Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32 [Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19]
You’ve probably already noticed the first twist in this parable: a mustard seed becoming a tree? Mustard in its grandest form is never more than a shrub! So did Jesus fail botany or is there more to it? Well, of course this is Jesus we’re talking about so there must be more to it—
Jesus seems to be saying that in the case of God’s kingdom, even when a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds is planted, God can and will do greater things… The sower will get a tree and a great tree at that, large enough for nesting birds. Where the kingdom of God is concerned, we can expect more than we can expect! When we help organize a block party, we get more than we expect—one neighbour makes an emergency contact list for the block; funds for a flower and fruit basket are gathered for the neighbour who recently lost a loved one… As Paul explains when we sow grace and love with our prayers and actions, God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
So there is more to this ‘mustard –tree’ Kingdom than meets the eye. Jesus’ words/images echo Old Testament passages which would have been very familiar to 1st century listeners. Ezekiel 17 for instance, compares the Kingdom of God to the cutting from a cedar tree which God plants and it grows to be a huge tree that all the birds come and make nests in… sound familiar? Jesus uses the same words but with a subtle or not so subtle twist… He starts with a mustard seed, not a cedar cutting, acorn or pine cone known to grow into massive trees but a mustard seed a thousand of which are needed to fill a thimble —That must be a joke, don’t you think?
And that’s only part of the joke! To update it, Jesus is saying: The kingdom of God is like dandelion seed, which, when someone took it and sowed it in their lawn….” In their lawn, dandelions! Mustard shrubs were viewed like weeds. A Jewish Mishnah, which is an explanation of the first five books of the Bible, forbids sowing mustard seeds in your garden because according to it, “they are useless, annoying weeds”. Nonetheless, ordinary people would grow them elsewhere as they provided a cheap spice and were used for medicinal purposes. The righteous and well-to-do however, would have been as put off by this analogy as we are by people who let dandelions go wild all over their lawns which then spread to our lawns, etc! So first century hearers are thinking, “Wait a minute that can’t be right, did Jesus say, ‘The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed sown in your garden.’ There’s something wrong with this picture. How can the kingdom of God be like an unclean thing?” Jesus had to have been smiling when he told this parable…
But the chuckle begs the question: Could it be that the kingdom of God has to do with things that we have labeled undesirable, unclean? After all, Jesus associated with sinners. He touched untouchables and ate with tax collectors. He talked with Samaritans and women and hung out with fisher folk…. There’s another twist to this parable that we don’t want to miss! God passes by the powers and principalities, the authorities and kingdoms of this world and uses what is rejected by such.
And if that is true, could the kingdom of God be sown in all of the messes and earthiness of our lives— in all of my uncleanness –so as to transform them into something that blesses others… could the kingdom of God come to hearts and to homes, neighbourhoods and nations that haven’t got it all figured out, who aren’t on top of things who need to grow mustard in the back alley…
This tree, this Kingdom, Jesus continues, is also a home for ‘the birds of the air’– which is more than rural romanticism. Birds of the air in the Old Testament was most often a reference to Gentiles or non Jews, outsiders who were usually portrayed in a negative way but not here, not in Jesus’ words… here, we discover that the kingdom tree is a home and shelter for ALL the birds of the air—all are welcome and valued– no one is excluded from God’s kingdom and we all have the potential to do great things for God just as every tiny seed sown has fruit bearing life in it….
But we’re not done yet, in Daniel 4, King Nebuchadnezzar, the great powerful ruler of Babylon’s massive empire has a dream which Daniel, God’s servant and prophet interprets. In the dream, the King and His Kingdom are portrayed as a great tree providing shelter for animals and you guessed it, birds of the air and this tree is cut down! The tree of the kingdoms of this world is destroyed as it is in Ezekiel as is, the unfaithful vine in Isaiah…He will take all power away from the wicked, but the power of good people will grow. (Psalm 75:10)
Could Jesus be making a comparison here that tells us something more… that the great and powerful of this world will be cut down, where as the smallest of seeds, the humble, the outcast, the sinner, the dandelions which we ignore or dismiss or devalue will become great and produce the abundant fruit of the kingdom; that ordinary everyday followers of Jesus living in neighbourhoods are where the Kingdom resides, grows and bears fruit…
Parables are never just given for information, they demand a response. They are not designed just to sharpen our thinking, but to shape our lives. So I wonder: Does the church in the West reflect an imperial tree, or a Jesus’ weed seed? What might that Kingdom weed seed look like in the context of today’s great unraveling in the West. Do we believe in its power, persistence and presence in our neighbourhoods, in our communities, in our lives? I wonder what might happen if more and more of Jesus’ followers sowed this weed-seed as the scruffy band of Jews in a poorer part of the Roman Empire filled with the Holy Spirit, did 2000 years ago.
How? The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field — that someone took and sowed in her field! Seeds left in the cupboard (the church building?) do nothing. How are we, how will we take the seed and sow it in our hearts and in the hearts, lives, neighbourhoods where God has sent us and longs to plant us like a weed-seed that multiplies and spreads?
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen. Eph. 3:20, 21
Karen is a National Team Member for Forge Canada Missional Training Network and a Missional Leader Developer for the Christian Reformed Church in North America (Home Missions-Western Canada). She is also a neighbour, wife, mom, and pastor of NEW community. She has been a vocational pastor in Edmonton for 29 years and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Missional Leadership at Northern Seminary. Along with preaching and teaching in numerous places, Karen has written a number of books including Don’t Invite Them To Church: Moving From a Come and See to a Go and Be Church.