There is a strong theme running through the portions of Matthew’s telling of the Gospel that we’ve heard these past three Sundays. The parable of the sower, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and today’s portion with a collection of short parables including the mustard seed. All of these are Jesus’s efforts to describe to a crowd what it is that the kingdom of heaven is like. Of course, the kingdom of heaven is not like any human kingdom and we are left with these imaginative, vivid, confusing stories that are meant to help us understand.
What we can know about the kingdom of heaven from these parables is that, held up to any human metric of good sense or success, the kingdom of heaven is an absolute scandal. The kingdom of heaven, by all of these descriptions, undoes every rule, every “best practice” that humans have put in place and which we think to be good and right and orderly.
We have now heard several parables about how the kingdom of heaven is like life in farming and fishing. But in each case the kingdom of heaven’s farming and fishing practices are wildly out of line with what Matthew’s audience, or indeed us today, think of as good practices. When God is doing the farming and fishing, the practice defies human expectation. God is the sower who indiscriminately throws seeds on all kinds of soil, seemingly without regard for the success of the crop. God is the farmer who allows weeds to grow among the wheat stalks, waiting until harvest to disentangle the plants.
Today, we hear of a field in which a mustard seed falls and begins to grow. Rather than uprooting it, the farmer allows it to flourish, making a home for all the birds of the sky. Another scandalously foolish idea. If you have had the opportunity to drive outside of the city, you will probably have seen several fields. They are often separated with rows of trees that help to maintain soil health, moisture, control wind, and so on. But almost never is there an enormous tree growing in the middle of a field. The roots of trees make planting difficult; the tree takes a great deal of water and nutrition from the soil; birds and other animals will live in and around a tree, doing damage to the surrounding crop and even outright eating grain before it can be harvested. Placing huge trees in the midst of a field of wheat or barley is not, generally, thought of as a successful farming practice.
At this point, three weeks into parables, we almost expect what Jesus says. The kingdom of heaven, if it were like a farmer’s field, would defy all of your best practices. Fly in the face of what humanity thinks is sensible and do something different. God seems to consistently disrupt what humanity has put into place and God’s alternatives are often utterly scandalous by human measure.
It seems very foolish to introduce something so disruptive as a mustard seed into an established, working system like a grain field. Presumably the field is growing its corp reliably, so why mess with it by allowing a huge tree to disrupt the field? Why invite the problems of a tree, up to and including all the birds of the sky who will eat the crop before it can be harvested for human use?
It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine the field as another established, working human system. Perhaps it’s a government or a set of cultural expectations and ideas or even a family or other relationship. It’s a familiar, long-established system that has a way of working. What if God’s change—in this case dropping the mustard seed into the middle of the familiar, comfortable field—is actually not disrupting a healthy system, but breaking up an unhealthy one? What if the field was not as reliable or as productive as it seemed and the tree will, ultimately, be better for the surrounding ecosystem? What if the government which is familiar and comfortable is one that does not act in the best interests of its citizens? What if the cultural expectations are familiar and comfortable but based on the exploitation, oppression, or enslavement of a particular group of people? What if what is familiar and comfortable has roots, not in good soil, but in racism, misogyny, exploitation, slavery, oppression, and the rapacious consumption of all that God’s creation has to offer? What if a tree full of birds is better for the world around it than that familiar, reliable field?
This is the challenge of all of these parables. They describe the kingdom of heaven, the place to which we believe we are all headed one way or another. They describe a place that stands our current ideas, structures, and systems on their head. This is not to say that humans are awful, that we are inherently evil, or that we can do nothing good. It is to say that when we ignore what God has given us, when we forget God’s teaching, guidance, and example, when we think only of ourselves and leave God out of the equation, we miss the mark.
The world in which we find ourselves is one that is very difficult to reconcile to the images of heaven that we are given in the Bible. We are promised that creation can provide for the needs of all, but we see God’s good garden being stripped bare to satisfy the greed of a few. We are told that the health and care of our neighbour and ourselves ought to be among our highest priorities, but have city councillors who complain more about “improper use” of bus shelters than the reality that our neighbours have nowhere else to live.
If God’s kingdom appears to be a foolish scandal in our eyes, what must our kingdoms appear to be in the eyes of God? Scandal indeed.