I was standing just outside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, the hustle and roar of the human and vehicular traffic just a few feet way. In my hand was a tiny speck that looked like a fleck of tobacco. It was a mustard seed, which my Jesuit companion had just plucked from an awkward looking shrub growing next to the sidewalk. The speck was so small it hardly seemed to qualify as a seed. But my friend assured me that it was indeed a mustard seed, and I had indeed seen him take it from the bush.
The bush itself was not a plant that would catch your eye. It was too short to qualify as a tree and yet too shapeless and bare to pass for a proper bush or shrub. Still, when I compared the tiny fleck in my hand with the bulk of the shrub (in a few months such a seed grows a stem an inch thick and taller than a person), the point of Jesus' parable about the mustard seed came home to me afresh: the contrast between the minute beginning (the fleck) and the eventual growth (the hefty shrub) was startling.
Another dimension of the parable, usually overlooked by preachers, became obvious: Jesus had chosen a most humble plant to illustrate the grand theme of the kingdom of God. After all, when the Hebrew Bible wanted to symbolize powerful kingdoms with plants, it used trees that were fittingly majestic—for example, the cosmic tree in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in Daniel 4 standing for the Babylonian empire (“it was large and strong, with its top touching the heavens, and it could be seen to the ends of the earth. … Under it the wild beasts found shade, in its branches the birds of the air nested; all men ate of it”; Dan 4:8-9), Or consider the vision of Ezekiel in this Sunday’s First Reading, where the restoration of the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity is imaged as a shoot plucked from the crest of a cedar (Babylon) and planted on mountain heights, where it becomes a mastic cedar and “birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it.”
Once we see that Jesus (and Mark after him) is working with a long tradition of plants representing kingdoms, the curious choice of the mustard bush becomes significant. A non-kosher plant sown in fields but not in gardens, it was an unconventional image for the kingdom of God. In choosing this metaphor, Jesus seems to be saying, “The long- expected intervention of the reign of God is showing itself in ways that are more ordinary and more present than you think. In fact, it is beginning here and now in my healing and table fellowship. What's more, from these small beginnings will grow the worldwide kingdom stemming from Israel and envisioned by the prophets.”
Both dimensions of this image of the kingdom of God are important. The parables of the kingdom of God are not primarily about heaven, the realm of God that is the reward of good people after death. They are about God's reign on earth wherever people acknowledge God’s kingship in their lives by responding to the offer of divine grace and living the justice of the covenant of Israel restored in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God is more present than we think.
Think shrub, not cedar.
At the same time, the contrast between the tiny seed and its spectacular growth reminds us that, once planted, the seed of God’s word will exhibit a divine power that produces more than human endeavor could ever hope to achieve: a community of forgiveness and justice that we could never muster on our own power. The other parable of growth we hear this Sunday, the one about the seed growing “on its own” (automate is Mark's word) while the farmer goes about his life, sleeping and rising night and day, emphasizes the divine initiative in this process.
This is the dimension caught in Mother Teresa’s response to a journalist who observed that she could never be successful in meeting the needs of all those dying in the streets of Calcutta. “I am not called to be successful,” she said. “I am called to be faithful.” We help with the sowing; God does the growing.