This week we are offered more images of the kingdom of God, some of which again use the theme of seeds.
The little mustard seed growing into a tall sturdy plant that offers shelter to the birds is one of these images. Our first impression is that Jesus is saying that something starts out very small but can develop into something very large, and that is how the kingdom is. However, before we get carried away on this idea, it is good to recall some of the characteristics of the mustard plant to deepen our understanding of what else Jesus might have been saying.
Jesus’ listeners had their ideas about the kingdom. When it would come, it would come with power and prosperity. Had Jesus used the image of the mighty cedar, it would have better fitted their concept. This little known man from Galilee who did some miracles, told some stories, and made some unorthodox suggestions, certainly would not appear to be the one to bring about this kingdom.
The mustard plant is not a perennial. It grows rapidly from a tiny seed to a plant of six to nine feet in height. If it is not kept in check it can take over the whole field, like a weed or a nuisance plant. Because of this, it was sometimes considered ‘unclean’ and could not be planted in a garden with other herbs according to the law.
What is being proposed here is an image of a kingdom that not only starts small but has none of the trappings of majesty or power about it. It could and perhaps should be like a nuisance in society, spreading rapidly. Here is a plant that must be sown in fresh soil annually, suggesting that the kingdom of God must be replanted or re-seed itself in new ground regularly, so that it does not become static and stale. This kingdom that Jesus talks about in this parable just doesn’t have very humble beginnings. Its very essence must remain that way. Because it re-seeds itself annually, the mustard tree or shrub will always remain a mustard shrub. Sad to say, through the ages we have lost the kingdom of Jesus as we tried to grow this mustard tree into a mighty cedar of Lebanon.
This same humble plant offers refuge and welcome to the birds of the air. There is no sense that only certain birds can nest there. This is the openness to all that is the fabric of the kingdom of God. War and deprivation in our world drive people from their homelands to seek safety, shelter and a better life elsewhere. Over the past few months thousands of unaccompanied children, mainly from Central America, have been streaming across the Mexican/U.S. border. They have been sent out of desperation to seek shelter in the branches of a prosperous land, a land at whose other end there stands a statue in the New York Harbor with an inscription which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores…” In the Mustard Tree Kingdom they would all find a welcome and a home, but that is not the kingdom we have sown. Somehow we have picked up the wrong seeds.
Every year we celebrate the feast of Christ the king. Why are we not celebrating the feast of Christ the Mustard Tree Sower?
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP