Matthew 13:31-32: He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
The Kingdom of Heaven is the rule of God which results in shalom: people are reunited with God (Luke 15:11-32) as good news is preached to the poor, liberty is proclaimed to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). In order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must “repent and believe” – that is, we must change directions and switch allegiances: we must turn toward God instead of away from Him and we must withdraw our allegiance from the kingdoms of men and pledge our allegiance to the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15).
But the Kingdom of Heaven is not like the kingdoms of men. It does not consist of a territory with borders that must be defended by an army. It is not tied to any racial or ethnic identity. It is not interested in pomp and circumstance, or might and wealth. The Kingdom of Heaven had small beginnings, just as a mustard tree begins as a very small seed. Jesus was a poor itinerant Jewish preacher. His disciples were social low-lifes and outcasts: fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, and women. He never sought political power. Although he attracted large crowds from Galilee and Judea (Mt. 4:25) he was vehemently opposed by the Jewish ruling class and he was eventually executed as a criminal by the Roman Empire. If Jesus were just any other human magician or teacher, he would have been quickly forgotten by history.
But despite these humble beginnings in a small and relatively unimportant territory of the Roman Empire, the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus has persisted through the centuries and spread throughout the nations. Today billions of people on earth bend their knees to Jesus as King. The smallest of seeds was planted through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection (John 12:23-24) and today the ‘tree’ of his saving rule continues to grow so that men, women, boys, and girls of every nation and language find their hope in Him.
So, the parable teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven often comes in small and seemingly insignificant ways, but in God’s time it grows to bring God’s grace to more people than it would have been thought possible. The Old Testament roots of this parable are found in the prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 17 the Lord gave the prophet a ‘riddle’ and a ‘parable’ to speak to the house of Israel (17:1-2). In the parable the king of Babylon is the “great eagle” who lopped off the top of the tree of Israel – ‘her king and her princes’ – and took them to Babylon to live in exile. The king of Babylon offered Israel a covenant that ‘the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up’ but Israel reached out to another “great eagle” – to Egypt – in the hope that Egypt’s military might would be able to save Israel from the Babylonians. Thus Israel ‘despised the oath in breaking the covenant.’ God’s message through the parable is that Israel’s efforts to save themselves by trusting in Egypt will utterly fail (Ezek. 17:3-21). The conclusion, however, is not Israel’s failure and punishment, but rather the promise of what the Lord would do in the future:
Ezekiel 17:22-24: Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”
Thus, Ezekiel promised that one day God himself would act to plant his kingdom in a new way – it would start out as a tender young twig and grow to become a noble cedar in the branches of which birds of every sort could nest. So, what Jesus taught in the parable of the mustard seed, and what Jesus did in his ministry, is in continuity with and fulfillment of the word of the Lord to the prophets of Israel.
What does all this mean for us in our personal discipleship to Jesus? We may think of ourselves as small and insignificant. We may feel as worthless as a little seed or as a twig broken off a tree. We may wonder what possible value we could have to God’s Kingdom. The encouragement the parable gives us is that we do not need to be someone great, famous, powerful, or wealthy in order to be used by God. We only need to be available and obedient as Mary was who said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). If we will give ourselves to the Lord, then he can use what we have to offer, however little it may seem to us, in mighty and marvelous ways (John 6:1-15).
In a similar way this parable encourages us as the church in our collective discipleship to Jesus. We don’t need to be a congregation of 1,000 people in order to be able to do Kingdom work. Buchanan is not insignificant to God because it is a small town. The parable of the mustard seed teaches us that the Kingdom of Heaven comes precisely in small ways – through cups of cold water given in Jesus’ name to people who are on the margins of all that is big and important on the world stage. Our task as the church is to be faithful in loving our neighbors and sharing the good news of Jesus with them. We do this through simple acts – painting at an elementary school, washing windows, visiting the residents of a nursing home, and praying for a family in crisis. As we do these works in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can trust that in his time God will do his work – which is ‘far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us’ (Eph. 3:20).
Take time now to seek God. This brief prayer can help you get started: “Thank you Lord for the humility of Jesus, who came not as a conquering King but rather as a humble servant. For the sake of your Kingdom, help me to be like Jesus. Help me always to be ready and willing to serve you in whatever way you choose, so that your kingdom can come and your will can be done in and through me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”