By Jennifer Strawbridge
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which … is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs. (Mark 4:31-32)
At first glance, these are the perfect texts to send us forth on the final Sunday of term. Unless we are the eldest sibling, all around the readings tell of happy endings and new life. In the first reading, the one anointed by the prophet to become the greatest of all kings isn’t the most learned or aged, but is the ruggedly handsome, rather aloof youngest sibling. Order is subverted, surprises are possible, odds and expectations can be defied and exceeded. In a term that so heavily revolves around exams and evaluations, this is good news indeed.
It is also good news that the mustard seed does so well; that the underdog of the seeds can defy the odds and not only survive but flourish. And we know how this goes. No doubt, this is what our time at Keble College has been like. This is what we’re supposed to feel in the final week of term. We started out small and look at us now. And the takeaway message is to keep growing. Keep flourishing. Keep spreading your branches as God works in your life and as you leave this place.
If we read the texts in this way, we can stop here. They offer us a happy ending and suggest that with God in our life, we will have good closure and predictable flourishing. In this way, these are the perfect texts for our final Sunday together in this place.
But this traditional reading of Jesus’ words does not do them justice. And as is always the case with the parables of Jesus, to the preacher’s dismay, there is a catch. And the catch is that in our excitement about new life and flourishing, we have neglected the fact that Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. It’s a comparison that so embarrasses the other gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, that they created the non-existent mustard tree in their gospels, which is what this seed becomes.
But it doesn’t become a tree in Mark, and in fact, we can only capture the absurdity of the word he does use with a reasonable comparison, and here I suggest in all seriousness: the knights who say ni. Now you may or may not know that the knights who say ni are a bit of a nuisance. They are a band of knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail who are keepers of the sacred word ni, a word which instills fear and horror in those who hear it.
Now King Arthur stumbles upon the knights who say ni as he seeks to pass through the woods where the knights live. And the knights are clear that there is only one way to appease them so that the king and his men may pass through the woods alive. The king must bring them a shrubbery. One that is nice and not too expensive. For the knights who say ni, the ultimate gift, the thing that will appease them, the item that will make their life complete in that moment, is shrubbery.
If this comparison sounds ridiculous that’s because it is. But this is exactly how the disciples might have heard Jesus’ parable as it was told. Here they are, gathered around waiting for him to describe the reality to which they are dedicating their lives. They expect him to say it is like a great cedar of Lebanon, the description of divine reign we find throughout Scripture, but instead the best translation for what the kingdom of God is like in Mark is a shrubbery. The kingdom of God, the ultimate gift, the way that God is present in our lives, that in which we place our hope, is like a mustard shrubbery.
And unlike the shrubbery requested by the knights who say ni,, this shrubbery is not very nice and definitely not expensive. In fact, mustard is an invasive weed. It is wild, annoying, and dangerous because it can take over a hillside, knock over a wall, and uproot plants around it. And it even attracts birds that you may not want invading your space. It’s not exactly garden-friendly. No wonder Matthew and Luke were so embarrassed by this image. Because when Jesus says that this small seed grows up to become the greatest of all shrubbery, what he means is that the kingdom of God is an incomprehensible, invasive, and unmanageable weed.
Frankly, it’s difficult not to be a bit offended that Jesus thinks this is something we should look forward to. If it were up to us to pick a plant to compare the kingdom of God to, we’d pick something safer and less laughable. We certainly would hesitate to put our hope and trust in the kingdom of God if it really is like a giant invasive weed. It is not a very encouraging or hopeful image. Or is it? For maybe this crazy comparison does actually make some sense.
For one, it offers hope for all of us who have ever killed a plant or, more seriously, for all of us who are ever busy or distracted, for all of us who doubt our abilities, for all of us who are a bit self-focused or anxious. In fact, a wildly invasive shrub is probably the most inclusive image Jesus could use. Because the comparison would fail if the success and survival of the Kingdom of God were up to us. The comparison would fail if it means we won’t and can’t have moments when we are busy and neglectful and are full of self-doubt.
The comparison would fail if there were a chance we could kill the kingdom of God. But, with this image, the kingdom of God, God’s presence in our life, requires no skill. The kingdom of God reaches everyone. The kingdom of God doesn’t depend on us. No matter what we do, it cannot be destroyed. And perhaps more like our lives than we would prefer, it is messy, it isn’t in our control, it is unpredictable. In a way, it fits. And this is precisely where the kingdom of God gives us hope.
It gives us hope precisely because as an invasive shrubbery it is not in our control. It gives us hope because it means that no matter how distracted we might be by our lives, or feelings, or stuff, God can still infiltrate our crazy lives and work within us in ways we cannot always see. The kingdom of God, the presence of God in our lives as an invasive shrub, means that God isn’t just some divine being with a long beard somewhere far away, but is intimately intertwined with our lives, with where we live and work and have our being.
And despite our best efforts and our better judgments, it means that God is all around us, gently trying to find new ways into our lives and pushing us out into the world and into new spaces, into new life, no matter how many times we try to redirect or even cut off God’s efforts. This uncontrollable, mysterious kingdom of God that invades and overturns, surrounds us with its arms of love, it has room for everyone, it overturns those things the world tells us are not possible, and it constantly creates something new. And it is frightening, precisely because we cannot control it, precisely because we never know where God may lead us and what new life, new creation, may be ahead of us as we embrace the wild and unpredictable life of faith.
In a way, then, this parable of Jesus is perfect for this final Sunday of the year. It is perfect for those of us experiencing a time of change or fear or endings, no matter how temporary. For it is in those moments we would do well to remember the mustard seed; to remember that the God who has called and loved us is faithful and doesn’t ever give up on us, stop working on us, or stop working through us.
The kingdom of God is like invasive shrubbery. It is wild, mysterious, and all-encompassing and can reach us wherever we are, whether gathered in this chapel or dispersed in places around the world. Certainly it’s an image that is nice and not too expensive. But it is also a promise that is for always and that is priceless.
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Strawbridge is associate professor in New Testament at Oxford, Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College, and associate priest at St Andrew’s, Headington.