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The Mustard Weed

"He put another parable before them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'” Matthew 13:31-32

This wonderful story is the basis for The Mustard Seed the organization in which I work alongside fellow exiles living in poverty and homelessness. In these few words, well-meaning individuals imagine how their small acts of charity can grow tremendously in God’s Kingdom. I myself use this idea often when speaking to enthusiastic children who come and make sandwiches for our community.  I have always wondered if there is more to this parable and, consequently, more to the ideas we may have of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

When Israelites heard Jesus use the term ‘the Kingdom of Heaven,’ they thought they knew what he was talking about. They were under occupation of the ruthless Roman empire and they were told stories about the coming Kingdom of Heaven – the time when the God of Israel would finally reign as King over his people and the land. If the Jews were to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to any plant they would have probably chosen the cedar (see Ezekiel 17:22-24). Cedars typically grow over 40m high, strong and majestic. 

 Cedars typically grow over 40m high, strong and majestic. 

Jesus was probably playing on the people’s idea of a cedar when he says the mustard seed “becomes a tree”. A mustard tree is more like a bush which can grow up to 3-6 meters. Jesus is saying the Kingdom of Heaven is more like a mustard bush than a tall cedar of Lebanon. Now this would have shocked his audience, especially farmers and gardeners. The mustard tree was potentially a noxious weed, which could take over your garden and crops. At the time, there were even laws prohibiting planting mustard trees by certain crops because of its threat to other plants. 

It would be like Jesus coming today and saying, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like a dandelion! Even though it is a small seed, it spreads an unstoppable plague across cities.’ Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like a pothole, or a gopher, a pimple, used needles in your lawn. The Kingdom of Heaven is here, but it is more like a weed and pest than a towering tree. To make things even more complicated. Jesus adds that birds will come and perch in its branches. Gardeners and farmers also did not want these pests indulging in their garden. Not only is the Kingdom of Heaven like a weed, it attracts unwanted birds which will further destroy your fields and economic livelihoods!

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a dandelion!

What I believe Jesus is saying is Christians are to be more like weeds in society than uniform trees. The origin of The Mustard Seed, demonstrates this. As in most inner-cities in North American, racial and economic ghettoization forced marginalized groups into city centers while middle class and majority light skinned residents left the inner-city for the suburbs. 

The Mustard Seed’s building in Edmonton, AB was completed in 1912 as a German Baptist Church. During the late 70s and early 80s, churches were impacted by the appearance of odd characters nesting in their neighbourhood and church  members were seduced by suburbanization. For most of the church - instead of being weeds to the threshing floor of economic injustice; instead of being pests to the policies of segregation – congregants fled the new threats and joined the mainstream trends hoping to find God’s kingdom there. The German church, too, fled to the safety offered by the empire. Thankfully God was not done with them yet. He planted weeds of his own ten years later in the form of a rebellious youth group.

He planted weeds of his own ten years later.

Instead of accepting status quo, these kids challenged the notion that some people  lacked the image of God in their design. Instead of being hypnotized by the allure of white fences and trimmed lawns, they actually saw the Kingdom of Heaven for what is really was. And after a providential field trip back to the old church building their elders had abandoned, the youth sacrificed their comfort  by secretly bringing individuals experiencing homelessness into a makeshift shelter located in the basement of their discarded church building. In essence, they became thorns of Canadian thistle, inviting all the birds to join. And it worked. With some resistance, the church slowly began to see once again the Kingdom of Heaven in all of their neighbours and purchased their former church back to be haven for those needing a home. The Kingdom of Heaven is like that. It means being a weed to society and church culture so that they may see the Kingdom of Heaven for what it truly is. 

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