|Tuesday, June 15, 2021|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
erhaps, it is not by accident that the Gospel Reading of last Sunday (11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B), June 13, 2021), was on the theme of "Mustard Seed", the Parable of Jesus Christ to the crowd, told in Mark's Gospel (Mk 4:26-34):
"At that time, Jesus said to the crowd: ... With what can we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." (Mk 4:26-34).
The theme of 'Mustard Seed', which the Church, in her wisdom, had proposed for our Gospel reading and reflection last Sunday, I think, has much to teach us. Especially, in the present circumstance as we continue to respond and debunk the lies and ignorance of some historical evidence, that might have escaped Nigeria's incumbent President, Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari (a former military dictator), in his recent unsavory and unpresidential, hate-filled comment against the Igbo nation, which he called a "dot in a circle with nowhere to run".
The aim of our present article is to provide a contextualized interpretation of that last Sunday's Gospel Reading on the theme of the "Mustard Seed", in relation to President Buhari's recent characterization of Igbo nation as a 'dot on the map of Nigeria.' The article is a critique of that unsavory statement of the Nigerian leader, which he uttered against the Igbo nation.
The 'Dot' is the Mustard Seed
What escaped President Buhari in that his unfortunate characterization of Igbo nation as a 'dot' on the map of Nigeria, is the Biblical and theological significance of the word 'dot', as is evident in last Sunday's Gospel image of the Word (Hoc Logos), as the 'Mustard Seed', another word for the 'dot', in this context?
Another thing that escaped the Nigerian maximum ruler Maj Gen Buhari, is the fact that Biblical tradition shows how God choses what the world considers weak in order to bring down the powerful. This means that pride and threat of genocide against the so-called 'dot' (or rather the 'weak' in the eye of the world), has no place in God's presence. God's power is strongest when we are weak. God chose what the world counts as nothing; he uses it to overthrow the existing order: 'His power is strongest when we are weak.' (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29; 2 Corinthians 12:9).
Furthermore, as the Gospel teaches, "the 'mustard seed' is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet it becomes the greatest of all shrubs." The tree comes from a little seed, says last Sunday's gospel. This is how the Kingdom of God develops in us, and among the people of God, and in a new nation to be born as God had promised their ancestors. It begins like the little seed, a 'dot', the Word of God. It is not noisy, nor showy of military prowess of the oppressor. It produces fruit and transforms us. The 'dot', the mustard seed marks the beginning of a new life with Christ. In the present circumstance, it signals the coming birth of a new people, a new nation, founded in the mercy and love of God for his people.
In other words, the 'mustard seed', figuratively speaking, and in reality, develops 'from little seed to large tree'. Such that as Buhari himself, admitted, its fruits "...are spread all over the country, having businesses and property." That is the essence of the 'dot', the mustard seed.
Speaking on the significance of the mustard seed at Angelus in the Vatican last Sunday, Pope Francis sees the Parable of the mustard seed to be at the center of Jesus teachings on the Kingdom of God, "His (God's) presence dwelling in the hearts of all things, to the tiny mustard which becomes the tallest of trees." Pope Francis noted that is how God works in our lives and the world: "God is at work, like a good little seed that silently and slowly germinates to become a 'lush tree', which gives life and rest to everyone." - Pope Francis (Sunday Angelus, June 13, 2021).
Allowing ourselves, however, some overlapping to anticipate the Prologue of John's Gospel, the Logos (Word of God-incarnate in Jesus Christ), in developing this theme (John 1:1). The Gospel image used, in general, with reference, however, to the Word of God Incarnate, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is the 'Seed'. Thus, we find Jesus using that image of the 'seed' in his teachings and parables. In each case, he was speaking of himself, who is the 'Seed', the Word of God (Logos) incarnate in human flesh and history, for our salvation and redemption.
In other words, in that 'dot', 'mustard seed', the "Word", through whom God has spoken to humanity, is our salvation and redemption. It is through the 'Seed', the Word of God, that the world was created, as the book of Genesis teaches us (Genesis, chapter 1). That Seed, which is the Word of God through whom the world was created, is what took flesh in Jesus Christ, as the Only Begotten Son of God, for our salvation and redemption.
The incarnation of the seed, the Word of God, 'God's dot', in human flesh and history, through Jesus Christ, is the beginning of humanity's new relationship with God through Christ. This is what we call in traditional theology - in the economy of salvation (salvation history), the economic succession in the revelation of the One, True God, the Blessed Trinity through Christ-Event, who is the Word of God Incarnate in human flesh and history. Jesus Christ is the truth, the way and life for our salvation and redemption. He is the Word of God, the 'mustard seed', the 'dot, so to say, in the Parables and teachings of Jesus Christ himself. That is, 'the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet it becomes the greatest of all shrubs.'
Old Testament and New Testament Teachings on the 'Mustard Seed' - the 'Dot'
In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was the prefigured, or rather the 'precursor' of the "mustard Seed", the 'dot'. The renowned Biblical scholar, Lucien Legrand, in his seminal book, "Mission in the Bible: Unity and Plurality" (1992), emphasizes this central place of Israel as the 'precursor' ('mustard seed, a 'dot') in the entire Old Testament teaching. That is, following the successive development of salvation history, which started with the Old Testament theme on Creation, developing through the call of Abraham, the Exodus and Election of the people of Israel, then the Deutro-Isaiah, to John the Baptist, and finally, leading to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
This perspective comes strongly to the fore in the first verse of the Book of Genesis in the Bible: "In the beginning God created ..." In other words, at the beginning of the history of salvation that will develop through Israel, before Exodus, before Abraham's call and before creation, there is God. Wisdom literature of the Old Testament stresses this mystery of a fundamental mission already contained in God, and will consider Wisdom (God's Logos (that is, God's Word (Seed ('dot'), from the beginning, as the archetype of any divine action and mission (cf. Proverbs 8:22-36; Ecclesiasticus 24:3-22).
Back to the Prologue of John's Gospel, in the New Testament, "in the beginning was the Word" (Hoc Logos) (John 1:1), and last Sunday's Gospel Reading's image of the Word as 'mustard seed' (Mark 4:26-34), we can clearly see that the 'mustard seed' in today's Gospel is the 'Word' (Logos) in John's Prologue. It is the Word (seed ('dot') of God), that gives eternal life (John 51:52), that frees the world (John 8:31-32) and will never see death (John 8:51-52), the Word entrusted to the apostolic workers (John 17:17-19; 20:21), first of all issues from God's eternity.
Ultimately, this eternal reality of God's Word is the ultimate strength and content of the Christian mission and the source of strength of all those persecuted people who put their trust and faith in God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ.
In other words, the words of the Gospel announced to the nations are nothing but the echo of God's Word (seed) pronounced from eternity. By invoking the Word (Seed) that in the beginning was with God and was God (John 1.1), John's Prologue unites the themes of Trinity and Christian mission, the Church's witness to the world: the Gospel is a divine reality. Rooted in God's Trinitarian eternity, Christian witness to the world at a time like this, in particular, receives a profound theological mission to the world, especially, the poor and marginalized of the society. It prolongs the mission of the Son in the Father's eternal plan of salvation, the liberating work of God through Christ, for humanity (John 1:16-18).
But, reciprocally, God is seen as the Word (Seed). In fact, a 'dot'. As a communication (John 1:1), light and life (John 1:4), a saving-grace, and a liberating truth (John 1:14, 17). That is, in Jesus, we see God as a viatorium (missionary) and liberating God, who engages himself in the work of liberation and salvation of God's people, and who, in his freedom creates a new relationship of love with his people and all the created reality.
As Christians, when we talk about Jesus Christ, we are talking about God's eternal mission of salvation and liberation of his people. It is in the light of the salvific and liberative work of Jesus Christ, sent by the Father in the strength of the Holy Spirit that we come to understand our own liberative mission on earth as children of God, in our people's daily struggle for survival and liberation from the tyrannical powers of this world.
This is how creation becomes the first event of the history of salvation, because only God, who created the universe, can save it. This is what we find expressed in Psalms 33 (vv. 13-15) and 145 (vv. 9-10), where it is said that 'all' creatures, 'all' nations, 'all' works gather in one, and the same praise of the Lord. In creation, also we find reasons for the work of reconciliation. God who is the author of creation is also the author of reconciliation. If creation is the work of God, that means, him only, the Creator can repair the wounded creation. Paul, in the New Testament captures this fact in the following words:
"God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The 'Dot' is Beyond 'Particularism and Circle'
Another point to emphasize is that the stress the Old Testament had put on the election of the people of Israel, a "Chosen People of God", does not mean setting them up against other nations. Neither does it mean Israel living in 'exclusivism', from other nations. No! Rather, it was God's way of preparing Israel for the mission God had entrusted to them as His people, through the Covenant God had entered with their Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel): 'that from this people, the nation of Israel, God's Son, Jesus Christ, who would be the Savior of the entire humanity and the world, would be born.'
In other words, the particular attention God showed to the people of Israel in the entire Biblical tradition is because of this particular mission, God intended to accomplish for the salvation of humanity and the world through His own Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to be born among the nation of Israel. Therefore, if Israel is very important in salvation history as the Bible shows, it is because God made it so, for the salvation of all the nations. It is therefore, not because, Israel is the greatest or most populous nation on earth. In fact, on the contrary, Israel was the least, a 'dot' on the Map of the world, so to say, when God entered into that Covenant with its Patriarchs. Israel wasn't even existing as a nation. But in spite of all these, it was from this most 'insignificant' people (a 'dot' on the Map of the world) in the eyes of other peoples and nations, that Jesus, the Savior of the world was born. This is God's doing, a marvel in our eye.
On many occasions, Israel deviated from observing the dictates of the law God gave them through their Patriarchs and Moses. But in spite of that, God never revoked his blessings on them, as God's Chosen People. This 'father-son-love relationship' is how Israel also sees God's dealing with them. Israel never ceases to see itself as "God's inheritance" (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:1-6; 9:1-3; 32:8-9; Numbers 33:51-52; Malachy 3:17). Furthermore, the allegorical narration about the girl in Ezekiel 16, is another way of expressing this God's loving choice of Israel as his Chosen People: "I saw you struggling in your blood as I was passing, and I said to you: Live ... You developed, you grew. [...] and you became mine." (Ezekiel 16:6/8).
Israel is God's chosen bride. This image will constitute the entire plot of Hosea's prophecy and will return in Isaiah 50:1; 54:4-7; 62:4-5; etc. Elsewhere, and perhaps even earlier, the image of the son expresses this privileged link between Israel and "its" God: "When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt" (Hosea 11:1; see also Exodus 4:22; Isaiah 1:2; Jeremiah 3:19). Israel is also the "Lord's Vineyard" (Hosea 10:1; Isaiah 5:5:1-6; Ezekiel 15:1-8; 17:6-10), his "flock" (Psalm 23; 80:2; 95:7; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ezekiel 34:11-31; Michah 7:14-15), his "servant" (Isaiah 41:8,44; his "chosen one" (Deuteronomy 7:6; Isaiah 41:8-9), his "beloved" (Hosea 2:25; Isaiah 42:1).
All these images illustrate but one fundamental Covenant theme: "I will be their God and they will be my people" (Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 11:4; 24:7; Ezekiel 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:27). This is a constitutive belief of Israel's faith that will last until up into the New Testament: When Paul talks to the Jews, he still affirms that: "They were adopted as sons and daughters, they were given the glory and the covenants." (Romans 9:4), and he adds, "God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice" (Romans 11:29).
However, Israel's particularistic feelings about its being chosen did not mean that the Israelites were intolerant and absolutely, intransigent towards the other nations. The fact is, this 'separatist' trend of Israel's consciousness to be the chosen people of God, is part of the behavior of a persecuted people in answer to a critical situation. That is, a critical situation in which it was first of all, necessary, to strengthen the bonds that recently they as a people, have been "scattered to all winds, scattered throughout the nations and dispersed in foreign countries" (Ezekiel 12: 14-15).
In other words, while it is true that Israel defined itself, strengthened by a conscience of been chosen by the Lord, for us today to put a pressure on some extreme texts and give them the full weight of a "particularistic" theology, would amount to accusing them falsely. It would amount to describing them as a 'dot in a circle' (as Buhari called the Igbos in Nigeria), and propagating an aberrant theology and hate-filled feudal ideology.
This is because, from the beginning of its history, Israel knew that this Covenant it had with God, as God's Chosen People, had not reduced Yahweh to a merely local God. It may well be that in an earlier stage the Israelites might not have clearly perceived the universal dimension of their God, as the God of all peoples and nations. But this should be considered as a result of lack of cosmological imagination, due to their incapacity to conceive the world in its entireness rather than putting theological limits to God's power. Although other elohim exist, none of them are like Yahweh and "wherever man and nature exist, there also is Yahweh's supremacy." (See J.L. McKenzie, "The God of Israel", in, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol. 2").
Once again, all this implies that Israel's particularistic feelings about its being chosen did not mean that the Israelites were intolerant and absolutely, intransigent towards the other nations. In fact, whoever wanted to serve Yahweh, and accepted to observe the laws dictated by him, could be admitted to Israel's spiritual inheritance and take part in God's promises that would be realized in Christ. Suffice it to think of Ruth who chose the God of Israel for her God (cf. Ruth 1:16) and became the Messiah's progenitrix, as the grand grandmother of David, who was the "father" of Christ.
The truth is that it is God himself who saves by intervening in history (be it of salvation or judgment): It is God who himself, who blesses in creation and in nature. God saves his people but blesses Abraham; he saves in the battle, but blesses the fruit of the womb and the fruit of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:13-16). One cannot separate God's salvation from his blessings. Both are interwoven and combine. Both aspects are important: 'at one side the singularity and the unique character of God's history with his people; on the other side, harmony with other nations (or religions).'
This distinction justly expresses the two-fold pole of election in history and prospects of universalism that characterize the entire Old Testament. The fact itself that the God who saves is also the God who blesses shows that: 'the God of Israel does not limit his works to this people only but he is the Lord of the universal history and of the entire cosmos.' The Old Testament thus manifests a universalism, which attributes all that is happening from one epoch to another, to a God that saves Israel. This universalism is where everything, is placed under God's sight.
Finally, about their taking possession of the "Promised Land" and the fate of the other nations fighting them on their way, the Lord recalls to the people of Israel that this will occur because of the wickedness of those nations and not because Israel is righteous and good at heart. "It is not for any goodness or sincerity of yours that you are entering their land to possess it; no, it is for the wickedness of those nations that Yahweh your God is dispossessing them for you, and to keep the word that he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (Deuteronomy 9:5).
This means that their, being elected requires for the people of Israel to observe the laws of the Lord. Only then will Israel be able to live as a chosen people: "Listen to these ordinances, be true to them and observe them, and in return Yahweh your God will be true to the Covenant and the kindness he promised your fathers solemnly" (Deuteronomy 7:12).
In other words, the election of Israel that was "the smallest among all peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7), and even a "headstrong people" (Deuteronomy 9:6), constitutes a clear sign of God's mercy towards all men and women: rebels and at the same time weak and in the need for forgiveness and love. God chose the people of Israel not in order to damage the other nations, but rather to manifest his love and his magnanimity to all men and women, to protect the weak and defend the defenseless. Even within the people of Israel God defends those that are more, defenseless and at the same time warns and punishes all the oppressors: "It is he who see justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the stranger and gives him food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10:18).
Suffice it to say, that Igbo land and people are never landlocked, as the gate-keepers of Nigerian state have been trying to deceive the world all these years. Especially, since 1967, when those gate-keepers of Nigeria maliciously balkanized the former Eastern region, separating those who live within the coastal areas from their kith and kin who live in the upland of Igboland. The balkanization of former Eastern region by Gowon military junta at the build-up of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the early 1967, was a plot meant to serve a purpose.
That purpose is the unsavory insulting words of a "dot in the circle", which President Buhari is now using to describe the place of the Igbo nation in Nigeria and the world. Buhari, no doubt, used that insulting expression and word 'dot', to wound the dignity and sense of being of Ndigbo. But he forgot, that we are in 2021, not in 1967. People are wiser and more knowledgeable today about the Nigerian reality and history than they were in 1967. This is, however, a point for another day.
Whatever happens, any discernible mind knows that President Buhari called Igbos a 'dot' on the map of Nigeria, simply to score an unsavory political goal, to advance his Islamization and Fulanization agenda of Nigeria through his Fulani kinsmen herdsmen terrorism and Jihadist lopsided (federal) government. Unfortunately, whatever political goal he thought he had scored with that his hate-filled comment against the Igbo nation, has now backfired. As the IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu, rightly observed, Buhari described Biafra as a "dot within the map of Nigeria. ... Well he forgot that the Earth is also a dot within the galaxy. But it is still as great a dot as BIAFRA shall soon be amongst the comity of nations."
The Igbo of South Eastern Nigeria trace their origin as a people to the Biblical Patriarch Jacob, and therefore to Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. As offspring of Israel (Jacob), located at the heart of Africa's tropical rain forest region (Biafraland), within the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, Igbo nation is not just a 'dot.' It is also the living 'symbol', a historical concretization of the Gospel image of the "Mustard Seed", so to say, at the heart of the tropical rain forest of Africa.
It is the land of the 'Rising Sun', of a people, struggling for their freedom, justice and liberation from an oppressive regime and system, Nigeria has become. For this reason, and to show the stupidity in Buhari's unsavory assault on Igbo nation, which he called a 'dot on the map of Nigeria', many young Igbo adults, nowadays, would say:
"I am the DOT in the circle, I am the PIVOT. I am THE HUB in the Wheel. I am proudly IGBO."