He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
~ Matthew 13:31-32
The lesson I’ve always drawn from this parable was that God can do great things even through small things. Whether it be our faith, our ministry, or our testimony. I still think that lesson is a valid one, but it wasn’t until I read Guerrilla Lovers: Changing the World with Revolutionary Compassion by Vince Antonucci that I realized there’s more to the story.
See, I read “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” and mentally stopped there. But Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.” I focused on the smallness of the seed, not the fact that a man planted it in his field. Why is that significant? Vince explains:
Remember, Jesus took center stage with the words, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.” One hundred eleven times the Bible records Jesus saying the word kingdom. And now he asks, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?”
A mustard seed.
When a mustard seed grows it becomes a weed. It’s a vine-like weed which will grow and grow and will intertwine with other weeds. And they’ll continue to grow. And then they’ll come into contact with a flower, which will be overtaken by the weeds. Now they’re growing more. Soon they’ll touch a tomato plant, and pretty soon that tomato plant has been overtaken by the weeds.
In fact, Jewish law at the time of Jesus made it illegal to plant mustard seed in a garden. Why was it against the law? Because they knew that it would grow and grow, invade the vegetables and other plants, and eventually take over the garden. If you let mustard in, eventually you’d be left with only mustard. The secret to gardening for the Jewish people of Jesus’s day was: keep the mustard out!
I wonder how people reacted when they heard Jesus compare his kingdom to mustard seed planted in a garden. Did they just look shocked? Are you serious? Don’t you know about mustard? Or did they giggle? This guy is hysterical. I can’t wait to hear what he’s going to say next! Or perhaps they frowned and thought, Jesus, hush. We like you, and if you keep comparing your kingdom to mustard, you’re going to get yourself killed.
Jesus used a notorious, forbidden weed to describe God’s kingdom. He said God’s kingdom is like a man who planted a mustard seed in his garden. But people didn’t plant mustard seed in gardens. It was illegal. If you did, the mustard seed would grow and grow and take over the entire garden.
I’ve tried to think of modern-day equivalents. If Jesus was here today and asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?” what would he say next? What modern-day metaphor would make the same point and have similar shock value?
Maybe: “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a vicious computer virus a man sent out in an email from his computer, and it spread and spread and infected more and more computers.”
Or perhaps this: “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like AIDS, which infected one person but soon spread and spread and became an epidemic as scores of people received it.”
If we heard that, our heads would spin. We’d say, “What? Are you serious? And the people who heard Jesus back then would have reacted the same way.
So what was Jesus trying to teach us about the kingdom of God?
The Jesus revolution is subtle. It starts small, like a weed in a garden, but it spreads. It reaches out and everything it touches it grabs and pulls in. It spreads one life to another, more and more people getting pulled into it. And the harder you try to get rid of it, the faster it spreads.
I think Jesus is teaching us that the revolution is meant to be viral. It spreads like a disease. It’s a disease you want to catch, but still it spreads like a disease. When you hang out with someone who has the flu, you catch the flu. Jesus is saying the revolution should be sneezable. The revolution should be contagious, and when it comes into an area, it should grow into an epidemic.
But it will only grow into an epidemic if it’s done right. Weeds don’t come in and announce they’re taking over the garden. They don’t invite all the other plants and vegetables to a meeting and ask them if they’d like to be taken over by the weeds. They don’t hand out tracts explaining the benefits of the garden overrun by weeds. They don’t wear weed T-shirts. They don’t put a billboard up for all the vegetation to see: “For the Gardener so loved the garden, he gave his one and only weed.”
No, a weed comes in unannounced, popping up very subtly, and it starts to grow. Then another weed pops up. And if these two weeds meet up, they’ll get enmeshed, and then they’ll intertwine with another weed. Soon they’re pulling in flowers and plants, and eventually the entire garden is taken over by the weeds.
And Jesus teaches us that this is the way of his kingdom. The way his revolution is intended to function, the way it grows best, is not through public meetings, billboards, and TV. No, it’s a love revolution that spreads person to person, one individual to another. And when we try to make it something it’s not, it just won’t work quite right. But when we live it out as it’s supposed to be, watch out.
So what do you think?
Have you ever thought about the the parable of the mustard seed in this way?
Do you think it’s significant that the parable of the weeds immediately precedes this parable in Matthew 13?