The Mustard Seed

Leviticus 19:19
Matthew 13:31-32
Feb 17, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Did you ever have an argument with your teenager and wished there was something in the Bible to help you? Perhaps you should have turned to chapter 19 of Leviticus and read this scripture to your rebellious child: God says, “You shall revere your mother and father.” If they scowled at your advice, you could have followed your reading with Leviticus 19:32, “You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old.” And if they still sneered and rolled their eyes at you, you could have turned the page and read this to them from Leviticus 20:9 “All who curse father or mother shall be put to death!”

Three strikes and you are out — literally. Kids didn’t mess with their parents in the time of Moses!

The verse in Leviticus prescribing capital punishment for cheeky children is not only striking for its severity but also because it follows a number of commandments that encourage kindness; mercy to the poor, just dealings with your neighbor, and that famous verse that Jesus quotes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So after reciting a list of God’s desires for a compassionate life at the beginning of chapter 19, the laws of Leviticus take an abrupt left turn as they descend into a stringent code of conduct that is restrictive, disapproving, and at times downright bizarre. In our Responsive Reading for today, I deliberately tried to evoke the dizzying feel of this change by having you recite a litany of the verses in chapter 19 which begin as an echo of the ten commandments but I ended the litany with the first of those stranger set of commandments: the prohibition against the blending of fabrics.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself, and don’t mix your fabrics!”

If we had kept reading, we would also have heard Moses tell the people that they should not only execute rebellious children but adulterers as well, that they should eat no meat with its blood (so much for rare steaks), they should always trim their hair in the style of sideburns, and they should never get tattoos. 1 One reason it is important for us to read the odd prohibitions in these chapters of Leviticus is because it is here, buried among the strange rules regarding clothing and personal toiletries, that you will also find the laws against homosexuality which have driven so much of the anti-gay rhetoric in the Christian church, which means that anyone who claims that homosexuality is a sin because it is prohibited in the laws of Moses had better be wearing sideburns and a 100% cotton T-shirt. These laws of Leviticus are clearly describing a social code that is no longer applicable to our lives today, and I have preached before on the inappropriateness of using these passages to condemn today’s mutually loving gay relationships while at the same abandoning other parts of Leviticus as outdated. The fact is that I believe God accepts LGBTQ people in the fullness of their humanity just as God couldn’t care a hoot about whether you wear a synthetic blend T-shirt.

Yet this still begs the question of why these strange laws were developed in the first place? Why would anyone think that God does care about whether you get tattoos, or about how you wear your hair, and weirdest of all, about mixing two types of cloth? What makes this question even more intriguing is that the mixing of cloths is not the only kind of mixing that is forbidden in Leviticus. Not only does Leviticus forbid mixing linen and wool, but it also forbids yoking donkeys and oxen together, or planting more than one type of seed in a field, or breeding hybrids which would make cockapoos and labradoodles a violation of God’s law.  It is as if the author of these laws was some obsessive-compulsive type who refused to eat if his meat accidentally touched his mashed potatoes and who kept his spices in alphabetical order.

Which is actually not too far from the truth. The laws of Leviticus were most likely written down in their final form by priests living during and after the Babylonian exile. This was a time when the Israelite nation had been destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jewish people had been forced to live in a foreign country under foreign rule. These laws, then were compiled by people who needed to feel a sense of control again over their lives, by human beings like you and me who were frightened by the seeming randomness of war, of disaster and disease, and by the unpredictability of the other human beings with whom they shared their world. 2 Religious thinkers came to believe that a safe universe is one that is well-ordered; that a safe universe is one where a person can get up in the morning and know what to expect from their day, and where everything — and everyone — around them conforms to the same set of rules so that your world is predictable. In fact, the priests came to believe, these set of rules are so important to our well being that God has written them into the fabric of the universe and it is a sin to upset that order. In other words, they believed that what you wore and how you structured your relationships and even how you planted your garden affected the well being of your spiritual self and the inherent balance of the very cosmos because for them, order meant safety.

To be prosaic about it, the laws of Leviticus were the priests’ way of saying, “A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind.”

While we no longer prescribe to the arcane rules that the ancient priests developed in order to try to gain control over their environment, our impulses to try to impose order on the world around us remains the same. We still struggle with the seeming randomness of life. We are still disturbed when people act in ways that don’t fit into our desired order of things. We still have control issues, and sometimes the ways in which we try to force everything around us into boxes to make us feel comfortable and safe are as ridiculous as those strange laws of Leviticus. And that’s what Jesus is addressing in his parable of the mustard seed.

When Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that a man sowed in a field….” he is deliberately provoking the anxiety of his listeners. Jesus knows that when they hear these words, the laws of Leviticus will jump into their heads, and their mouths will drop open in astonishment and disbelief.

“What??!!” Jesus’ listeners would have exclaimed.  “A man is sowing mustard seed in his field?  What is he thinking?”  They know that this man is violating the Levitical law forbidding the mixing of types. And the man of the parable is not only scattering a wild seed among his crops but he is sowing seeds of the mustard plant, a highly invasive species that spreads quickly and is hard to weed out.  Things are going to be a mess in that tidy garden. The shock of this image for Jesus’ listeners would be like Jesus saying to us, “The Kingdom of God is like a child who took a handful of dandelion seeds and sowed them in your lettuce patch.”

We would interrupt Jesus and shout, “Tell me again about the commandment that allows parents to stone their kids?!!!”

Jesus is telling us that while we are going out of our way trying to construct tidy, comfortable, predictable, safe worlds, God is going out of God’s way to mess them up. The Kingdom of God — the place in our lives where God’s rule reigns — is a place where people matter more than predictability and where God challenges us to let go of our need for safety in order to experience the freedom and the fullness of God’s diverse creation.

To be prosaic about it, if the laws of Leviticus were the priests’ way of saying, “A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind,” this parable of Jesus’ is foreshadowing Albert Einstein’s question: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”

It is true that the randomness of the world can be hard to bear. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can attest to that sensation of a world that feels normal one second and is completely unmade by unexpected grief the next. It can knock us off of our feet. Jesus, however, tells us that the way to cope with the frightening randomness of the world is not to shut up our world in neat tight boxes because the more we try to force everything and everyone around us to conform to our expectations, the more we try to exert control, the less safe our world actually becomes. Instead, we become locked in our own fears, and we lock others up with our fears as well. We create more and more restrictive rules for our children to try to keep them safe and instead end up stunting their growth and ruining their trust in us and others and in themselves. We tell people how they should live and who they should love so that we will feel comfortable in our own skin but instead we become obsessed with thinking about theirs. We put up gates on our communities, shutter our borders, and live in smaller and smaller networks of like-minded people, until eventually our lives become so measured that we are no longer able to cope with even the smallest change. The only way to freedom, Jesus says, is to live in a way that feels counter-intuitive. We must give up our control and step out into the messy, unpredictable, wild, and yet wonderful world of God’s realm, a place where God dares to sow mustard seed right in there with the carrots; where donkeys and oxen can work side by side, where people dare to wear synthetic blends and coats of many colors, and where labradoodles race about in delight. Or to be more prosaic about it, where people of every color, gender, sexuality, background, age, size, and personality mix elbow to elbow; where we are forced to confront our discomforts and discover that there is nothing to be afraid of. God has created a wild and beautiful world, and God has pronounced it good.

The realm of God, Jesus said, is a messy place because when we give our hearts and lives to God, God will deliberately challenge our human desire for control and order but in exchange for our control, God offers us freedom. In God’s realm, we will discover new ways of living and new ways of thinking. In God’s realm, we will discover our fears have no power. In God’s realm, our worlds will become enlarged and our hearts and minds expanded. In God’s messy realm, we will come to know what it is to live in the wondrous unbounded and all embracing dimensions of the very heart of God.

Let go of your control and allow God to lead you through your fear to freedom and beauty to the place where God’s love reigns and labradoodles romp for joy.

1. Lev 20:10, 19:23-25, 19:27, 19:28, and 19:19 respectively
2. Even if many of the laws were from an earlier time, any laws prescribing an orderly would become more valuable to the Jews living in times of uncertainty and would have been remembered and retained.