The scrappy kingdom

17 June 2018
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6B (RCL)

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

There is an odd little puzzle hidden in this passage from 1 Samuel: why does Samuel take a heifer to Bethlehem? Almost every sacrifice described in the Old Testament involves a male animal a year old. Jonathan Z. Smith (The Domestication of Sacrifice) points out that killing sexually immature male animals with unwanted qualities is a way of breeding the herd for desirable characteristics. What to do with that meat? Eat it, of course.

So, why a heifer? The sacrifice of female animals is always for expiation of some crime or impurity (if there is a difference). The animal is almost always left to rot in the bush. Deuteronomy describes the ritual for expiating a murder by an unknown assailant. A heifer is to be provided by the town nearest to the murder scene. It is to be taken to a wadi, its neck broken (no blood shed), and it is to be left there. The elders are to wash their hands over the heifer, proclaiming that their hands did not shed blood.

If this is what lies behind God’s instructions to Samuel, it makes sense that the elders of Bethlehem come trembling to Samuel. They must assume that a murder victim has been discovered near their village. Instead, Samuel says that he has come to sacrifice for a feast. This would have puzzled the village, but it would have aided in Samuel’s deception. No one would assume he had come to offer a peace offering and anoint a new king. And the point is driven home by God choosing the most unlikely candidate. God does not see as humans see, even when it comes to which animal to sacrifice.

The passage in Mark also speaks about subverting our expectations of the kingdom. We hear the parable about the mustard seed and interpret it as “small things become big.” But there is something more subversive going on here. In the Old Testament, the cedar is often used as a symbol for a powerful empire. The birds of the air who take their shelter in its branches are its client nations. Jesus is tipping that story over. Anyone who has been around mustard knows that no one in his right mind plants mustard in a field. It’s an extremely aggressive weed. It will make your cattle sick. It will choke out any other crop. In Colorado, it would grow in roadside ditches, and if not checked take over a whole field in a matter of a couple of years.

This parable suggests that the powers that be don’t want the kingdom around, but that it’s scrappy and tenacious. It gives shelter to all those at the margins of the power structures of the cedar-tree empire. The kingdom is like kudzu. It’s also like someone sowing grain in his field, not knowing how it germinates and grows, but trusting God that it does. Deb describes the faith of the women of Lui waiting for the second rain and then putting seed, essentially food, in the ground, even while their children were going hungry, trusting the future to God.

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