Turning the world upside down - Glynn Cardy
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in their garden. And it grew and grew and became a great tree with large branches so that the birds made nests in it (Lk.13:18).
A Kingdom Of Weeds
The power of this parable relies upon us knowing some basic botany. The mustard plant is an annual that grew wild in Palestine. Pliny, that great Roman observer, writes: “It grows entirely wild… when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.” It was, in other words, a weed. It was the oxalis of the ancient world.
In the parable the person plants the mustard weed in their garden. Apart from being a stupid thing to do – think oxalis – it violated the law of diverse kinds (Lev.19:19). This law was designed to maintain order and separation, keeping plants in their proper place. Normally mustard was sown in small patches on the edge of a field. It was prohibited to plant it in a garden because it would result in mingling. By planting it in the garden, the planter makes the garden ‘unclean’.
The mustard seed grew and grew and grew – as weeds do. This creates a conflict for the hearers of the parable. Is growth a good thing? Is it a blessing or a problem or a violation?
Mustard seeds don’t grow into great trees with branches. They grow into shrubs with a maximum height of 1.2 metres. It takes a lot of imagination, digital re-imaging, or GE, to make mustard into a large tree.
In Ezekiel 31 there is reference to the cedars of Lebanon – great trees, large branches, and nesting birds. Similarly in Ezekiel 17 and Psalm 104. There is a metaphorical association of God being a great tree in which all manner of birds (i.e. peoples) can find a home. There is also metaphorical reference to Israel. As the ancients told it, Israel began life as a sprig and was raised up to tower over the other nations, like a mighty cedar over other trees.
Now Jesus was either botanically challenged or was deliberately mixing it up. The lowly, virulent and problematic mustard can hardly be mistaken for the lofty, virtuous, and powerful cedar. Indeed his audience was probably smiling at the thought. What was Jesus trying to do in stirring his metaphors? Was he trying to prick the fantasy balloon of Israel regaining its past imperial glory, and suggest that its destiny would be lowlier?
Jesus often did the reversal thing, trying to turn people’s thinking upside down. Consider, for example, the man beaten on the road to Jericho. The hero of that story is the unclean and despised Samaritan. Think of Jesus relating to sinners, including the tax collector Matthew, eating with them and sharing in their unclean status. The planting of a mustard seed in a garden likewise associates the reign of God with uncleanness.
The reign of God is meant to be mighty, exalted and significant, like a cedar. The mustard seed though is proverbially small, despised, and insignificant. Yet in the topsy-turvy, upside down mind of Jesus, God is seen clearest of all in the small, despised, and insignificant.
There is disorder contained in the mustard metaphor. The reign of God is not like the Botanical Gardens were everything is carefully laid out, well tended and watered, named and admired. The reign of God is not orderly, where people all have allocated places and behave themselves. Rather the reign of God is like oxalis. It crops up all over the place, despite our best efforts to keep it out. Just when you had that patch of garden looking great, up she pops with her little yellow flowers.
The reign of God is not under our control. It is out of control, despite our best efforts. The Holy Spirit of God moves where She wills, sowing some love here, some discomfort there, some radical thought everywhere. If you want to find Her, look first in the least likely places. Don’t start with churches, especially those that present God as a pre-packed TV dinner. Rather look among the despised and insignificant.
Economically and socially 12th century Italy was in a state of great change. There was a new sense of identity and the possibility for power. The source of this power lay in money. With the old feudal structures collapsing the barter culture was changing to the money culture. The emerging petit bourgeoisie, to whom Francis’ family belonged, realised the power that they possessed through their wealth and began to exercise it.
Francis’s heart, however, wasn’t in it. His sympathies were with the nobodies and nuisances, those who were outside of power and possibility. In the documents we have of the early Franciscan movement the lepers parti-cularly stand out. Francis’ embrace with an unclean leper has become legendary in Franciscan literary history.
Lepers were not recognised as existing in society. They did not benefit from the great economic and social changes. They had no share in the power structure; they did not participate in societal decision-making.
When Francis said following that leprous embrace: “after that I did not wait long until I left the world”, what was ‘the world’ he left? He was not talking about physically dying. The world he left was the value system brought about by the new-found wealth of the middle class. Francis did not just leave his family; he left everything that was familiar to him to go into another world – a world of nothingness, not even promise, the world of the despised and insignificant, a world of weeds.
The lepers of Assisi lived outside the normal world. They had no names; they had no society; they had no voice. Thus they were not just excluded persons – they were nobodies. They did not exist. They were nameless weeds in the garden of life. In this context, when Francis found himself among them, he did not exist himself. By mingling with weeds, as far as good gardeners were concerned, he became one.
The interesting question about the embrace with the leper is, who hugged whom? Why do we assume Francis initiated the hug? Maybe it was the faith of the leper, who could have lost his life by touching someone of Francis’ class, that we should be remembering? What if it was the leper who took the first step? If so, is it not unreasonable to suggest that the Franciscan Movement was not only founded by Francis but by a nameless leper? A nobody founded the movement?
One of the qualities of the mustard plant, and intrinsic to its inclusion in the law of diverse kinds, is its take-over properties. It is dangerous even when domesticated. Not only does it mingle with other seeds, it tends to take over where it is not wanted. It gets out of control and attracts birds within cultivated areas where they are not desired. As a farmer you would only want mustard in small and carefully controlled doses, like in the corner of a large field.
The similarities between nobodies and mustard are striking. Someone is always trying to control them, making sure they don’t upset the status quo, pushing them out to the boundaries where they will do least harm and not attract similar unwanted ilk. Think if the City Mission was located in Remuera or in Fendalton – or in your street or mine.
Jesus instituted a reign of nuisances and nobodies. It was a kingdom of weeds. And we, against our common gardening sense, are invited to mingle.
Finding the right rhythm
Tui Motu interviews Michelle Hughey who speaks about the vocation to be a Teacher and a Christian Educator
I was brought up in Manurewa, so I am a South Auckland girl. Before entering the Josephites I taught for three and half years at McAuley College, Otahuhu – economics and religious education, mostly to Maori and Pacific Islands girls. It was a great school to begin my ministry of teaching.
I had met the Josephite Sisters when I was at Training College. During my time of postulancy I still continued to teach at McAuley, but I lived for a time at the Josephite house of hospitality, the Manaaki community, in Onehunga. I was able to get to know the Sisters. A policy existed at the house whereby women were able to stay there for a few weeks or months or a year. We had to commit ourselves to community living, sharing prayer and life together. This happened during 2000, and it helped me decide on the religious life.
So I went to Sydney for noviciate. There were five of us. I was the only Kiwi; there were two Australians and two originally from elsewhere. I was professed in July 2003. I will have at least three years in temporary vows. Our spirit as Josephites, since Mary McKillop’s day, is to go where the need is – which may be to a remote place.
Rural ministry has been a tradition with the Josephites from the beginning. That appealed to me personally. In fact we have a choice where we go. The discernment process involves both the leadership team and the individual religious. The team calls us to mission. I expressed a preference for a rural ministry – so I found myself in Gore! And St Peter’s College, Gore, is a wonderful school.
The teaching vocation
Teaching is something I really enjoy and feel passionate about. I believe teaching young people is similar to creating music. Beautiful music can be created when musicians not only listen to the sound of their own instruments, but also to all others. In this way, each person finds his/her own rhythm in harmony with the beat of the song.
Education then, using this metaphor of music, requires those of us who are teachers (and certainly others whose work/ministry resonates with this image) to listen attentively to young people, and to create a space for our young people to find their beat – their rhythm so to speak – and thus experience the joy, esteem and beauty of true learning. It’s about good timing. You have to listen to the children and come in at the right time with the right question. And that’s especially true of Religious Education. Sometimes there are ‘rests’ – you have to stand back and give each student the time to articulate. Of course, this is the ideal to which we all strive within the nitty gritty of each day.
For example, I teach RE to Year 10 (Form 4) and also Years 12 and 13. There is quite a big jump when they come into the Sixth Form, and the presence of Seventh Formers in a mixed group works well at St Peter’s. RE is a challenging subject to teach because many teenagers have not yet reached the stage of owned faith. It’s hard work to make RE relevant to where students are at in terms of their life experience – but often it’s rewarding when you least expect it.
I really believe in Religious Education in Catholic schools if it is respectful of the faith stage of where students are at. In my experience of teaching so far, I have found that students are interested to learn about the Bible, and the teachings and history of the Church if they know that where they stand in terms of their faith development – and indeed who they are – is respected, and they can ask questions. The young people I have experienced working with continue to surprise me with incredible generosity, honesty and goodness.
As well as this, RE can help students to learn how to self-reflect, it gives them the opportunity to pray during the day and it can companion them in their search for God. For some, RE may simply be a lesson about a historical event 2000 years ago, because as we know, faith is a gift.
For others, RE may mean more than that. However, forall, more than anywhere else, I believe RE should be a time where students experience profound respect for who they are and where they stand in their faith development and life journey.
Retreat times are very important. On retreat we need people who can come in and meet the young people where they are at – especially through the liturgies. I really believe the students are deeply spiritual.
I am passionate about good liturgy, because it is so important for the young to experience the sacred. Good liturgies bring it out and they feel it. We have liturgies for the whole school on special feasts – like the Assumption of Mary, Ash Wednesday and Easter. We make the liturgies creative when that is called for. We use music a lot. For instance on Holy Thursday we sang a song about Jesus on the Cross – but it asks what it means for us in our lives today.
In our school leaving liturgy last year, we explored the experiences of the Year 13 students during their final year at school and reflected on them. I think it helped them to ‘leave well’. That is what good liturgy is about. When kids say that liturgies are ‘boring’, what they are saying is that it isn’t achieving for them what it is meant to achieve. It is not resonating with their experience.
I try to listen to the students: what language, for instance, they respond to and what turns them off. Sometimes, old church language turns them off: some of the old prayers have no meaning for them. But if the prayer is reworded for them, then the meaning of the prayer will get through. Similarly, Scripture has to be broken open for them. Someone may ask: “Did Jesus really rebuke people?” You then have to show them how he challenges us by what he says.
The young often struggle to articulate their beliefs. So RE is helping them discover a language. It is giving them the tools to be able to express their beliefs. Sometimes I will take my class into the chapel, play them a piece of music or read them a piece of Scripture. Then we sit in silence, and if they want to share a prayer out loud, some of them will. I do this at every level I teach. I find it works well here at St Peter’s.
As a teacher I may be ‘over’ them – but really I am companioning them in their search for God. The boundaries consist in the respect they need for themselves, for each other and for me. The students here are loyal to each other, and you can trust them. This is something I really value about St Peter’s College, and it is one of the reasons I love teaching here.
I was impressed by much of what the Dominican priest Timothy Radcliffe said to us in Wellington at Christmas about religious life. For instance, he said the young are like hounds chasing the fox. When they catch the scent, they will go after it until they find it. My family are quite religious, and basically they are very loving people. They have a spirituality, although they were not rigid in their observance. The seeds of a vocation were sown for me through their love.
Now I have joined the Josephites, I feel I belong. I may be a lot younger than most of them, but there is also an enrichment when you are in the company of older women. In a High School too there is a very diverse community. But I also need to spend some time with my own age group, and sometimes I meet up with people of my own age, sometimes other teachers.
Hospitality is crucial to religious life. Getting vocations was not the goal of the Josephite Manaaki community. We had community meetings and prayer together every morning. A prayer group met each Friday. We also celebrated Eucharist in the house every few weeks. People learned to be open and to share their spirituality. In a sense we are also doing this here in Gore. In this house people come and go all the time!
When I was first at Manaaki – just for a three weeks’ stay – it was great because I could experience community life without feeling that I suddenly had to make a commitment or decision about a vocation in religious life. I was free to go whenever I wanted, and it worked vice-versa for the Sisters too.
For me, religious life is becoming my turangawaewae, my ‘standing place’. It is where I stand as a woman of faith alongside other women who are strong in faith, loyalty and compassion. The most important aspect of religious life for me at this time is knowing that we (the Sisters) share life together and are bonded together not because we think the same, or are the same age, or have the same personalities, but because we share a vision and are giving our lives together for the mission of the church, which is the will of God.
In the future, or today, I do hope that more young people respond to the call of religious life with generosity and love for the Mission of the church, the will of God.