Jesus said to the crowds, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man throws seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, he loses no time: he starts to reap because the harvest has come.’
He also said, ‘What can we say the kingdom of God is like? What parable can we find for it? It is like a mustard seed which at the time of its sowing in the soil is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.’
Using many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, so far as they were capable of understanding it. He would not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything to his disciples when they were alone.
You will find more in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.
-- St. Bernard of Clarivaux
The relationship between humanity and God is often mostly clearly seen in how the natural world thrives and survives despite the uncertainty and capricious nature that it throws, often even at itself.
I'm sure that many will know this story from Children's Liturgy or Sunday School- it is one that teachers love because it is one that can be illustrated - it's a 'hands on' parable ideal for this time of year. Any packet of seeds will do - the saltshaker heads of poppies carry seeds even smaller than the mustard seed of the Galilee - like dust - tiny full-stop sized packets of life. There is the seed that is attached to every dandelion parachute or 'old mans beard' of wild clematis. No matter what, that first green stroke of new life always brings an awareness of the wonder of God's creation.
And it is not just the size of seeds that astonishes us; the exotic mangrove pod and the monkey heart seeds that float around in the ocean currents for years before settling themselves into the sandy mudbank of a river estuary; the banksia that needs fire to germinate and the mistletoe which rarely germinates without passing through the gut of a mistlethrush. All give a sign of a world that is so much more than we can imagine.
Because we use these stories with children we can imagine that Jesus feels that he is talking to children himself; simple people who cannot grasp the immensity of God's Kingdom. Yet the people of God then were no less civilised or less educated that we are today; they knew scripture and they knew the land. Rather it is Jesus himself who is lost for words and resorts to the miraculous nature of the world that he, himself, had spoken into existence to describe the growth of faith that will build the kingdom of God from these tiny beginnings in the heart of nowhere.
The particular nature of the mustard seed means that, like many desert survivors, it is quick to germinate - within a day or two - and can grow to around ten feet in just one year. Such quick growth is fleshy and pliable; easily eaten or damaged by animals or weather but in just one overwintering the outer skin becomes bark and the trunk and branches become rigid so that when the spring comes even more new growth can be supported.
It is born out of an eagerness for life and a willingness to blossom when times are right; to wait it out during cold and empty periods and then grow in strength and hospitality. It is its love of life that makes the mustard seed unfold into a tree that the birds of the air will flock around; as Christians seeking to be part of this growing kingdom we must strive just as hard to live a life filled with God's love.
When Jesus tells these parables it is always worth remembering that the stories have an element of subversion. We imagine the listeners nodding appreciatively at the thought of this benevolent tree; it is equally possible that some would be shaking their heads in dismay.
The mustard tree is a wild thing; it is not a crop planted by gardeners, farmers or vineyard owners. Whilst it produces beneficial spices; its energetic germination makes it a malignant weed. In a country where good soil and water are owned by those whose wealth comes from the land, no landowner or farmer would want such a plant taking up space or attracting wild birds to feast on their legitimate, profitmaking, grapes or wheat. Once established it is almost impossible to eradicate.
So perhaps the kingdom of God is like that; something that grasps at opportunities; that begins by clutching at straws; that is born in the dirt of a stable - unlooked for and unwelcome. That the kingdom of God will grow quickly, through the ministry of Jesus, in such a short time.
And that, despite opposition; despite the winters of despair and suffering, it will grow strong. Welcoming those that do not belong; those from outside the boundaries of ownership; those who are unwanted or a threat and in doing so create a kingdom of God within the kingdom of earth.
A kingdom that does not grow for its own sake but to call; to feed and to send out others to the ends of the earth. These tiny beings, each one known by the Father; each fed by the Son; each borne on the winds of the Spirit - carrying the seeds of the kingdom throughout the world.
“Listen to the trees as they sway in the wind.Their leaves are telling secrets. Their bark sings songs of olden days as it grows around the trunks. And their roots give names to all things.Their language has been lost. But not the gestures.” ― Vera Nazarian