Upcoming book excerpt ...
from Stirling Principal, Dr. Andrew Menzies
The following excerpt is from an upcoming book by Stirling Theological College Principal, Dr. Andrew Menzies. Co-written with past CEO of Churches of Christ in Queensland, Dean Phelan, the book’s working title is Kingdom Communities. Arguing that God is already at work in the neighbourhood, the authors explore how resources might be aligned faithfully and fruitfully with this mission, particularly focusing on kingdom communities as a shape of effective response.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God was like a tiny mustard seed (Luke 13:18-19). A mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds in the world. It is extraordinary that something about the same size as a grain of sand is what Jesus selected as a metaphor for God’s kingdom. We think of kingdoms as mighty. Kingdoms have armies and strongholds that cannot be penetrated. They have defenses and structures to ensure the prominence and supremacy of their monarch. Everyone serves the monarch so that the kingdom might prosper and therefore, hopefully, all will survive. The power comes from the top and dissipates downwards. Those at the bottom usually miss out.
God’s kingdom is very different. But comparing the kingdom of God to a mustard seed? Really? How can something so small and common possibly be an appropriate metaphor? Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was like a man who took a small mustard seed and planted it in a garden. It grew and became a tree where all the birds enjoyed perching in its branches.
We know that a mustard seed is tiny but in the parable we see that when it is planted it becomes a tree. Not just any tree - a mighty garden tree that the birds perch in. We think we get it. Our cultural values encourage the value of a big, powerful tree. Large trees like oak trees and mighty eucalypts are excellent imagery for a kingdom. So we read on because the parable seems to make more sense now. Except that we are wrong and have imposed our values onto the text.
By reading the text this way, we force the text to fit into our top-down power structures and in so doing we sweep his message away and deny the small and powerless and overlook their example. Too often the powerful take over and miss the real, deeper message. Jesus meant it when he said that the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed and he meant it when he said it was like that the seed grows into a large garden tree. But not a particularly grand tree – a garden tree! Mustard trees only grow to about five meters in height and are not even ranked as trees. Botanists classify them as shrubs. In a garden, they provide wonderful perches for birds over the fruit, vegetables and herbs. However, they are shrubs.
The parable of the mustard seeds continues. Besides being very hardy, mustard shrubs are particularly good at two things. A healthy mustard shrub can produce up to 8000 seeds so they reproduce other mustard shrubs very well. For example, if you left a mustard shrub alone in your yard for a few years you might come back to find the area taken over by them. Actually, ‘the birds that perch in its’ branches’, will probably transport mustard seeds around the neighborhood also!
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which when planted grows into a mustard shrub that grows and spreads. This small seed represents things that are ordinary and unremarkable yet, which bear fruit in all sorts of unpredictable places. Jesus did not choose the Temple, a mighty tree of the forest or a powerful monarch for his kingdom metaphor. The Kingdom of God seeks to bring about shalom where it is needed most: the everyday, the commonplace, markets, workplaces, prisons, slums, schools and neighborhoods. This has always been the case for the mission of God It is the nature of God’s kingdom.