“And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”” (Mark 4:30–32, ESV)
Like the parable of the growing seed, with this parable Jesus crushes our expectations that the Kingdom of God would just show up and steam roll everything before it in a great and mighty triumph. There is no clash of mighty armies here, no sound of trumpets calling great men to battle, no snort of horses pawing the ground ready to charge; there is only a tiny mustard seed. What can anyone do with a mustard seed?
The unexpectedness of this parable is not that a mustard seed grows into a large plant, surely all of Jesus’ listeners understood that. The surprise here is that Jesus compares the Kingdom of God with a mustard seed. Weren’t the Jews meant to be free? Wasn’t Rome oppressing the Jews? Wasn’t God going to come down and kick the Romans right out of Palestine? A mustard seed?
That mustard seed? That tiny little thing? It’s growing…and growing…and growing, and before you really notice its large enough for birds to land on and to make nests in its shade.
This is the nature of the Kingdom of God. It comes quietly, unnoticed, surreptitiously. It does not come with fanfare and pronouncements and parades. Before we even notice, it has taken root and began to grow and when it grows, well, good luck getting rid of it. Talk to Stalin about that, or Mao, or any other tinpot dictator who tried to stamp out the growth of God’s Kingdom. Which reminds me of the words to a Bob Ayala song:
Kings and countries come and gone
And their splendor has been long forgotten
Stalin tried to stop my song
Still I sing in Ugandan prisons
Kings and Queens and battle screams pass away
But I’ve been living a long time
I was born on Easter morning
I’ve been living a long time
Since the stone was rolled away.
God is always working, even when we do not see it, even when we do not think that he is. The NIV Application Commentary writes:
These parables are appropriate to apply to those times in our ministry when we might feel that the Spirit has gone on holiday. They convey the truth that God’s kingdom works powerfully, independently of the skill or power of its herald, and sometimes invisibly. We need to look at our world from the way Jesus sees it, with seeds sown everywhere preparing for the harvest.
Faithfulness to God and his story does not require “success” as the world sees it, with many coming to faith and lives changed, that is all God’s responsibility. All we have to do is be in the furrows sowing the seed with patience.