Of all the irritating parables (ie riddles) of Jesus, maybe the one about how the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (its punch-line) is the most cranky-making.
After all, in the earliest rendition of the parable found at Mark 4:30-32, Jesus says that the smallest of seeds grows some day to become the largest of …shrubs? Thankfully, modern day listeners have Monty Python’s bits on shrubbery to lessen the harshness of the point. Our assumptions when we hear a story about what happens when something very small starts growing is that it eventually becomes something remarkably huge.
However, in this parable Jesus slyly (as he parabolically always does) zings us with what definitely feels like a consolation prize: the mustard plant grows to be something remarkably average. It's probably no mistake that later treatments of the parable in Matthew (13:31-32 ) and Luke (13:18-19 ) have Jesus softening the blow by saying the seed turns into a full-fledged tree. (Which, biologists will tell you, is inaccurate.)
In addition, because the mustard plant is at best a large shrub, birds cannot build nests there, even though Jesus at Mark 4:32 says they can. Birds may nest and find shade from the sun, but unless a bird is, well, birdbrained, it will take its time and resources to fashioning a permanent (okay, seasonally-permanent) home elsewhere.
Why would Jesus make such a blunder about the birds’ nest-building behavior? My guess is he’s taking, again slyly, a swipe at those who still held to the traditional metaphor Israel had for herself and the beloved symbol God had for Divine relationship with her: the Cedar of Lebanon. Several ancient Hebrew psalmists and prophets lovingly shared this good news, including the detail about this particular tree having nice long branches so “all the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs” (Ezekiel 31:6). The Cedar was God’s gracious choice of image: beyond its strong branches it is impressively tall with armor-like bark and is famous for its very long lifespan. You can imagine this was an incredibly comforting and hopeful image for God’s people to be reminded of when their tribe/nation was once again on the verge of invasion and annihilation, which it often was. And is.
But Jesus was living in a time when Israel’s leadership, and her most central symbol of Cedarship - the Second Temple (aka Herod’s Temple) in Jerusalem, had become horribly corrupted and by the time of Mark’s writing (70AD), had been completely destroyed by the Roman Army. This grandest of trees had been chopped down once and for all. It had been dying from the inside out for quite some time.
So Jesus turns the narrative completely upside down and says,Actually, no, God’s realm is NOT like a cedar but more like a plant that grows, at best, to a sort of “meh" sort of height; that dies every winter and must start all over every spring; and, most irritating of all, is nothing but a noxious, virulent weed. The enemy of every self-respecting farmer.
Of course, there were those who found Jesus’ shocking pronouncement slyly (there's that word again) comforting and hopeful: poor farmers who made no bones about not having the resources to show off a well-kept field…and early Christian communities that had to meet in secret, in homes and caves; after the fall of the Temple they were made especially vulnerable to persecution by Rome because of their noxious, scurrilous beliefs: no Caesar worship, worship of a God who moronically died on the unspeakable shameful cross, and a status-free table open to all classes, races, sexes, ages. Why it was worse than…socialism!
And, like weeds, these smallish early Christian communities would get "rooted out” by the authorities only to show up again in some other “field,” and then another and another. Something about the message, and the presence of Christ’s resurrected spirit, made these Christian pods obnoxiously virulent.
It seems that Jesus is giving us a sly teaching on the universal topic of “movements vs institutions”: A great, radical idea filled with forgotten truth gets planted and grows like crazy, and it by nature (pun sort of intended) successfully undermines the institution it challenges - an institution that has begun to rot (because that’s the way of all institutions at some point, even as they started as vibrant radical-truth movements). A movement has the ability to morph and grow anywhere; it never gets too big or too settled or too often if ever properly invited . However, after a certain growth point “institutionitis” sets in, and then it’s only a matter of time before it goes down.
Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God thrives - is present - when it is a “weed of the world”. Don’t worry if it doesn’t become a magnificent Cedar. In fact, beware of when/it happens. Yeah, that’s a pretty crazy warning to issue. But it’s also pretty true.
Pardon my overgeneralization and perhaps romanticization of church history, but it seems to me that Jesus is also telling us a parable about the beginnings of Methodism, as well as where we find ourselves now. It was started by John Wesley as an Anglican small-group reform movement undergirded by scandalous ideas such as the authority of laity to preach/lead and the Doctrine of Prevenient Grace/rejection of biblical inerrancy of the Doctrine of Predestination that got him thrown out of Anglican and Dissenting Churches alike (Wesley’s famous phrase, The world is my parish, was originally his retort when no respectable religious organization would invite him into its building). Early Methodism was the victim of lots of mockery and even violent riots. At least in America, it settled down settled down after the Civil War and much more nice and proper.
In it’s first 100 years in North America, when it was a weedy movement jumping up here, there, and everywhere as the frontier kept moving further and further out, and it needed only a group of folks committed to Wesley’s intense and optimistic spiritual “method” - didn't need much in the way of an official meeting space or weekly presence of ordained clergy to get things started or moving onward - Methodism was the largest and most influential religious organization of them all.
But after the Civil War, Methodism got wealthier, tamer, and more domesticated. It settled into the cities and became the Sunday meeting place for upstanding community leaders. Gone was the emphasis on daily, scriptural holiness and instead folks wanted a nice building, impressive organ and educated preacher. People began assuming “Methodist” had something to do with its ever more labyrinthine Book of Discipline.
It all led, I would argue, to what happened in St. Louis last February, when the gargantuan denomination fell over after a vindictive vote against LGBTQ people and their allies. United Methodism had for several reasons and several years been dying from the inside out, especially since infestation by right-wing para-church organizations that reportedly sabotaged the goings on in St. Louis.
According to most Methodists, everything right now is a mess.
I think Jesus might say, with a twinkling wink in his eye, “Perhaps, it’s a mess… unless you’re a mustard seed.”
And we Methodists can know - and happily… better yet, slyly…embrace our powerful, informative heritage….