Text: Matthew 13: 31- 32
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Let us start with a riddle.
What is stronger than God,
More Evil than the Devil,
Poor Have it,
Rich do not know about it,
If you eat it, you will die
When I first heard this riddle I scratched my head. All possible foolish answers came to my mind. I was clueless. But when I heard the answer I cringed even further. The answer of the riddle is “Nothing.” That is the beauty of a riddle that profound truth is communicated in the simplest means. Jesus also used parables in this fashion where the divine truths were communicated using simple examples from nature. In the passage set in front of us we have Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God. As many theologians point out that the word Kingdom was a stumbling block for the listeners of Jesus. It always evoked the grandiosity of the Royal legacy of Israel under King David and Solomon. It also evoked grand images of huge facades that were symbolic of the Roman Empire. So if Jesus said that Kingdom of heaven is like “Cedars of Lebanon” (The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; Ps 92: 12) he would just be playing into the imagery of grandiosity. But here Jesus says that Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed. In Galilee the mustard seed was seen more as a weed. The Rabbis forbade people from planting mustard seeds in their garden as once it was planted it took over the garden leaving no place for other plants. It grows up to 8- 10 feet. Once the sower sows mustard seeds, he loses control over it.
Now is that what the Kingdom of God like? I guess yes. When people of faith do small acts with great love, the Holy Spirit provides growth beyond the imagination of human comprehension. I have a friend in Dubai who has an anonymous group who gather together to pray and serve the will of God. They wish to be an anonymous group that supports God’s work and mission with prayers and monetary contributions. If they come to know the need of a particular village or place, they will pray about it and come together to contribute for the cause and wish to remain anonymous in the whole process. When I came to know about their work I really believed the statement that I read recently. “Let the photos on Facebook of great charity not fool you. Greatest work of love is going on hidden far away from the gaze of the world of Facebook by people who are anonymous.”
More than the growth aspect, the emphasis is that this becomes a tree where birds come and take rest. Kingdom of God is where all people are welcome. It is where over the needs of the self, the need of my neighbor takes prime importance. To illustrate this let me tell you a very common story.
There are different versions but one story goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a mother whose son became ill and died. The mother was a wreck because of her grief. Unable to face living with the heavy burden of sadness, in desperation she went to a wise man.
The wise man listened sympathetically, thought for a moment and said.
“I think the answer to your problem will be a special kind of mustard seed. What you must do is this.
Find some home where they have not known the grief of the death of a loved one, then collect a mustard seed from the garden and bring it back to me. I will then show you how to deal with your grief.”
Strange advice the woman thought….but on the other hand….. he is known to be a wise man, so she set off on this unusual quest.
The first house she chose was that of a rich family, a huge house with large well-kept grounds. She explained her quest to the woman who answered the door. Is this by any chance a house where there has been no such grief as the grief I have experienced in losing my son? The woman who had opened the door, burst into tears. “You couldn’t have come to a worse place. Grief? Let me tell you about grief.” And she began to explain the total tragedy her family had suffered over recent months.
The woman who had lost her son listened, amazed that someone so rich might have encountered such a disaster. On the other hand she thought to herself, perhaps my experience makes me the sort of person who might understand. So she stayed a while, counselled the sad rich woman, then when the rich woman appeared able to cope a little better, off she went on her journey again.
I think you may have already guessed. The next house was exactly the same. A nice house on the outside yet another real story of unhappy experiences – and once again she left but only after helping as best she could. And then on to the next, again a house visited by grief – and the next.
But here is the curious consequence. Gradually – imperceptibly she became more and more focused on the task of helping others and more and more forgetful of her own unhappiness.
She had started with a quest for a seed – a mustard seed and her journey brought her to the point where though her grief was still there as a memory – something else was growing in its place. She started becoming a tree where the birds could come and take rest. Even the smallest wounds in our lives can heal the pain of people if we submit ourselves to God who works in mysterious ways.
Growth is the hallmark of a Christian life. Paul articulates this beautifully in Ephesians 4: 15 ‘Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.’ Growth is painful and at the same time unpredictable and sometimes undesirable. But growth at times does not seem the focus of Christians. Bill Peddie illustrates this in a very beautiful fashion. He talks about Bonsai Christians. “You probably know that a bonsai tree is a miniature version of a larger tree which is deliberately altered by cutting or tying its tap root so that it can be a small, decorative addition to a cultivated garden, rather than the tree nature intended it to be. In terms of Christians I guess the tap root is the one that allows direct contact with the main teachings of Jesus. A bonsai Christian then is one that would prefer to function without the challenge. Given a call to mission, the bonsai Christian would prefer to return to the comfort of the familiar music and listening to familiar prayer. The bonsai Christian will seek the setting of the rich wooded pews, the carved Church furniture, the sonorous organ, – or perhaps seek the modern entertainment style worship of the large crowd and technologically savvy preacher who knows how to work the crowd. A religion perhaps that pampers and comforts has an attraction for the bonsai Christian rather one than challenges and even provokes. Yet is this really what we are born for?”
So the Challenge my dear friends is to be either a small mustard seed that has the possibility to grow and become a shelter for many or to be like a Bonsai plant that lives for just ornamental purposes. Let us critically examine our life and identify whether we have been ‘Bonsai Christians’ or people who did small things with great love.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church