What a Mustard Seed Teaches about Government's Size


What a Mustard Seed Teaches about Government's Size | Larry Greenfield, Government, Budget Cuts

Jesus' teaching on the size of government was most explicitly addressed in a parable about a mustard seed that a farmer intentionally sowed in the field, Greenfield observes. (Photo: Reji Jacob)
Those pushing for small government these days are doing a good job of keeping their utter joy under wraps.

Most of the time, the rest of us see these folks lamenting the growth of government. They make pledges not to raise taxes or the debt ceiling as a way of decreasing the size of the state.

Recall the comment of Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

If anything, the wails of alarm seem only to have gotten louder in recent times.

But don't let these outward expressions fool you.

In their hearts, they must be filled with happiness.

Oh sure, like everyone else they bemoan the rise in the U.S. unemployment rate from 9.1 to 9.2 percent in June.

However, the increase in unemployment secretly stirred their spirits because it gives them still another opportunity to claim that the economic programs of the Obama administration aren't working.

It adds ammunition to their contention that only tax cuts for everyone (including the super rich) and everything (including corporations transferring their jobs to other countries) would bring that unemployment rate down.

An even greater reason for exhilaration was a particular, little-noticed piece of information in the Labor Department's June report: 39,000 jobs were eliminated in local, state and federal governments.

It was, for these government-shrinkers, a dream coming true: an actual shrinkage in the size of government.

Keep this up and start running water in the bathtub.

 

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What they aren't mentioning is that many of those losing their jobs are teachers who won't be in classrooms come September, caseworkers who won't be available to assist children and families in crisis, and drug counselors who won't help addicts find a way back to productive life.

What a cause for rejoicing.

If someone is an overt or closet racist, the joy will be even greater.

Our great recession has hit almost everyone hard. The median net worth of white households dropped from $134,280 in 2004 to $97,860 in 2009. According to Federal Reserve data, African-American households saw their median net worth drop from $13,450 to $2,170 for the same period.

Yes, since the official end of the recession in 2009, the overall unemployment rate has gone down from a high of 9.4 percent to 9.2 percent. Yet the African-American rate has risen from 14.7 percent to 16.2 percent. Just over 68 percent of white males are working compared to 56.9 percent of African-American males.

And here's the kicker: Because college-educated African-Americans are over-represented in government jobs, they will join the ranks of the unemployed in greater numbers as those government jobs continue to be eliminated.

Racist or not, pleased or troubled, the simple truth is that reducing the size of government has many unintended (or is it intended?) consequences.

Jesus, we know, had thoughts about the size of government.

His teaching on the size of government was most explicitly addressed in a parable about a mustard seed that, as the story goes, a farmer intentionally sowed in the field. Although the seed planted was very small, it grew in size to be a fairly large shrub – even a tree.

The point for Jesus, however, was not only that something small gets very big, but also that when it matures it serves an essential function: It becomes a sufficiently large enough shrub or tree "so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches" (Matthew 13:31-32).

Evidently, the farmer had this purpose in mind all along, just like the cultivating God that Jesus was proclaiming had a purpose in mind from the beginning: to have a world of such size and shape and character that all the families of the earth could make their homes in it.

This surely was a parable about the size of God's government, which grows from something small to something large.

Yet the central point is not the spectacular growth of the divine government or, for that matter, the size of the government as an end in itself.

Instead, it is the function of the divine government – to provide for the needs of all of the creatures – that determines the size that is required.

Scholarship on this parable, by the way, suggests that the point about the size of the shrub or tree is to point to its inclusiveness – incorporating all of the Gentile worlds along with the Jewish people – and not to any exclusiveness.

One would think there's a lesson from this ancient parable that's translatable to our contemporary debates about earthly kingdoms: not size, large or small, for its own sake, but size adequate – no, not just adequate, but essential – for the flourishing of creaturely life together.

Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network. 

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