“He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches’” (Luke 13:18-19).

            At the beginning of Luke 13, there is a story about a tower that fell in Jerusalem, killing 18 people. These people weren’t any worse than anyone else; the tower falling was not God punishing them for their sins; it just happened. A little later in Luke 13, Jesus heals a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. Now Luke ties these two stories together with the number 18. In the first story, a tower falls and 18 people die for no good reason; in the second story, Jesus heals one person from 18 years of pain. Viewing these two stories together begs the question: What kind of difference was Jesus really making when he was on earth? I mean: Wouldn’t he have made a bigger difference if he had saved the 18 instead of the one? Or, better yet, wouldn’t it have been great if he had saved all 19 of them? Instead, the Son of God, the so-called Savior of the world, is getting beat 18 to 1 in this chapter. That’s enough to make you want to hang your head.

            However, after Jesus heals the woman, he says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The mustard seed was famous for its incredibly small size.[1] Its diameter is less than a tenth of an inch.[2] Seven hundred and fifty mustard seeds put together weigh only a single gram.[3] So basically, the rule of Almighty God is like a teeny tiny seed. God’s reign is not like that sky-scraping tower that looked over Jerusalem and fell on 18 people. God’s reign is like Jesus healing one woman. The kingdom is small, but it grants abundant life. The kingdom is humble, but it brings salvation.

Jesus had to tell his disciples about the humbleness of God’s kingdom, for they were on their way to Jerusalem. Jerusalem: where Jesus would enter, not on a conquering warhorse, but on a little donkey. Jerusalem: where Jesus would teach that the greatest is not the one who rules, but the one who serves. Jerusalem: where Jesus would take his place, not on a lofty throne, but on a lowly cross. Jesus embodied a kingdom of power in weakness, a kingdom of greatness in meekness. So, even while people die somewhere for no apparently good reason, God’s kingdom is busy healing one woman!

She had a particular infirmity, you know. An evil spirit had kept her bent over for 18 years. But when Jesus touched her, she stood up straight and began praising God. This is a picture of what the mustard seed parable is supposed to do for us. Just as Jesus touched the woman to help her stand up physically, he tells the parable to help us stand up spiritually. The parable is meant to encourage our spirits! In a rough world that often makes us want to hang our heads, this parable helps us stand up straight.

But someone says, “Preacher, what’s so encouraging about God’s kingdom being like a microscopic seed?” One biblical scholar explains, “While it is characteristic of all seeds to be small, it is their characteristic also to be alive.”[4] Indeed, the kingdom of God is little, but it’s alive! Even in our time, when evil and suffering are so pervasive, God is busy working for the good! Yes, God’s kingdom is still alive, and it still shows up in a mustard seed kind of way.

            For instance, in the throes of war, there are always too many casualties. However, Tom Long tells a story about one particular combat helicopter pilot. In a war on foreign soil, this young man was flying a routine patrol over a village, when, from the air, he saw a group of his compatriots attacking dozens of unarmed villagers, including women, children, and the elderly. In the heat of the moment, he gathered his courage and landed his chopper right between his fellow soldiers and the remaining civilians. He pointed his guns at his own countrymen, ordering them to stop attacking the helpless people. Then, he called for other helicopters to come and take the injured villagers to the hospital. This man saved dozens of lives with his courageous actions.[5] Did he save everyone in the war? No. But the mustard seed kingdom showed up.

            In inner city America a few years ago, rival gangs were warring against each other in two particular housing projects. An elementary school was located between the two projects, and one day some school children were shot and killed in the crossfire. After the tragic shooting, the gunfire continued and kids were afraid to go to school. School attendance dropped to 20%. Politicians weren’t going to help with this problem in the projects, so a local church decided to do something about it. Volunteers from the nearby church became “walking school buses” for the children. They got children from their homes each morning and walked them to school, shielding them the whole way there, protecting them with their own bodies. These church folk were willing to take a bullet so children they didn’t even know could get an education. Their efforts were so effective that the school’s attendance rate gradually rose from 20% to 98%.[6] Did the walking school buses put an end to all gang violence in America? No. But the mustard seed kingdom showed up.

            A seminary class convened in the Appalachian Mountains. A local pastor was going to teach them what ministry is like in a poverty-stricken rural area. The minister’s lecture was interrupted by a phone call. A local family’s furnace had blown and they couldn’t afford to have it fixed. Knowing that another cold winter night was fast approaching, the family called the church for help. The students found out about the phone call and began to pass a hat around the room. By the end of the lecture, they had collected enough money to have the family’s furnace repaired. Did this eradicate all poverty in Appalachia? No. But the mustard seed kingdom showed up.

            There are millions of lonely people throughout the world, but there is a woman in North Carolina who visits the homebound members of her community every month. That’s the mustard seed kingdom! There are thousands of hungry people in our country, but today someone will drop off a few items for a food bank ministry. That’s the mustard seed kingdom! There are too many people who do not have a decent home, but this month, construction begins on another Habitat House. That’s the mustard seed kingdom! God’s kingdom is little, but it’s alive!

However, we’ve got to ask if it’s enough. Is the mustard seed kingdom enough? No. It’s not. For one freezing family to be warm is not enough. We want warmth for all. For one neighborhood to be safe from violence is not enough. We want all neighborhoods to be safe. For one village to be spared in a brutal war is not enough. We want peace for all nations.

Jesus knows, ultimately, the mustard seed kingdom is not enough. Yet, he tells us how the mustard seed will one day become a tree where the birds of the air can nest. Here, Jesus uses Old Testament imagery. The prophet Ezekiel envisioned God’s kingdom as a giant cedar tree where all kinds of birds could nest together in serenity.[7] The birds symbolize people of all nations. One day, Jesus says, the mustard seed will miraculously become a giant tree where all nations shall dwell together in peace. [8]

Is the mustard seed kingdom enough? No; but it’s enough to keep us going in our faith! Why? Because although people are still dying for no good reason, when we help one person toward life abundant, we are participating in God’s eternal kingdom! When we touch people’s lives in a healing way, we are participating in God’s eternal rule! When we work to make justice happen-even if it’s relatively small justice-we are participating in God’s eternal reign!

The seed has been planted! The kingdom is little, but it’s alive! And in the future, God will turn the little seed into a gigantic tree and all nations will dwell together in peace! One day, God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven! One day, God’s reign will reign! One day, God’s rule will rule! Until that day, while evil towers over us, Christ has given us reason to have faith-faith that can move mountains-faith the size of a mustard seed.

[1] See Mark 4:31, Matthew 13:32.
[2] Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000) 395.
[3] R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 275.
[4] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: Volume 2: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 34.
[5] Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian (San Francisc Jossey-Bass, 2004) 141.
[6] I thank Reverend B. Herbert Martin, Pastor of the Progressive Community Church in Chicago, Illinois, for telling me this story.
7] See Ezekiel 17:22-24.
[8] This event will take a miracle because mustard seeds usually grow into stubby little mustard bushes, about 2 to 6 feet tall. “Flora” in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 812.



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