they weren’t so doggone small. I always thought that if he’d wanted to talk about little seeds, he should have referred to lettuce.
And growing to a tree? Not lettuce, but not mustard, either. My dad worked to clear mustard from his fields, just as farmers in Biblical times did. It’s not a tree, it’s a weed. A big weed, but not a tree. So what’s Jesus getting at? We know it’s some kind of code, because he says if you have ears, listen.
I was surprised and a little comforted to hear John Dominic Crossan, one of the foremost Christian scholars on the planet, express his confusion about this parable. Dr. Crossan quite rightly pointed out that if Jesus had wanted a powerful tree image, he would have chosen a Cedar of Lebanon. Those trees were basically Mediterranean redwoods. “But why a weed?” he asked.
Eugene Peterson, who translated the Hebrew and Greek Bibles into The Message, was evidently confused as well, and you might remember that he simply changed the mustard seed to a pine nut, which at least grows into a tree big enough to nest in. So we’re in good company if we listen and are still confused.
Well, I think Dr. Peterson wimped out, and I think I’ve cracked the code. I did some research and found that I’m not the first to do this, of course, but all I did was listen like a farmer chafing under foreign occupation, and I got that rare experience of feeling really smart.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed” is a double barreled message and doubly dangerous, what with government spies all around. The first phrase threatens to disturb the peace right now. Saying “The Kingdom of Heaven” is to imply that another kingdom exists besides the one, the eternal, the world wide, the all-powerful Roman Empire. It also implies that this rival kingdom, being “of Heaven,” is higher than Rome. Just imagine how a paranoid government is going to take that. And it was paranoid, as are all who rule with fear instead of respect.
The second phrase, “like a mustard seed,” threatens to disturb the peace in the future. Jesus uses mustard because it’s a tough weed that farmers can’t ever really get rid of. It springs up in their fields and spreads from field to field, often thriving on the poorest land to seed the surrounding acres. It’s also a poor man’s crop, because even though it’s a pesky weed, mustard greens are nutritious, and the ground seeds can enliven even food made of scraps, such as hot dogs.
Jesus’s audience would probably have contained enough farmers to hear this. They’d understand the coded message, and what a perfect image. If we do no harm, do good, stay in love with God, and practice the Golden Rule, the Kingdom of God will spread like weeds. It will spread like mustard because Jesus said the Kingdom of God is right here, right now, within each of us.
We do the spreading. We are the weeds in the Evil Empire’s well-ordered fields. Authorities or doubters may try to stamp us out, but they’ll never, ever eliminate us, because each of us will tell or demonstrate the Good News to our friends, whether we know them or not, and each of them will tell or show others, and so on, faster than a dictatorship could drag us all into court, and faster than fear can pull us into self-made gated communities of the mind.
That’s the best and brightest secret of revolution: Have a message so powerful it has a life of its own, and it’ll spread like a viral video. And Jesus was indeed planting the seeds of revolution.
And that may be the key to all those weird paradoxes Jesus seemed so fond of: He wasn’t trying to be difficult; well, he was, but only for the system that was crushing the spirits of his countrymen. For his followers, he was bringing change they could believe in.
Long live the revolution.
Copyright ©2015 James L. Evans