I remember the first night after we’d brought Samuel back from the hospital. Brand new baby. As any new parent will tell you, once the hospital transporter helps everyone into the car, you strap the baby into the car seat for the first time—the one that your Aunt Carol, it’s both terrifying and exhilarating.
They tell you that having kids changes everything—and you just sort of nod your head, but inside you’re thinking to yourself, “They’re little. How bad could it be? I mean, we’ve had puppies before—kind of the same principal.”
That first night back home in August 1997 was a picture of what fresh hell I was about to endure. The temperature was in the nineties when the thunderstorm broke out—the thunderstorm that produced the lightning that struck our air conditioning unit. Between the heat and the humidity and a house full of guests, it felt like we were on jungle maneuvers in Laos.
But we gave the boy a bath in the sink, washed his hair—and he went right to sleep . . . until about 1:00 in the morning. He woke up screaming, and kept those unholy shenanigans up for about four hours, until I finally said to Susan, “What are we going to do?”
She, as frazzled as me, said, “They said something about gas and simethicone drops.”
I latched onto that little bit of information like grim death. “Would they have those at Walmart?”
“I guess so.”
“Walmart’s open 24 hours a day. I’ll be back in a bit.” And with that, I was off. A job to do that I felt competent at . . . and a brief reprieve from the crying.
Over the next couple of months, we found out what colic was. Middle of the night, and I’d be out driving the boy all over southeastern Kentucky, northeastern Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia, because that was the one thing that was guaranteed to put him to sleep.
Now, if you’d told me that something that weighed less than 7 pounds, that was completely helpless, and sounded like a sick cat when he cried—could completely disrupt my life, and get me out of my bed at 5:00 in the morning to go to Walmart (of all places), or burn up the most desolate hollers in Appalachia, I’d have told you were crazy. But there you go.
Turns out . . . though they’re tiny, it’s not the same as puppies.
Yeah, don’t let ‘em fool ya. They tell you that good things come in small packages. But the atoms they bust apart in a nuclear explosion are small too . . . so.
And that’s been the traditional take on the parable of the mustard seed. Small thing produces big return. That is to say, the kingdom of God is supposed to have started out small, and then grew in an amazing way that nobody could ever have foreseen just by looking at the size of the seed. So big, in fact, that eventually it provided shade for the birds. Small to big. Easy peasy.
But I don’t think that takes Jesus’ radicalness seriously enough. When he starts the parable by naming the kingdom of heaven—which is actually not a reference to the sweet bye and bye, but merely Matthew’s way of saying “the kingdom of God”—sort of like saying “The White House released a statement today,” is generally understood to mean, “The president and her or his staff released a statement today.”
No. When Jesus mentions the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about some purely spiritual realm after we die. When Jesus says “kingdom of God,” he’s got some political fish to fry.
Now, I know there’s a general belief that Jesus wasn’t political. It’s a popular belief, but it’s a misreading of the Gospels.
Here’s the thing: Any time Jesus says “kingdom” (which is political) “of God” or “of heaven” (which is religious), he’s mixing politics and religion in ways that can’t be unmixed—like the four different colors of Play-doh the kids originally had . . . that by the end of the day are one indistinguishable lump of purple with yellow streaks.
Now, you might be tempted to think that I’m playing some sort of rhetorical sleight of hand—that, yes, Jesus says “kingdom of God,” but that that’s merely a spiritual term, having nothing to do with earthly politics. Maybe I’m playing fast and loose with language to advance my own political agenda.
But the problem that the over-spiritualizing of Jesus always has to contend with is pretty straightforward: He was crucified.
At this point, you might be tempted to ask, “So what? He was crucified? What difference does that make?”
In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was a form of capital punishment reserved for political insurrectionists. Even the traditional two thieves between whom Jesus is crucified are not ordinary Oceans 11 kind of thieves—they were lestai, which is elsewhere translated as revolutionary. Barabbas, the political prisoner whose life the crowd preferred saved over Jesus, for example, was described as lestai.
Jesus posed a threat to Roman rule. They crucified him for his politics—a chief reason for which was his insistence on proclaiming the coming of a new kingdom, a kingdom ruled by God’s rules and not by Caesar’s. If Jesus’ use of the kingdom of God (among other things) was merely a reference to some future celestial home, he probably would have died of old age—but certainly not by crucifixion.
Please understand, I’m not saying Jesus didn’t have a stake in spirituality; only that his spirituality had dirty hands and a sweaty brow from living among oppressed peasants.
Ok, back to our text. Jesus introduces the parable by saying that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, as I’ve noted, has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory about how a small seed can become a big, beautiful tree, providing shade for the birds. But as I’ve also noted, I think such an interpretation is too safe, too domesticated—turning Jesus into a kindly Palestinian version of Aesop, telling morally edifying fables to help the kiddies grow up to be productive citizens. And as I’ve suggested, the Romans didn’t kill potential messiahs for being too spiritual, but for being too politically dangerous.
So, if Jesus is talking about a kingdom to rival Caesar’s, a kingdom headed up by God and not the Roman Emperor, what does he mean by comparing this new enterprise to a mustard seed?
Well, first off, it’s important to note that mustard plants were wild plants, which were viewed as an invasive species, a noxious weed in an agrarian society—like kudzu or poison ivy. As Pliny noted a few thousand years ago: Once mustard seed takes root, it’s almost impossible to ever get rid of it.
Part of the reason for that is because of those infernal seeds. Mustard plants slough off these tiny little seeds, which when they hit the ground began to germinate almost immediately. Consequently, if you were a farmer, cultivating a nice orderly crop, grown in rows, requiring special care and nurturing, if somehow a mustard plant were introduced into the system, it would reek havoc. The mustard seed would grow, threatening the whole well regulated system.
The other thing about tiny seeds in the ancient world ` we know from archaeology—they could get lodged in the mortar, in between the bricks. The plants would start growing, taking root, and cause the slow, grinding deterioration of the whole structure. Tiny seeds could topple great buildings.
But not only did the mustard seed offer its own horticultural dangers, it could potentially provide shade for birds.
“So?” you might wonder. “What’s the problem with that?”
Well, if any of the crop survived the mustard seed, the birds were a threat to come in and steal what was left. You know why they put scarecrows in fields? Yeah, to scare the crows—because birds are also a threat to an orderly agricultural system.
So, here we have Jesus telling a parable, comparing this new reign of God—the one that will supplant the reign of Caesar—to a noxious weed. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like kudzu . . . “ Not an especially glorious comparison, I’ll grant you—but a telling one nevertheless. You start sowing those tiny seeds, and the orderly world of the folks in charge is about be disrupted.
In 2007, the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Life changed dramatically for the people there. Cultural activities like dancing and watching television were outlawed. Another change made by the Taliban was the prohibition against girls attending school.
One ten year-old girl took exception to the Taliban’s heavy-handed ways, going on Pakistani T.V. and wanting to know, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?"
She began to blog anonymously on the BBC’s Urdu language web site about what it was like to live under Taliban rule. In particular, she wrote about her desire to go to school.
As war broke out between the Pakistani government and the Taliban, this young girl became a refugee, having to flee with her family hundreds of miles from their home in the Swat Valley. Upon her return home, she again took up the cause of being a thorn in the Taliban’s side.
For three years she blogged, building an enormous following—advocating on behalf of other girls for access to free education.
By 2012, the Taliban had targeted Malala Yousafzai for death. On October 9th, she was riding home from school on a bus with her friends, talking about their school work. “Two members of the Taliban stopped the bus. A young bearded Talib asked for Malala by name, and fired three shots at her. One of the bullets entered and exited her head and lodged in her shoulder. Malala was seriously wounded. That same day, she was airlifted to a Pakistani military hospital in Peshawar and four days later to an intensive care unit in Birmingham, England.”
Malala Yousafzai survived, and at 17 became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in history—because she refused to be silent.
One little girl—that’s it. One little girl speaking out about education for other girls. That’s all it took to make the Taliban nervous. So nervous, in fact, that they figured they needed to kill her to save their convenient little arrangement.
But that’s the way power always reacts to threats—one little girl, one tiny seed. Shut it up. Stamp it out.
When we say “kingdom of God” in church, it sounds like good news. It sounds like the voice of justice clamoring against discrimination faced by our transgender neighbors. It sounds like the voice of compassion raising the alarm about kicking people off their healthcare. It sounds like the voice of those who shout in solidarity with all the women looking to make their way to the clinic without being harassed. It sounds like the voice of a river whispering to be spared the devastation humanity has wrought in its pursuit of progress. It sounds like the voice of an African American man unjustly accused crying out for justice in a world that has too often withheld it. It sounds like the voice of Malala resisting the Taliban. It sounds like the voice of Jesus challenging all the unjust systems that attempt to thwart the new world God has in mind.
When we say “kingdom of God” in church, it sounds like good news. But to Caesar, to the powerful, to the people who always come out smelling like roses, to the people who benefit from a nice, orderly system that they alone control and benefit from—it doesn’t sound like good news at all. It sounds like the end of everything that has consistently given them advantages that most people will never enjoy.
A mustard seed—it’s small, to be sure. But its power comes from the nature of its ability to disrupt, its threat to the way things are.
To those who profit from a system, the benefits of which go to the people in power, the kingdom of God doesn’t sound like good news at all.
But to those who’ve been left behind when the crop starts rolling in, it sounds like the voice of justice, it sounds like the voice of hope, it sounds like the voice of God. And that’s good news indeed.