‘The kingdom of heaven is like a gardener who took a mustard seed and planted it in his field …’ Matthew 13.31-33
In recent weeks I have been enjoying exploring this short parable with some small, rural congregations in Devon.
Stories were Jesus’s favourite way of teaching.
We call them parables but have tended to treat them as simple moral tales.
We get ‘Parabola’ from the same word. A curve. A parable is a kind of curve ball, thrown into the discussion from an unexpected angle. It interrupts the flow. It shocks, subverts, surprises, puzzles, leaves you scratching your head, feeling teased or annoyed or arguing furiously – as often happened after Jesus told one.
The story is set in a middle eastern garden or small holding. As so often in the stories Jesus tells, God’s Kingdom is being compared to very small things that turn out to have the biggest significance.
The mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds of all. But, Jesus says, it grows into an improbably large tree, big enough to give shade and to the birds of the air. Perhaps he was standing in the shade of one as he spoke.
A story about unlikely growth
A father is talking to his young daughter. She is holding a small acorn in her hand they are standing under a very large oak tree.
She is looking very sceptical. ‘You are telling me this acorn is this oak tree?’
‘Well yes’, he says, ‘in a nutshell’.
On the face of it, it is a story about the way Christian faith takes root in this world and grows beyond anything predicted. And so it has. From its earliest days, around the world, planted in the most unpromising places and soil.
But what kind of growth is it? Jesus is not talking about numbers here.
What species of mustard seed is it?
Keen gardeners will be frustrated the story doesn’t tell us.
There are two main kinds of mustard seed in the Middle East.
One very common one is brassica nigra – black mustard. It has a pungent aroma. It grows prolifically. But it never becomes a tree. It is more of a climber and spreader.
The other is the Salvadora Persica. It can grow into trees around 10 feet high.
It is prolific and seeds everywhere. Now this seed can be cultivated but it grows in the wild. It is actually a weed. Once it is in your garden you will never get rid of it.
Think mint, or bind weed or Japanese knot weed …
It is a nuisance.
What if that seed is what this parable is about? Instead of a pleasing image of an aromatic mustard plant flourishing and growing in your fruitful, well-tended allotment, the Kingdom of God is like a weed. Its seeds blow everywhere, spreading wildly, growing indiscriminately and resisting all attempts to get rid of it.
What if this is what the Kingdom of God is like?
It’s like an invasive nuisance in this world. It takes root and spreads and spreads no matter how hard you try and dig it out. Not only that – this tree attracts birds from outside. They find home and shelter there. But who wants to attract birds to their vegetable garden?
Throughout the ministry of Jesus he attracted and welcomed outsiders. The Kingdom of his love, was a place where the unloved, the powerless, the marginalised found home and shelter where they had none before. This caused offence and scandal to those who thought they owned this private garden and controlled what grew there and who enjoyed it.
Did you notice where the story started? This seed didn’t just not blow over the wall. The gardener planted it. What kind of gardener plants weeds you can never get rid of? In the parables of Jesus, the gardener is God. God plants his kingdom life like a prolific weed in this world.
So, the kingdom of God grows and spreads like an unsettling and intruding presence in the world. Despite being the smallest and least significant it makes its impact everywhere and is almost impossible to get rid of. The stress is not of size and quantity so much as its gift.
It is an interesting image of church. Simply to be a nuisance. Quietly and persistently provoking a way of life that changes things, relationships, communities; growing and spreading, uninvited and not always welcome, in the garden of this world. And no one can ever get rid of us.
Be encouraged by this.
As a church in these times we can easily feel insignificant in a world that no longer seems to notice us or think what we have to offer or believe has any importance.
We can feel small and insignificant – and often do.
But Jesus says this is where God’s kingdom life begins. In his love and purposes the tiniest things matter – not the greatest. The smallest things, in the economy of time and eternity, will have the biggest consequences.
In the kingdom of God we can trust the smallest, the least resources, the most vulnerable beginnings, to make a big difference – in a nutshell.
So, after we have prayed our prayers and broken bread, what is your calling at this point, in this place, in the coming week?
To grow where you are planted.
To be weeds for Jesus.
You are to go out and about and make a thorough nuisance of yourselves.
Do you think you can manage that?
Thanks be to God!
*I owe a debt to Paula Gooder’s for her thoughts on this parable in her excellent book The Parables. Canterbury Press. 2020.