Religious OCD

The odds are, all of us at some point have heard of, or likely known someone with, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). By definition, OCD is described as a psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking, counting, or hoarding.

While it has garnered much attention in recent days, OCD has been diagnosed in patients since circa. 1838. Today, it is estimated that between 2 and 3 million people are suffering from the disorder in the United States alone. About one in fifty people have had symptoms of OCD at some point in their lives, with 1% suffering within the last year. OCD often causes great suffering to patients and their families, as up to 10 hours per day may be devoted to performing rituals. Disturbingly, OCD has been classified by the World Health Organization as one the top ten causes of disability worldwide.

Now, did you now that there was a religious OCD? Actually, in all fairness that is not true. It could be, however. Let me explain.

For many people, their “religious system” must fit into a cute little box. There can be no surprises and everything must be neat and tidy with no surprises. For those people, the Parable of the Mustard Seed disturbs them, more than a little bit.

Here’s what I mean.  In Jesus’ culture, it was not allowed to plant a mustard seed in your garden, as the man in the parable does. This goes back to the Old Testament and the ensuing regulations contained there. If you look, for example, at Leviticus 19 or Deuteronomy 22, you’ll see all kinds of prohibitions about mixing things: Don’t wear clothing made from two kinds of fabric; don’t plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together; don’t plant different kinds of seeds together; etc. 

The ancient Jewish understanding of holiness had to do with separating. This idea of maintaining separation—kedosh—holiness, permeated Jewish life and resulted in “purity codes.” If someone was deemed ritually impure (which often had nothing to do with sin or immorality), they had to be excluded from the community and from worshipping God (which was a communal activity) until they were purified. 

By the time of Jesus, there was a sizable purity code—which was particularly and meticulously adhered to by the Pharisees. A man could bring about impurity by eating the wrong things or by eating with the wrong people (such as Gentiles) or by mixing the wrong foods together or by not properly washing one’s utensils or by mixing fabrics or by not planting crops in the prescribed manner or by speaking with a woman in public or by coming into contact with a leper or by touching a corpse, etc.  

And, of course, one’s garden had to be kept kedosh—holy. This meant each type of plant had to be kept separate from the others in neat, tidy rows. So what would happen if you put a mustard seed in your garden? It would very rapidly spill out of its row into other rows, mixing and mingling with the other plants, dropping seeds everywhere which would sprout up more mustard plants, and before long it would take over your garden! Plus, why would you even bother to plant mustard in your garden when it grew wild all over the place? It was a common weed. No, you would do everything you could to keep mustard plants (and mustard seeds) OUT of your garden!

So, imagine again Jesus saying to a gathered crowd, “What is the Kingdom of God like? … It is like a mustard seed, which a man planted in his garden…” It’s absurd! It’s against the law! It’s contrary to our interpretation of scripture! 

It gets worse, however. Mustard bushes produce lots of seeds. What do seeds attract? Birds. Who wants birds in their vegetable garden? Most gardeners do everything they can to keep birds out, not invite them in. In the parable, the birds found rest in the branches of the mustard bush.

The picture that Jesus is painting here is of a nice, orderly, religiously proper vegetable garden that is about to be messed up by an invasive weed! And He says, “That’s what God’s rule and reign looks like! That’s what happens when God is in charge!” It makes sense though, if you think about it. When you look at what Jesus did throughout the Gospels, He kept breaking down barriers and disregarding taboos. He disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with sinners. He surrounded Himself with low-lives and outcasts and those who, socially, were on the margins. Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with despised tax-collectors. Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning Samaritans and even made a Samaritan the hero of His parable about loving one’s neighbor; another absurdity, which would have been highly offensive to many. And, not just a Samaritan but a Samaritan woman—another religious taboo of the day.

So, the parable of the mustard seed is, at its heart, a teaching about radical inclusion. Jesus is saying, in effect, “If you allow the Kingdom of God into your midst, it is going to make a mess of your neat, tidy garden. It is going to break down your barriers of separation. It is going to attract and shelter the ones that everyone else tries to keep out. It is not going to look majestic and lofty and impressive, but rather, common and unremarkable and initially very small. It’s going to mess up your religious OCD and leave you with a twitch. But, it will spread like crazy and in the end, it will be worth it.” 

So how committed are we to our religious systems? What about when they keep us from spreading the Gospel? What then? What about when those that God brings into our lives don’t look like us, earn like us, or live like us? What then? What birds is the Lord trying to bring into your mustard tree and what will you do about it? How will we respond? These are the real questions we should be asking. After all, this is what kingdom living looks like.