The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed… Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree. (Matthew 13.31-32)
Jesus refers to mustard seeds on two occasions to illustrate two lessons. The more popular is the second, in which he compares the tiny seed to faith: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17.20) Little wonder why this promise is so popular. It’s outrageously exciting and dramatic. A mustard seed measures about the size of a pinhead. If it only takes that much faith to move our mountains, my goodness, nothing can stand in our way! His earlier mention of a mustard seed is quoted less often, which is a pity, since it involves us more directly and results in something far more amazing and permanent than mountain-moving. In this instance, Jesus isn’t talking about altering the landscape. He’s teaching us how to change the world.
In Matthew 13.31, He says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” To get the full gist of what follows, we have to pause and consider what “the kingdom of heaven” means. Jesus’s frequently addresses one of two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. We tend to mistake one for the other, when they’re distinctively unique, with each carrying its own implications. The kingdom of God exists, has always existed, and always will. It’s God’s presence with and in us, as Jesus emphatically states in Luke 17.21: “The kingdom of God is within you.” That’s straightforward. The kingdom of heaven is a bit more complicated. It comes when we make God’s presence known. It’s the impact and influence we have so the world more closely resembles the perfection God originally created. Everything we do to restore peace and harmony brings us one step closer to reestablishing the kingdom of heaven on Earth. Now that’s a grandiose concept that many no doubt find laughably optimistic. For idealists who don’t find the concept so far-fetched, there are still practical issues to be resolved, beginning with where to begin. That’s why Jesus calls our attention to the kingdom of heaven with such a little thing—a mustard seed. To spare us from becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, He tells us to start small.
Since the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny seed, it not only makes sense for us to start small—but also for us to recognize our role is nurturing (nor forcing) change. And this is a true test of our perspicacity and pride, because the kinds of change Jesus is talking about here start without a great deal of drama and fanfare. We don’t change the world by announcing we will. We change it by knowing where the seeds of change have been sown, watching them closely to see when they break through the soil, and caring watchfully for their shoots. We fiercely protect them to ensure they’re not mowed down or stomped to death. We guard them against forces of nature and human will. And we do our utmost to keep people around us aware change is growing in their presence. They may not be able to see it. They may not like what the change represents. But they need to know it’s underway—and we’re nurturing it—so that when it comes to fruition they’ll be ready for it. Because here’s the basic truth about a mustard seed: it’s tiny, but it’s also hardy and insistent. It grows deep roots and flourishes in harsh conditions, to the point that, as Jesus points out, “When it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” (Matthew 13.32) We are the critical agents behind its growth. We care for the mustard seed—for the kingdom of heaven—in its tender stages so that it will stand tallest among all other endeavors and it will become a tree that remains rooted and grounded for seasons on end.
Change That Lasts
Jesus wraps up this parable with a most intriguing observation. He switches His emphasis from the seed and the tree and us to an entirely different group. He says the seed becomes a tree “so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” (v32) So what happens in the ground and on the ground is largely for the benefit of those above the ground—the birds of the air. And this sounds astutely correct. We’re not merely creating change; we’re planting and nurturing the kingdom of heaven. As such, our motives and actions must be free of personal gain or ambition. We must change the world for everyone’s benefit—not merely our own. As we’ve seen over and over, when we get a bright idea about how to make the world better in our sight, we open a Pandora’s box we can never close. Prohibition is a prime example. The movement to prohibit the production and sale of alcoholic beverages didn’t stop alcohol consumption. Indeed, it created the perfect climate for organized crime and black-marketeering that have morphed into our present culture of gang violence and drug deals. Changing the world requires knowing what must replace what we remove. Prohibition offered no healthy alternative, which is why a poisonous, deeply rooted culture of crime and substance abuse has grown up around its rotted stump.
When we seek change, our focus should shift from what we want stopped to what we want to get started. Do we want equality? Then we must nurture and practice it. Do we want acceptance? Then we must practice and prove its worth. The kingdom of heaven is change that lasts—it’s work we do for the benefit of generations to come. It’s done without selfish intentions, with no promise of personal glory or recognition. It’s slow and demanding and in many cases, it takes longer to reach fruition than any one gardener’s lifetime. But the change isn’t in the doing or the doers. It’s in the seed. The ability to make sure that seed grows is what’s in each of us.
The kingdom of heaven is all about changing the world. Jesus says when we plant that tiny little "kingdom seed" and nurture it, it will grow into something that lasts and benefits others.