Read: Matthew 13:31-33
How does the church grow; how does God’s kingdom come? Jesus’ parable of the Mustard Seed offers us a clue about the way God’s work advances in the world. Hint: it doesn’t happen the way most people expect it would.
Just once I would like to hear an introduction for a Christian speaker that went something like this: “John Doe is pastor of one of America’s smallest and slowest growing churches. His messages are heard on no radio or television stations each week, and his books have sold zero copies. In fact, he’s never written a book. Doe’s ministry is largely unknown, as he serves just a few people in a remote and obscure part of the country.”
It wouldn’t happen, would it? We’re too impressed with size, fame, and success. We’re not much interested in smallness and apparent insignificance. Just like the world, the American church loves a winner, and we define winners by big numbers and lots of dollars. We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and it’s rubbed off on Christians. But Jesus tells a very different kind of story about the way things work in the kingdom of God. In fact, he told two stories—back-to-back mini-parables, brief comparisons featuring little things—both of which convey the same message.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:31-33)
The God of the Tiny
So here we have the parable of The Mustard Seed and the parable of The Leaven. Mustard seeds were extremely tiny things; we’re told that it took around 750 of them just to make a single gram. Yet when planted in the field they could grow larger than any other garden plant, to the point where even birds would nest in their branches.
The parable of the leaven is equally striking. Leaven, or yeast, is the active agent in bread-making. Just a little bit of this powder mixed into the dough will make the whole loaf rise and expand. What’s unusual about Jesus’ use of this image is that leaven in the Bible is almost always the symbol of the working of evil, the pernicious effects of sin. That symbolism was deeply ingrained in the Jewish mind by the preparatory ritual for the celebration of the Passover, when all leaven had to be carefully removed from every household, and the family ate only unleavened bread for the seven days of the feast.
But here in Jesus’ parable, for once leaven stands for something good. It points to the operation of God’s kingdom in the world. Just as a little yeast can affect a large amount of dough, so Jesus’ followers, though few in number and small in worldly power and influence, will nevertheless change the whole course of world history.
So Jesus is out to make the point here that small things matter to God. God is the God of tiny beginnings and seeming weakness. He delights in using little people and what look like insignificant movements. But the small beginnings end in great results. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness; when we are weak, then we are strong. That’s the point the New Testament makes.
The quiet, slow, beneath-the-surface operation of God’s Word and Spirit, a working through ordinary people, produces huge changes, like the water that eventually wears away the stone. When Jesus spoke these two brief parables his church wasn’t even a blip on the world’s radar screen. Yet today Jesus’ followers fill the world, and Jesus’ name is glorified in every language on earth.
But the biggest and best is still to come. His kingdom will one day fill heaven and earth, as the tree of life fills the sky with its branches and the bread of life feeds the multitudes. The prophetic promise of scripture is that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9, cf. Habakkuk 2:14).
That doesn’t necessarily mean that today every preacher will draw big crowds or every church will boast huge numbers. The Lord still likes to work in small, hidden ways. As commentator Dale Bruner explains, “Jesus point . . . is not that the whole world will be converted but that the whole world will be reached.… The ‘bigness’ promised by these seed parables … is not to be understood … as worldly bigness but, in the spirit of the Gospel … as the true “bigness” of the fruit of … life in the whole earth” (F. Dale Bruner, Commentary on Matthew, vol. 2, p. 34). So Jesus is encouraging us here to have confidence: confidence in the gospel, confidence in the God of tiny beginnings and unsung efforts, confidence that our own small works for the Lord – a cup of cold water, say, given in Jesus’ name—will never be in vain.
Lessons about the Kingdom
So these parables are confidence boosters. But I also think that Jesus tells them to stop us from despising or disparaging the little things: little churches, little ministries, little people, little acts of witness and love, even a little faith. The world is always telling us to think big; Jesus encourages us to think small. Have you ever reflected on the way the gospel really works in the world? Think about how the church is built, for example. It all starts with a weak preacher and a small message. “And I,” writes the apostle Paul to the Corinthians,
when I came to you, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom. . . (1 Corinthians 2:1-4)
So this is how God works. He doesn’t save people by worldly power or wisdom. “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe,” says the apostle (1 Corinthians 1:21). In his commentary on the parable of the Mustard Seed the great 4th-century theologian and Bible translator St. Jerome points to how small a thing the preaching of the gospel really is.
The preaching of the gospel is the least of all the teachings. At first glance there seems to be no real truth in this teaching that proclaims a dead Christ and the scandal of the cross. Compare it with the systems of the philosophers, with their books, with the splendor of their eloquence, with their fine style, and you will see how much smaller the seed of the Sower of the gospel is … but this preaching, which seems so small in the beginning, when it has been sown either in the believing soul or in the whole world … grows up into a tree.…Saint Jerome
It really is astonishing when you think about it. Christianity doesn’t expand as a result of clever publicity campaigns. God’s kingdom doesn’t advance through the world by means of massive government spending, let alone military might. It isn’t human power that causes the Christian faith to keep growing and spreading throughout the whole world. It all happens simply because the seed of the gospel is sown. God has a plan of salvation, a plan for changing people, for dealing with our sin, for transforming the whole world. But he doesn’t do this by issuing commands to follow or urging us just to be good. He sends Jesus to die and rise again, and then he has eyewitnesses tell the Jesus’ story, and those who believe it are changed, and they become followers of Jesus who tell still others, and on and on it goes. The greatest transformative power in the world is a piece of 2,000-year-old news. Good news to be sure!
Mustard seed growth is not just how the church grows; it’s also the way the church can best make a difference in the world. The Bible says it is “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). We have had to learn the hard way that we can’t spread the faith or change the world through violence. Some Christian churches have a terrible history for which we have had to repent. Think of the persecution of heretics and dissenters in the Middle Ages, or the Crusades, or the Inquisition, or the witchcraft trials, for example.
But we have learned, hopefully, to renounce violence and oppression and all means that are incompatible with the kingdom of God. The kingdom’s only weapons are words of witness and deeds of love, all surrounded by prayer. But when we do plant small seeds like that in the world, mighty results eventually come. When told that the pope opposed his murderous policies, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin derisively replied, “How many battalions does the pope have?” But who is sneering now? Stalin is long-dead and dishonored, even the Soviet Union is no more – helped to its demise incidentally by the extraordinary spiritual leadership of a Polish pope. Thus does God’s kingdom advance on earth.
Finally, mustard seed growth is the way faith works in our lives. It’s how God brings us through to the end. Jesus once told his disciples that “if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed … nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). I have often wondered just how much faith it takes to be saved. Now I realize: it doesn’t take very much. It isn’t the size of our faith that matters, it’s the size of the God in whom our faith rests.