In this week’s gospel, Jesus offered a parable to explain the Kingdom of God. He said, “[The kingdom] is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and put forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
There are a couple of ways to interpret this parable. On the one hand, it illustrates the Christian paradox, “Small is great.” Christianity teaches many paradoxical concepts: We conquer by yielding; we reign by serving; we are exalted by being humble; we become wise by becoming fools for Christ; we are made free by becoming His slaves; we must hit down on the ball to get it up in the air (oh wait, that’s a paradox of golf); we live by dying; etc.
The paradox “small is great” flies in the face of worldly wisdom. We’ve all been taught the important maxims of the world: bigger is better; he who dies with the most toys wins; money is power; might makes right; do unto others before they can do unto you; etc.
“Small is great” makes no sense from a worldly point of view. But God doesn’t view things from a worldly point of view. His is a heavenly perspective. And in God's eyes, the small and weak, the meek and humble, are the truly great ones.
Think of those who relied solely on the power and greatness of man: Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, etc. Sure, they all achieved temporary fame and fortune, but where are they now? What was their eternal achievement?
Now think of those who relied solely on the power and greatness of God: Paul of Tarsus, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, etc. What did they achieve on earth by being so small and humble? Oftentimes, it was poverty, pain, and persecution. But where are they now? What was their eternal achievement?
Who do you think is in a better situation right now, Francis of Assisi, the humble, rag-covered beggar who spread the love of Christ wherever he went, or Stalin, the iron-fisted tyrant who murdered millions of his own people and brutalized half the world during his reign of terror?
A second way of interpreting the parable of the mustard seed is that it symbolizes Jesus’ life. A tiny seed was planted in the soil, just as a poor man from an insignificant time and place was killed and buried. The tiny seed sprung up to become the largest of shrubs, just as the poor man rose from His grave to become the most important figure in world history. The branches of the shrub became so big that birds built nests in its shade, just as Jesus’ redemptive power became so great that the entire human race could be saved.
Over a century ago Dr. James Allan Francis wrote an essay titled “One Solitary Life.” It reads in part:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home….He had no credentials but himself.
He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves….When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed…all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of mankind on this earth as much as that ONE SOLITARY LIFE.
Quite an impressive little mustard seed, wouldn’t you say?