“Nature is boring. I played in it once. There was nothing to buy. It sucked.”
This is one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. At first I tried to squeeze this whole chapter into one post, but like the love of God it could not be contained. So, instead I will break this up into two parts. First, I will consider the chapter in its Old Testament context. In the next post I will interpret and connect the chapter to the New Testament, primarily Jesus’ reference to this passage and the Letter of James.
We are the Land
My reading of this chapter has been partially inspired by a traditional Native American greeting that the musical group Ulali enshrined in a powerful song. The greeting is “All my relations” and it is offered as a reminder of our connections to each other. The song which I have quoted at the end of this post captures beautifully the sense of this powerful, all-embracing salutation. It is in this light that I offer my thoughts on this pivotal chapter in the Hebrew Scripture.
Verses 1-4 are a recapitulation of the first five commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai against idolatry, making idols and using the name of YHWH in vain, and for keeping the Sabbath and honoring father and mother (Ex 20:3-6, 8-12). I wonder about the way that the command to honor parents and the Sabbath are lumped together in verse 3. It’s almost the inverse of the Native American tradition of thinking about consequences to the seventh generation. Here Sabbath practice (which includes the care for the land involved in Sabbatical and Jubilee years) honors those that have gone before by continuing the tradition and legacy of stewardship of creation. Verses 5-8 then concern the peace or fellowship offering, connecting this opening salvo to the sacrificial system which maintained and nurtured Israel’s ongoing relationship with YHWH. The context of this covenantal relationship with YHWH is is the foundational framework for understanding the commandments that follow.
The following verses deal with Israel’s social relationships and their use of nature. The practice of gleaning combines these two arenas into one practice.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:9-10)
It is hard to imagine farmers allowing the practice of gleaning in our era of industrial agriculture that is so obsessed with yields above all other measures or qualities of crops. There is a certain amount of respect inherent in this command for those who gain their sustenance by foraging for leftovers in other people’s fields. In North American culture we tend to look down on those that take handouts in order to survive (though not in the case of farmers who are propped up by government subsidies), but this practice was a way of maintaining community ties with those who were most vulnerable. The story of Ruth and Boaz certainly does not condemn them for making use of this practice. The rest of the commandments can be read in light of this first command which combines social relationships and their relationship to nature.
It also seems important to note that almost all of the commands come in pairs, each verse containing two or more commands that somehow relate to each other. Often a section of commands is concluded by a command or statement about how this relates to God and then the words “I am the LORD”. This is the pattern for 9-18 and 23-37. Only verses 19-22 break with this pattern (I’m not sure exactly why). For example, verses 11-12 almost seem to imply a scenario in which someone gets more and more entangled in their misdeeds (this is also the plot of many a Hollywood comedy). First someone steals. Then they must cover up what they’ve done by lying and “dealing falsely”. Perhaps when confronted or in an effort to keep their sin hidden they make an oath or swear using the Divine name to back up their (false) righteousness. You can see how these commands relate, intertwine and culminate. This also connects broken social relationships to a broken relationship with God.
Many of the verses leading up to the well known verse 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, also concern the treatment of neighbors, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (13), “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (15) and “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor” (16). Loving your neighbor has very little to do with feelings in this context, but requires concrete actions.
More Sex and the Land
Verses 19-25 are filled with subtle references to sex. First there is a prohibition against breeding two different cattle and planting fields with two kinds of seed. This may seem foreign to us, since our culture has gone far beyond traditional breeding and crossing of animals into the realms of cloning and bioengineering. Planting a field with only one kind of seed sounds like the monoculture of industrial agriculture practiced around the world today, but contradicts what science has taught us about biodiversity and ecosystems. I’ll be honest, without the help of commentaries for more insight into this particular prohibition I would just be shooting in the dark (and as you may know that can be dangerous). The commandments concerning fruit trees in verses 23-25 are pretty much common sense. Most fruit trees take 3-5 years before producing fruit, again in the way of all living things involving sex of some kind.
Sandwiched in between these two verses is another command concerning sexuality (20-22) further connecting sexual relationships and sexuality to our treatment of the land (see Sex and the Land). The image of the land falling into prostitution in verse 29 is an interesting one in this regard. The connection between objectifying sexual relationships and objectifying the land is reiterated. The keeping of Sabbath practices in verse 30 then properly reflects the opposite of prostituting the land.
I would need much more time and space to make all of the connections in this chapter, but I believe they are there. For example, verse 26 contains two seemingly unrelated commands, the first not to eat blood and the second not to try and tell the future. If we recall that the prohibition of consuming blood is because it is the source of life (see Blood Cries Out), then the connection to telling the future is our attempt to control or have power over things that are not ours to control. Verses 27-28 are about how we mourn and our relationship to the dead, the opposite of the previous verse.
Present in all of these commandments is the idea that sex, fertility, the land, respect for life and for things that are beyond our control are interconnected parts of the same whole reality and our relationship to it. As I said before, I think that the Native American greeting “All my relations” is a helpful way of understanding this.
All My Relations by Ulali
To our elders who teach us of our creation and our past so we may preserve mother earth for ancestors yet to come
We are the land
This is dedicated to our relatives before us thousands of years ago
And to the 150 million who were exterminated across the western hemisphere in the first 400 years time starting in 1492
To those who have kept their homelands
And to the nations extinct due to mass slaughter, slavery, deportation and disease unknown to them
And to the ones who are subjected to the same treatment today
To the ones who survived the relocations and the ones who died along the way
To those who carried on traditions and lived strong among their people
To those who left their communities by force or by choice and through generations no longer know who they are
To those who search and never find
To those that turn away the so-called unaccepted
To those that bring us together and to those living outside keeping touch, the voice for many
To those that make it back to live and fight the struggles of their people
To those that give up and those who do not care
To those who abuse themselves and others and those who revive again
To those who are physically, mentally or spiritually incapable by accident or by birth
To those who seek strength in our spirituality and ways of life and those who exploit it, even our own
To those who fall for the lies and join the dividing lines that keep us fighting amongst each other
To the outsiders who step in good or bad and those of us who don’t know better
To the leaders and prisoners of war politics crime race and religion innocent or guilty
To the young, the old, the living and the dead
To our brothers and sisters and all living things across mother earth
Whose beauty we have destroyed and denied the honor the Creator has given each individual
The truth that lies in our hearts
All my relations
So, why create a sandwich with these three parables together followed by the explanation of the first parable? It seems that these parables build on each other and relate to each other. But how?
All three parables have to do with something small that takes over for good or ill. The seeds sown for the weeds and the mustard tree (toothbrush tree) become prominent features in the landscape. The yeast is worked into all the flour.
The parable of the weeds is a negative example of the kingdom, while the parable of the mustard seed and yeast are positive examples. Perhaps this is why only the first parable needs explanation. The idea that God’s kingdom is small and takes over through small acts is easy to swallow. It might be hard in practice, but it’s easy to hear. The good guys win. The idea that what is sown by evil people should be allowed to continue alongside the works of the righteous is much more difficult to swallow.
When we divide the world into these binary categories of righteous and evil, it is difficult to abide their coexistence. If there is simply an Axis of Evil then the decisions about what to do are simple and obvious. If, instead, as Jesus suggests, we are to allow the righteous and evil to exist alongside each other and leave judgment for the end of the age and harvesting to the angels, then life between now and then just got a lot more complicated.
As I suggested in my post on the parable of the weeds, the idea that we know what’s best in agriculture may be based on some faulty assumptions about good plants and bad plants. We also make the same mistake with insects. Upwards of 95% of all insect species are beneficial. So, what happens when you blanket crops with pesticides that kill off the 95% along with the 5% that do damage? I also believe strongly that the soil is the foundation of good agriculture. If you create an environment in which your plants are healthy and thriving, because they have good soil, you are also controlling for weeds and insects. In other words, the healthiest environment for productive life on the planet is one where we allow the weeds, crops and insects to thrive together in a balance that naturally occurs without our help.
The stability of old growth forests, create an abundance of life and resources, because nature is allowed to live out its balance with “weeds”, insects and edible plants all living together. We tend to err on the side of intervention, always assuming that we know best the answers to natures problems (usually problems we created through our intervention). As with my idea of what missions is, it is less about intervening and more about listening, understanding and allowing the Spirit to lead us in a process of mutual transformation.
Like, the mustard seed or the yeast, it is hard to see what will come from something so tiny. It is also hard to see what comes from allowing the weeds and wheat to grow together. The transformation begins when we lay down the assumption that we know the answers, solutions and who is righteous and evil. Transformation also begins with the small acts of the kingdom that multiply, grow and permeate the world around us.
“Natural farming is not simply a way of growing crops; it is the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Masanobu Fukuoka (quote and photo via eartheasy.com)
Matthew 13:31-35 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’
We previously looked at the surrounding parable of the weeds. Now let’s consider the middle passage. Jesus comes at the crowd rapid fire with two short parables about the kingdom, before explaining the first parable.
The mustard plant Jesus was referencing might be brassica nigra or Black Mustard, but this plant certainly does not look like it could support birds, much less a nest. Botanical.com points to the Khardal tree of the arabs as the likely suspect. It is “a tree abounding near the Sea of Galilee, which bears numerous branches and has small seeds, having the flavour and properties of Mustard.” I did some more digging to try and figure out exactly what plant this was and finally found Salvadora persica in an obscure footnote of Ceylon: an account of the island, Volume 1 By Sir James Emerson Tennent, which is now called Sri Lanka.
This tree is known as the mustard tree and its seeds can be substituted for mustard seeds, but it is also called the toothbrush tree. Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad recommended the use of twigs, or Miswak, from the tree to clean and whiten your teeth. Perhaps this is how Jesus’ teeth stayed so perfectly straight and white. The World Agroforestry Centre lists many uses for the tree including edible fruit, leaves, tender shoots, seeds and seed oil. It can also be used as a forage for animals and the wood can be used for timber… and of course twigs for toothbrushes.
Now that we’ve identified the plant Jesus is talking about… So what? It doesn’t change the meaning of the parable really. The point is that big things come from small things. North American culture certainly prizes the biggest above all. So, it’s a good word for a culture in which the average size of our homes has grown from 1,600 sq ft to 2,434 sq ft from 1970-2005 (Wikipedia).
Now, yeast brings us bread, beer and even Vegemite, but we sometimes forget that it’s a living organism. Technically called eukaryotic micro-organisms, yeast is classified as a fungi. Sourdough, Amish friendship bread, yogurt, symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), kombucha and kefir are probiotic foods and beverages with microscopic living organisms in them. These civilizations of microorganisms, under the right conditions, multiply and continue to produce new foods and beverages through fermentation. In a consumer culture where we tend to buy everything we need, it is countercultural to create our own food from scratch. You never need to buy yogurt again if you make your own, because a small amount of the yogurt contains enough bacteria to make more yogurt. So, it blows my mind to see kombucha mass marketed in stores when you can make it yourself over and over again for very cheap.
So, what’s the point of all this investigation into what tree Jesus was talking about and what yeast is really all about? Well, I think it’s a way of recognizing (again) that when we hear Jesus use agricultural and food analogies, we don’t know what he’s talking about because we are so disconnected from the earth and our food. Because we’re disconnected from our food and the source of that food what “has been hidden form the foundation of the world” continues to be hidden from us. It also points out the importance of context and place. The mustard tree is not the plant producing condiments for our hot dogs, but a particular tree that is part of a particular ecosystem.
The meaning of the parables also reminds us of the way that real change happens. Small things are not small. In fact it’s all any of us can really do, and it’s what has always changed the world (sitting down at lunch counters, not moving to the back of the bus, making salt in the sea). The kingdom of God is like this. Like yeast it is tiny, but it infiltrates all though dough and transforms water into beer, grapes into wine, milk into yogurt. It reproduces this effect over and over again indefinitely until everything is permeated with this life.
Getting something, words, art, portraits, symbols, permanently etched in your flesh is a momentous occasion. A lot of tattoos happen because of inebriation and impaired judgment. Others happen after long deliberation and careful thought. Most happen somewhere in between. I’m not sure where mine falls on the spectrum, but I know it’s on the more thoughtful end of the spectrum. I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on tattoos, why we get them and why I got the one that I did.
One of my ideas for a tattoo was to get the verse from Leviticus 19, which many people use to say Christians should not get tattoos, actually tattooed. The irony was too good, but I thought the joke would get old after a while and therefore not make a good permanent fixture on my body.
For me getting a tattoo marks a passage, a momentous time, an important milestone that I don’t want to forget. Living at the farm in many ways makes living simply easy. There is a community that does most of the work for you. Composting toilets are the only choice for where to relieve yourself. Growing food in a sustainable way is part of my job description. There’s also a community that values, simplicity, skill sharing, creativity, producing what we use and dumpster diving.
What will life be like when I’m not around these people who care for me and encourage me?
I know what life is like outside of this farm. There are mortgage or rent payments, insurance payments, school loans, groceries, doctor’s visits, car problems and more. Will there be time for a garden? Or backyard chickens? Will I hold to the values and principles that are easy to do in community, but harder when you have to choose them every day?
The reason I chose a tree is partly because of its rich significance in the Christian tradition. Psalm 1:1 describes the righteous person as a tree planted by streams of water. The tree of life is a symbol of our lives hidden with God, but also the abundance of that first garden and God’s intentions for our lives on this planet. So, there is a spiritual and religious significance.
I wanted the tree to have a large root system. The design I found included the mushrooms poling up from the roots. It would be easy to assume this was some drug reference or hippie posturing. That would be selling the life beneath the soil and all of the fungi kingdom way short. The mushrooms represent resurrection. They grow out of the death and decay in the soil. They are often one of the first things to pop up after a forest fire. Certain fungi also make nutrients in the soil accessible to the root systems of plants that they would otherwise be unable to use.
Roots and the life beneath the soil are so important. They are the unseen foundation of life on our earth. A beautiful green plant that puts on a lot of growth, but does not have a root system will fall over and die at the first gust of wind. A strong, well-established root system is essential for the health and longevity of plants. The roots are unseen, however. If they do become exposed there is a danger that the plant will die.
People see our fruits. They see what we do and hear what we say… in public. The real test is what we do when no one is looking. How do we treat our wife or kids at home where no one sees? What do we say behind people’s backs? What goes on in our inner life, our thoughts and feelings? How do we deal with our emotions or desires? These are the roots that make us who we are. The kinds of roots we have determines how fruitful we are. John and Jesus both said something about the axe being laid at the root of the tree that bears bad fruit.
I also think of the way trees put down roots, compared to the way modern (American) humans live such transient lives. We are often scared to put down roots, to stake a claim and commit our lives to a career or cause, much less a place. That’s what a tattoo is in many ways. It is a permanent statement, a claim staked, a flag planted. It’s scary to get something permanent etched in your flesh. What is worth looking at every day for the rest of your life? What would your statement be?
The tree and roots is also a reminder of my interdependence on nature and my fellow human beings. For that reason, and the others I mentioned, I feel confident staking my claim here. This is where I plan to put down roots. This is the hill I wish to die on.