What should we compare God’s kingdom to? A powerful, unstoppable empire sounds like it might fit. The ancient Jews would have liked that analogy and so would many of us in the church today. In the Old Testament, the writers described a time when a Messiah would come, rise up and lead Israel in overthrowing the empires of the world and usher in God’s kingdom by destroying her enemies, similar to what many Christians think Revelation says about the future.
But then Jesus messes things up again. Jesus didn’t see God’s kingdom this way. Instead, he says God’s kingdom, “is like a grain of a mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out larger branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:31-32) A tiny, seemingly insignificant mustard seed, is the best comparison for God’s kingdom.
Here, you would probably imagine that I will tell you how God takes little seeds (acts and deeds) and turns them into giant trees. And that is true. But it would be missing a lot of key Jewish understandings of the mustard seed that Jesus’ and Mark’s audience would have known. Let me point out three important themes to understanding how God’s kingdom, and the church should be like a mustard seed. (I am indebted to Shane Claiborne’s and Chris Haw’s Jesus for President for what follows.)
First, Ancient Jews hated mustard seed. In fact, around the year 200 rabbinic law outlawed Jews from growing mustard in their gardens. Why? Because mustard is a weed that is nearly impossible to get rid of. You can tear it out, but it will pop up in another spot. It is a nuisance and if left to its own design, will take over the entire garden.
Which is Jesus’ point. His kingdom starts small but is uncontrollable. “What Jesus has in mind is not a frontal attack on the empires of this world,” writes Claiborne. “His revolution is a subtle contagion- one little life, one little hospitality house at a time.” The Roman Empire couldn’t stomp it out for this specific reason; every time they arrested or killed one church off, more sprang up! Like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God is wild, unpredictable, makes a mess of “orderly” life, and is impossible to stop.
Second, mustard was used in the ancient world as a kind of healing balm. Pliny the Elder wrote around the time of Jesus that, “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health.” It was rubbed on the chest in order to help with respiratory illnesses, sort of like a primitive Vicks vapor rub. Mustard not only sprung up all over the place, or was impossible to contain and get rid of, but it also is used to heal. What a perfect metaphor for what the Church and God’s kingdom should look like!
Third, mustard is powerful. I remember the first time I ate mustard greens a few years ago, thinking they were regular lettuce leaves. That was an unpleasant surprise. Mustard is not only small, but incredibly potent, with a powerful and fiery strength to it.
But here is the key. Mustard’s power is only released when it is crushed. And that is exactly how God’s kingdom works. As the apostle Paul would later write, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) This is a radical command for today’s world. Be crushed, be weak, let others trample on you. God’s kingdom is one of love, returning hate with kindness, forgiving and reconciling with those who hurt us. It is an upside-down kingdom, where the weak are powerful and the humble are exalted. C.S. Lewis writes:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
Unfortunately, too often I don’t love this way, and I believe most of the church would rather surround ourselves with hobbies and luxury rather than risk loving others this way.
But look at Jesus, our Savior and Victor. He spun power on its head. His power was not in crushing others, but in being crushed. He does not triumph over the powers of darkness with a sword, but with a cross. As John wrote, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)
Friends, let us not be like the world’s kingdoms. Let us not fight to be the strongest. Let us not seek to tear down but to heal. Let us not be a church of entertainment and flash, but of humility and weakness. This is how the world works, but not those in God’s kingdom. Instead, let us be wild in our love for others, let us be open to being crushed as we invite all to come nest in the shade of God’s kingdom. Let us not see God’s kingdom as a kingdom like anything in this world. Let us be a church that looks like the mustard seed.