What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, what parable can we use to describe it?
We hear today Jesus ask a question. Jesus who had so much to say, so much to teach others, paused to ask a question.
He has been announcing that the kingdom of God has come near since the middle of chapter one. He has already told some parables, but now he says, how can I describe to you, open your minds to this thing I am trying to get across, what it’s like when the empire God brings as Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones translates, is present.
Many hear kingdom of God and think immediately of heaven. But Jesus has been announcing that God’s empire, God’s area of authority where God’s ways are truly carried out, is beginning right there where he began doing ministry in the region of Galilee. He wants people to stretch their imagination to have this new orientation that God brings into their midst.
And first he says, well it’s like someone just threw some seed around, and then went on with his life, sleeping and waking, not doing anything at all, until boom one day there is the whole grain grown up and ready to be harvested.
Any farmer will take issue with this parable. Any gardener too. There is work that goes into a harvest, care for the soil, weeding, tending, in some cases pruning. You have to watch for the bugs or the fungus, remove them. There’s hundreds of ways it can all go wrong.
And Jesus knew this. Jesus was not ignorant about farming and seeds and harvests, this life was all around him. But he tells this parable to tug on the people’s hearts, make them see the irony in the words he is speaking.
When it’s God’s kingdom, you do not need to fret so much. When we are talking about this thing God is doing, well, you have a part to play for sure, but a lot of it is just about resting and giving God time. Trusting in the goodness of the earth, and the mysterious seed, to do its thing.
I mentioned last week how Jesus had already gotten people upset because of plucking grain on the Sabbath, and healing on the Sabbath. There were rules about rest and they were meant to help people honor God, help people follow the 2nd?3rd? commandment. And from his actions they were concluding that Jesus cared nothing about the Sabbath. Yet here he is with a real Sabbath orientation. Just do a little, what you know you should, at the right time- and then rest in God and don’t worry. That was the crux of the beginning of honoring the Sabbath from the time of the Exodus. God sent the people manna to eat in the desert. They were not to hoard it from one day to the next, if they tried to it would go bad. But the day before the Sabbath they could gather up double, and it would not go bad, so they could really rest that day. Resting is an ultimate trusting in God. Maybe I’m talking about this because I was reminded this week of my need to give things time, trust and rest in God.
Rev. Nutan S J Suray in the worship helps resource tells about how he “read online the testimony of a woman, who during this current pandemic was feeling utterly worthless – disappointed with life and did not want to live anymore. However, she decided that she would visit a church before making any final decision, and the turning point came for her during worship when she realised that God loved her deeply. She experienced total peace despite her life having been turned upside down! This woman did not know that her aunt had been praying for many years for her to come to know Jesus as her Saviour!”
Now I don’t want to give the impression that just going to one church service can solve all your problems, and I have heard of how people have heard a message in a church that leads them in the other direction. But sometimes the church gets it right. And sometimes prayers of years are realized, Someone may have been praying for you and you didn’t even know it. and always, God is working in all sorts of ways that we don’t know and don’t understand, like seeds right now somewhere unfurling their little sprout deep beneath the earth. God brings life.
After Jesus talks about this, is when he pauses to ask the question. I can feel him slowing down. Looking around. What else can I say to help people get it, this way of God coming near, this change of heart and mind with a new orientation?
And I imagine Jesus seeing some mustard plant. A big, unruly bush of it. This mustard was not something that anyone would plant. It was a weed that would take over. Yet Jesus says, when you plant this tiny mustard seed… and already people are snickering, plant mustard? It would be like us saying, when you plant the dandelions in your yard…
But he is using these ways of speaking, let’s pause and consider for a moment, just how different this empire that God brings is from the empire they knew all around them, the empire of Rome. That empire came with soldiers in helmets with swords and spears. That empire came in shiny chariots drawn by horses dressed up with finer materials than many Galileans would ever own.
Rev. Jason Chesnut in his commentary this week puts it this way: “In a world ruled by vain men with iron fists riding atop chariots of gold, Jesus paints a ludicrous image in comparison. Treasonous, really: true power comes not as a mighty fortress but a tiny seed.
“In a world addicted to fear, Jesus injects hope. Looking around at his homeland occupied by foreign legions, Jesus refuses to define God’s empire as anything close to the mighty Roman one; instead, he looks out at the rocky land of the Galilee, bends down, and picks up a seed. The kingdom of God, he says, is here.”
The power in the seed. A small little thing that could grow to take up so much space. And then the birds will perch on its branches! Jesus says with an impish grin. No one wanted to invite birds into their garden or farm- farmers use scarecrows to keep the birds away, because they eat the seeds, peck the fruit, they are one more thing that farmers have to worry about if they are not the carefree seed scatterer we talked about before.
There is something deeply subversive in the way Jesus is talking about this kingdom of God or empire that God brings. The Romans seem to have won the day, seem to have total control, there they are collecting their taxes, there they are compelling people to feed them and serve them, there they are crucifying common people day in and out, but Jesus sees things another way. The people who make up the kingdom of God can choose to live differently, and by doing so they can open cracks in the fortresses the Romans build. Cracks that will grow and multiply and split to make such an empire crumble. No wonder Jesus cannot speak openly and just say what he thinks. He is talking about a power greater than that of the Roman emperor, which to the Romans is blasphemy. He is talking about another empire right then and there- that is –treason.
That is a true trusting in God, though. To know that the ways of violence are not going to win out. That God is going to win at the end. I never realized it before but Jesus is foreshadowing his own resurrection, even here. He would be put in the ground, night and day, a sleep and a waking day, and then boom there he would be, alive again.
That is true trusting in God. To know the power in the tiniest of seeds to totally ruin the carefully constructed farm plot of the Romans, first weed, then weed invites birds. To just do that one thing you know you should at the right time, and trust that God will do something huge with it. so that you can rest, and not be worked to the bone to get all of your taxes paid and still be able to eat.
Rev. Chesnut calls what Jesus is inviting his hearers to is a holy imagining. Then he goes on later and says the following, “This holy imagination wasn’t just desperately needed in the first century, but in our twenty-first as well.
Imagine a world where power resided in neighborhood gardens instead of military training grounds.
Imagine a world where we honored those in the service industry who offer shade and hospitality, often with no acknowledgement whatsoever.
Imagine a world where we looked out for the least of these as we would precious seeds.
Imagine a world where Black people can survive routine traffic stops. A world where queer kids are loved into being, not merely tolerated. A world where we build more schools than we do prisons. A world where debts are forgiven and prisoners are released. A world where nonviolent records are expunged and reparations are paid. A world with more bridges than walls.
Imagine a world, Isaiah would say, where the lion lies down with the lamb.”
Imagining another way than what is in front of us, radically trusting in God, and pausing to consider carefully and ask the question are still important for us today.
What can we say about the kingdom of God today? Where is it different than the rules of the nation and society where we live?
What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?