Friday, May 29, 2015

Kudzu and the Kingdom

In the southern United States where I grew up, there is a plant that strikes fear into the heart of every southerner (okay....that's not quite true, but allow me a little poetic license here).  The Mid-Atlantic may have it's Virginia Creeper, and New England its Bittersweet; but there is NOTHING like kudzu to make you think you are battling a foe that just will not quite.

Kudzu has been spreading in the southern US at the rate of 150,000 acres a year.  It outpaces herbicide spraying and mowing.  It is sometimes referred to as “the vine that ate the south.”  I have seen entire houses, abandoned in years past, totally covered in kudzu so thick that you would have to chop your way in with a machete or a bush axe.

I am reminded of this as we return to Mark and to a couple of short parables that Jesus told.  In Mark 4:26-32 Jesus tells two parables about seeds.  Both have some startling ingredients.  In the first parable (v.26-26) the seeds are "scattered."  They aren't planted carefully in rows...they're throw willy nilly.  And the one who scatters them appears to know little or nothing about how they're growing until .... suddenly ... harvest time comes. 

The second parable (v.30-32) is even more remarkable.  Jesus says, "what can we compare the Kingdom of God to?  It's like a mustard seed...."  He goes on to describe it as "putting forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."  Many, if not most, of Jesus' listeners would have heard this language before.  It is from Ezekiel 17:23 when God promises to plant a "a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar" on the mountain height of Israel" "in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.  Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind."  But now Jesus is talking, not about a tall, stately, noble tree, but a shrub.  A mustard plant.

While some varieties of mustard were used as spice and others medicinally, in general they were considered at the very least pesky and often somewhat dangerous. Because wild mustard is incredibly hard to control and once it takes root it can take over a whole planting area. which is why mustard would only occasionally be found in a garden in the ancient world. More likely you would look for it over taking the side of an open hill or abandoned field. "The greatest of all herbs" is a comment about a plant just short of a weed. Besides, who says "behold the mighty herb?"

Using this image might have felt like a slap in the face to some of Jesus' listeners.  The Kingdom of God (which they'd been promised was going to come through Israel) was going to come like an invasive plant pest?  They weren't going to know how it was happening?  What's going on?

Jesus often told parables that appear to be the answer to the "why did you do that?" question.  It may well be that these parables are an answer to "why aren't you more focused?  How come you're telling everybody and their brother about the Kingdom?  Don't you have some secret teaching for a select group of special people?"  And Jesus says, "I'm scattering seeds of the Kingdom.  You won't believe it, but they're gonna grow like wildfire.  The Kingdom is going to come and you're not going to know how it got here.  But trust me, it's going to happen.  And when it comes, you won't be able to chop it down like a single tree; it will be impossible to stop.  It will be like mustard.".....or Bittersweet; or Virginia Creeper; or Kudzu.


Friday, May 15, 2015

They're Coming From Everywhere

In Isaiah 2:1-4 there is this lovely, idyllic picture of all the peoples of creation streaming to the Mountain of the Lord.  It's really a wonderful picture; and I have no doubt that when God brings creation to its final healing and reconciliation that it will be quite a sight.

But in Mark 3:7-19; which I believe is Jesus beginning that process in keeping with His "the Kingdom of God is at hand" approach to things, it's a bit more messy that Isaiah seems to portray.

The phrase Mark uses for the crowd is ply plethos meaning “many, many.”  The Romans and the client king who did their bidding held larges groups in low regard.  They called them hoi polloi…inconsequential scum who had to be controlled through violence and force.  These are the crowds that push through the market place, struggle to survive under Roman oppression, and push their way into the houses where Jesus is in such numbers that, on one occasion, we're told Jesus and the disciples can't even sit down to eat.

And then there's the make up of the crowd.  They're sick, lame, demon possessed.  Hungry for healing and to be cared for.  On top of that, they're from everywhere. The designations “from Galilee” and “from Judea, Jerusalem” are not surprising…and they can lull us to sleep about the others.

Idumea was a non-Jewish area until conquered by Maccabean leader John Hyracanus (134-104 BCE) and all its inhabitants were  forcibly converted to Judaism, including the requirement that they be circumsized.  Their status as Jews was not, however, fully recognized by all pious Jews living in the north and as a consequence they were always treated as outsiders. 

“Beyond the Jordon” probably refers to the Upper Jordan and the Greek territories of the Decapolis.

Tyre and Sidon are gentile territories.  Though Jews did live in these areas, they identify foreign locals that were never part of Israel proper.  

At the time of the New Testament Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities, previously Greek, that were inhabited mostly by gentiles.  Yet there was great spiritual hunger in the region. Early in Jesus’ ministry, people from Sidon and Tyre heard about the things He did. They came to see Him (Mk 3:8) and be healed by Him (Lu 6:17). These cities are now both part of Lebanon. Later in His ministry, Jesus visited the region of the Decapolis where he’ll heal the Gerasene demoniac; and also Sidon and Tyre. There He will heal the daughter of a Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman (Mt 15:21–28; Mk 7:24–31). 

The point of all this is that Mark is painting a picture of Jesus bringing this picture from Isaiah to life.  When Jesus says, "If I be lifted up, I will draw everyone to me," this is what it looks like.

Two questions come to me when I read this passage...especially in the light of the fact that Jesus called disciples and told them to do (basically) just what He was doing:

  1. Are we doing anything that would make the crowds come to our faith communities in the way that these crowds came to Jesus? 
  2. Are we practicing the kind of radical hospitality that would welcome them once they got here?
In other words, are we trying to realize the Kingdom in the way that Jesus did?  Are we willing to engage in the messiness of ministry?

These are questions that I hear asked a lot lately by some of the preachers I admire most.  But I also need to ask the question in the depth of my own heart.  Am I willing to be packed into the Kingdom with folks that I don't like, who are different than me, and who smell funny?  More than that, am I willing to go out to where they are and engage in behaviors that would make them want to find out what motivated me to care?

It seems to me that this is where the prophet and the pastoral meet.  We need to be engaging in the prophetic ministries of being "out there" doing justice and working for an end to hunger and oppression.  We also need to be holding the door open to the community of faith, offering the radical hospitality that says, "there's a place for you at the table here."

I'm glad that Mark gives us this vision.  I pray that I will learn to live it.