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;”
As a small child I found the parable of the mustard seed baffling. The mustard and cress that we used to sow on damp pieces of flannel, which we placed on the kitchen windowsill so that we could watch them germinate and grow, fitted the Gospel in the sense that the seeds were tiny. The results, however, did not look remotely promising from the point of view of birds looking for a place to make nests in the shade.
The first time I preached on this parable I scoured the commentaries and encountered New Testament scholars arguing the merits of different species rather like panelists on Gardeners’ Question Time. I gathered that something called Sinapis Nigra was the experts’ favourite to be the plant to which Jesus refers in this parable.
Sinapis Nigra is an annual which grows and propagates like a weed. Any farmer who planted it would incur the displeasure of neighbouring farmers, who would find mustard plants springing up all over their wheat or barley fields next season. And the fact that the mustard plant attracts birds would make it doubly unwelcome, for the birds would not only eat the mustard seeds but any other grains and seeds growing in the vicinity.
So this parable offers us important but rather surprising pointers as to the nature of the Kingdom of God and our role in it. Firstly, the smallest of human actions can lead to rapid growth and development. Secondly that growth and development isn’t about producing lasting structures or institutions that human beings can control. It’s about the brief surging into life of a short-lived plant – an unstoppable weed-like species whose growth is strong enough to crack open sun-baked soil and which gives shelter to the hungry and homeless, but which then dies back, having produced the seeds which will make new plants and new growth possible in the future.
When Jesus used the words “the Kingdom of God” most of his hearers, including his disciples, would immediately have thought in terms of liberation from colonial rule and the re-establishment of a single Jewish kingdom governed in accordance with God’s law. In telling this parable Jesus set out to challenge those expectations and replace them with something different. I think that those commentators who have seen the parable as foretelling the rapid growth of the Church as an institution in the years after the Resurrection have only understood part of the story. Yes, this is a parable about rapid growth, and about tiny actions having massive results but it also a parable which suggests that the growth of the Kingdom is not about the creation of institutions, not about getting things right once and for all and then hanging on to them, but rather about an on-going cycle of growth, death and renewal.
The parable of the mustard seed conveys a simple message. God’s kingdom isn’t a structure, a system of government, a management initiative or a set of rules. It’s a tenacious, short-lived, rapidly-spreading thing which keeps popping up all over the place, in the hearts of people very different from us and at times in our own lives when we least expect it; a popping up which may disturb the orderly patterns that we prefer but which often involves new ways of living the Christian life. We have our own Mustard Seed Community in this diocese, a mission initiative based at St Margaret’s, Easter Road. They describe themselves as “rooted in prayer” and valuing “kindness, hospitality, creativity, justice and joy”. Their work and witness are very much in the tradition established by the 18th century German Christian Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, who founded what he called the Order of the Mustard Seed. Some of his ideas might strike us as a bit odd – for example, he warned his followers against the temptation of “having even the slightest dealings with clergymen” – but the principles of the Order of the Mustard Seed were simple and profound:
Be kind to all people. Seek their welfare. Win them to Christ.
And the order in which he placed those principles is, surely, very significant, for it is through the small acts of kindness, hospitality, creativity, justice and joy, the mustard seeds, that God’s kingdom grows and develops. Amen.