Read this word from the gospel of Mark: (Jesus) also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a 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.”
What do you know about mustard seeds? In the ancient world, the mustard seed was a common way of talking about something really quite small. Now we say expressions like “trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
Jesus says that this little bitty mustard seed — this tiny piece of seed that could be blown about in the wind way more often than being sown correctly — is going to grow up into a tall shrub. It’s going to grow so big and strong that birds will nest in it. The people Jesus was talking to had seen the mustard plant reproduce time and again. They themselves had probably planted mustard seed in a field so that they could gather the mustard for use in their foods.
The idea of birds nesting in the branches was a little far fetched. The mustard plant was like most tall weeds — very large but not very sturdy and certainly not sturdy enough to hold up a nest. What Jesus was doing here was reminding his listeners of a very ancient image that they would have recognized: a large tree with birds nesting in it or under it. The tree was a traditional symbol for a great kingdom. In other words, kings provide for their people a safe place to land and to raise their young — just like trees do for birds and their nests. Only this mustard seed will grow into a shrub that will support birds. God is now the king and people will be able to take shelter.
The power of the metaphor is that the seed and the bush are one and the same. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a circle of life — the seed becomes the plant, the seed forms, the plant dies, the seed goes back into the earth. The kingdom is like that, too. Our stories, from birth to death, are seeding the ground with the nature of this alternate kingdom.
There’s another thing to note about the mustard plant: mustard plants are very invasive plants. Mustard produces a lot of seed and because the seed germinates quickly, it reproduces quickly. Mustard spreads out and can grow into places that you don’t want it to grow. It’s hard to get rid of it. Picture yourself trying to pull out a tough weed with lots of little seeds clinging to the plant very loosely. What happens when you tug on the plant? The seeds fall off the plant and go onto the ground. Those seeds germinate and 10 new plants are created from you simply trying to up root the one and get it out of your field.
But wait, all of this stubbornness from one tiny seed? This is what our kingdom is being compared to? Something as small as this? So easily blown away by the wind or eaten by birds? Yes! We are supposed to be thinking that this doesn’t seem right — even impossible. That’s the kingdom! It is surprising! It is small, and in the impossibility we take hope. We are encouraged that God uses something so small and builds something so big.
Think about Matthew’s audience: The book of Matthew was written about 30-50 years after Jesus’ death. During this time, the group of people had entered into an age of persecution. They were a small number of disciples with no real political power. Hear this story through their ears — they may be small, but they are mighty, and with God’s help, will grow into a bush so large it will be like the kings of old. They will grow like weeds — today we’d say that the kingdom will be like kudzu. You’ll try your hardest to get rid of it, but it’ll just keep going on its intended path.
And while we may have our own problems with kudzu in our yards, when we think about it as a metaphor for the kingdom of God, it should give you chills. It’s going to happen. We are working toward a kingdom where all are welcome — but where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. No matter what others will do to try to grab at power and keep it, God will overcome.
The reign of God will happen because every time somebody tries to root us out, new seeds are sewn, new life will find a way. Praise be to God! Amen!
The Rev. Stacey Harwell-Dye is minister of community building at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon.