When I was a kid, my brothers and I loved to watch the ABC TV series MacGyver! There was something about the way he would, regardless of the seemingly impossible situation, the uphill battle he faced, and the lack of resources he had to work with, he would always save the day. He was a little foolish and impractical too, although in my youth I didn’t pick up on that as much as I did on the late 80s early 90s action that drew boys like me to wonder from one episode to the next how the smart independent-contractor-like spy-and-problem-solver-for-hire would get out of this week’s quagmire. This was especially interesting because he was often out-matched, the bad guys would always have guns, bombs, or, in the case of the archenemy Murdoc, a flame-thrower. MacGyver, on the other hand, had a strict no-guns policy — a man committed, in the most improbable way given his line of work, to some form of nonviolence.
Yesterday’s Gospel parable about the mustard seed reminds me a lot of MacGyver. Although, to be fair, Jesus would have likely made a better screenwriter (if you’ve watched some of the old episodes of MacGyver recently on DVD or online, you’ll quickly realize that this was a low-budget, low-quality production compared with what passes for action or suspense programming today).
It might seem silly to think about MacGyver, the character played by Richard Dean Anderson, as having anything to do with Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, but take a moment to think about this.
Most of us are familiar with Jesus’s initial point: the mustard seed is this itsy-bitsy, tiny, fragile, spec of a seed. It is weak and unimpressive, it is small and easily lost. Here we can relate, as most hearers of this parable do, to the experience of our faith. It starts off small, weak, easily lost, fragile and itsy-bitsy.
Then Jesus says, although the seed begins as “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth,” it grows into this large tree with branches that can support birds of the air and other creatures. Mustard plants are very large, right?
No. False! Mustard plants are, in fact, not large at all (see photo to left). They are more like weeds or small shrubs, and they certainly cannot support the weight of birds, forget about the weight of a bird nest!
So, is Jesus lying to us? Not exactly, we have to remember that he began this little story with the rhetorical question “what parable can we use to describe the kingdom of God?” It is a parable, a narrative designed to flip our expectations upside down and reveal something about who God is and who we are.
What I think is going on here is that Jesus wants to show us that even though our faith might grow into something much larger than the little, tiny mustard seed, the mature faith of a fully grown mustard plant is still weak and fragile and susceptible to all sorts of challenges. Why? Because we always remain human, finite and fallible. Even the holiest and most devoted follower of Christ, someone who strives sincerely to follow the Gospel and live in just relationship to the rest of creation and humanity, will still have a flimsy mustard plant of faith.
Take, for example, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here is an undisputedly holy woman (pace Christopher Hitchens, who begged to differ) who lived her whole life serving the ‘poorest of the poor,’ the untouchable caste, those who society left for dead and didn’t even acknowledge existed. Mother Teresa continues to have a positive effect in our world through the amazing work of her community of religious Sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, throughout so many countries including the United States.
When someone looks at the life of Mother Teresa, it would be natural to conclude, using this Gospel parable, that she must have had a large, strong and sturdy mustard plant of faith in order to accomplish such amazing things for the most vulnerable. Yet, in 2008, with the publication of her private journals and letters, the world came to have an intimate glimpse into her spiritual life, which revealed that she struggled for decades with her faith. She was uncertain about what God asked of her and at times even doubted God’s existence. Nevertheless, despite her vulnerable faith, this still-small and weak mustard plant of faith, God was able to do tremendous things through her.
This is how God is so much like the MacGyver of our lives and faith! With few resources (all God has is us) and in seemingly impossible situations (like Mother Teresa’s context in India and elsewhere), God can accomplish amazing things in the world.
We might always have an imperfect faith, an effect of being human, but if we are open to the Holy Spirit, we can help usher in the Kingdom of God in small and large ways alike.
The point of Jesus’s parable is this: the Kingdom of God is like a mustard plant being strong enough to support those around it, the birds of our society, who are in need of shelter, support, love and patience! When we cooperate with God to do tremendous things with our inevitably weak and human faith, God can — like MacGyver in the toughest of circumstances — pull of something amazing, save the day, and bring about good work in the world.