Poetry, Parable and Song……
Ezekiel 17: 22 -24/2 Corinthians 5:6-17/Mark 4:26-34
The power of poetry, parable and song is meant to fire our imagination beyond what is to what is possible. Years ago a colleague and priest, Pierre Wolff, a former French Jesuit, summarized Ignatian Spirituality this way: We come from Love, we return to love, and love is all around. God is love. A few years later Diane Connelly, a teacher and practitioner of acupuncture, wrote a book called, All Sickness Is Homesickness, inspired in part by the Blessed Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who wrote in his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until we find our home in thee.” This suggests to me that all of life is a homecoming: a coming home to God, who is the heart of universal Love, and that source from whence we come and to which we return. It all came together as a song, a psalm if you will:
We return to Love
And Love is all around, and Love is all around
All of life is a homecoming
All of life is a homecoming
A coming home to God
It is often overlooked that much of the Bible consists of poetry, parables and songs. The prophets, like Ezekiel, most often use poetry and psalms to convey God’s truths. And Jesus taught with “many such parables” like the mustard seed parable.
What ought to interest us in all of this is that poetry, parables and songs are open to interpretation. That is, they do not represent a single meaning or a single truth. In fact, the Bible itself constantly recycles these poems, parables and songs to address specific situations in different Biblical eras.
This is how the Bible chooses to teach us about how it is we might “walk by faith, not by sight,” as St. Paul instructs the community in Corinth. We tend to approach the texts looking for “the answer.” Yet, the same Augustine in his Confessions writes (in book twelve) that any particular verse in the Bible is capable of conveying more than one truth. He goes so far as to say each verse can have two, three, four, five or more truths.
So when we hear Ezekiel writing about God taking a sprig off the top of a high cedar and transplanting it, Ezekiel may be writing about God taking a small remnant of Israel after a long exile in Babylon, bringing them back to fertile territory and replanting, tending, and growing a new Israel that will provide shelter and nurture for all kind of “birds” and “winged creatures” of all kinds. This may be a fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham that God’s people would become a blessing to all the peoples and creatures of the earth.
It is easy to imagine how those Jews, including followers of Christ, might hear in this a word of hopefulness after the Roman Empire destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and all of Israel in the year 70. This was to be a watershed moment that led to the creation of early Christian communities and a whole new way of being Jewish as the rabbinic Judaism of today was born out of the ashes of the Temple. This hopefulness was true for both groups of faithful servants of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.
Jesus himself recycled the imagery of Ezekiel’s poem to deliver his teaching in the Mustard Seed Parable in which once again we hear that “this smallest of all seeds” grows up to provide shelter for all the birds of the air among its branches.
As Christianity and Judaism branched out into various new forms throughout the centuries, this poem by Ezekiel no doubt gave new strength, vision and hopefulness for diverging beliefs of how it is we are “to walk by faith, not by sight.” Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians all have very different views on how we are to do this – all of which are “true” for these very different communities. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews also embody various truths about how to walk in faith. Similar claims can be made about Shia, Sunni and Sufi Muslims; Tibetan, Mahayanist, Theravada, and Zen Buddhists, and so on.
It strikes me as ironic that Augustine was comfortable with there being multiple meanings and multiple truths all the way back in the fourth century church, and yet today we are insistent on their being only one “correct” truth – which of course is almost always “my truth.”
Both Ezekiel and Jesus point us to the hidden nature of Biblical faith – that is, that it is not something we ourselves create or achieve. It grows while we are sleeping. It grows by the hand of God. Faith is an act and gift of grace – amazing grace. John Newton, the one-time slave trader who wrote the now famous hymn Amazing Grace had just a mustard seed’s amount of faith which grew with each Atlantic crossing, until he realized just how sinful the “peculiar institution” of slavery really is. He left the slave trade, became an Anglican priest, served the poor, and became a driving force in the Abolitionist movement in England. No doubt like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, he had no real hand in growing his faith which led to the power of a song that changed the world – it was God at work in him, silently, hidden in the groans and sufferings of the African peoples he was transporting.
The Jesus of the gospels routinely chides his disciples – that would be us – for having so little faith. Yet, when they finally come to him asking for, demanding really, more faith, as if it were some commodity that could be bought or sold or dispensed, he comes back to the Mustard Seed parable and says, “If you only had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this tree be uprooted and planted in the sea!”
Buried beneath the surface of this parable, and in the poetry of the prophet, and the urgings of St. Paul, is the fact that we need to allow ourselves periods of what the Daoists call “doing not-doing,” or, wei wu wei – down time, sabbatical time. God’s creation and gift of the Sabbath day is the one gift of God we routinely do not accept. In a commodity driven society, we just don’t get it – that down time, time to do nothing more than commune with God, family and our neighbors, is what makes it possible for God to grow our faith. We are just too too busy to take a day off every week. Imagine what we could really do if we were to honor the Sabbath day? What if? What if we gave God one day a week to grow our faith from the mustard seed he places within each and every one of us? Think of the poems we might write! The parables we might tell! The songs we might sing! All of which, like simple tunes such as Amazing grace and We Shall Overcome, have the power to change us and change the world in which we live and move and have our being. If we only had faith as small as a mustard seed.
If you have faith as small as a mustard seed
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea/
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea
The lame will walk and the blind will see/
The lame will walk and the blind will see
Wars will cease with the end of greed/
Wars will cease with the end of greed
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed/
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed
As you sow you shall receive/
As you sow you shall receive
As you pray you will believe/
As you pray you will believe
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need/
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead/
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead
If you only have faith as small as a mustard seed.