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Trinity 9 Year A
Parables of the Kingdom - the small and the great
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How are your gardens doing this year? This is the best year yet for us – we seem to have quite a few successes, including the peas, the potatoes, the beans, the soft fruit; however, it is quite a problem keeping off the rabbits, the hens, the slugs, the birds …
I never fail to be struck by the near–miraculous process by which a tiny seed can produce a fully-grown plant. The seed contains all the genetic information required by the fully grown plant - it just needs nutrients, moisture, sunshine and – sometimes – the care of the gardener.
Jesus liked to use images of cultivation. Think, for example, of the parable of the sower; the parable of the wheat and the tares; and today the parable of the mustard seed. He had a gift of painting a picture which quite often did not need many words – the parable of the mustard seed takes up only two verses, but it is vivid and memorable.
But what does it mean? We might call it “the parable of small beginnings”. Some years ago a book called “Small is Beautiful”, by a man called Fritz Schumacher, was very popular. This book was subtitled “Economics as if people mattered”. It was a reaction against the cult of size, of ‘Big is best’, of massive economic projects which could all too easily override the best interests of individuals and communities. It was a useful reminder that economics should serve people, and not the other way round.
In the same way, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of small beginnings, reminds us that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, can come about at the level of the small, the local, the individual. In God’s kingdom – another way of describing the reign of God, in our lives, in the world – the small scale is just as important as the large.
All the individual acts of kindness which we do, the expressions of love, forgiveness, patience, perseverance – these are all important to God. The faithfulness of church congregations, often few in number, week after week, year after year, maintaining worship and witness and service – these are all an integral part of the kingdom. Children’s clubs, youth groups, Bible study groups, schemes for befriending, giving voluntary help to other people, such as the homeless or refugees – all of these are important too.
But what is the fully grown mustard plant really like? We are told that the plant Jesus was referring to was not really a tree, rather a bush, up to 8 or 10 feet tall – perhaps the largest of the bushes in the herb garden, but still not really a tree. Large enough for birds to come and perch in its branches, however, as he says. So – perhaps a small tree. Even this, though, is significant as we try to understand the parable. Perhaps the best clue comes from the nature of the Church as it has developed over the centuries. It has indeed come a long way from its beginnings, extending into every nation on the face of the earth. It has grand cathedrals and occasionally wields real power, but for the most part manifests itself in modest ways -- more like a mustard shrub than a towering cedar. Perhaps the lesson of the mustard shrub is that Christians should live expectantly, knowing that God brings great things out of small beginnings, but that we should not expect the kingdom to be great as the world counts greatness. "A king who operates in meekness (11:25-30) and rides a donkey instead of a war horse (21:1-9) can be represented by a kingdom symbolized by a garden herb instead of a giant tree". So this parable "rebukes our cult of bigness."
The parable of the mustard seed is followed by two other brief parables, both about something small. The parable of the yeast; and the parable of the pearl of great price.
The parable of the yeast shows us that the leaven – which is small in quantity – can have a disproportionate effect to its size. The things we do for God and our neighbours can have wider consequences than we realize. A word, a gesture – can have more effect on someone than we expect, if it is of God.
The parable of the pearl shows us that the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom of heaven – is more important than anything else. The merchant who discovered the pearl of great value sold everything else he had so that he could buy it. So it is with the kingdom of God – all else – our possessions, our striving for success, for security, for personal satisfaction - all these are less important than seeking the will of God and living in accordance with the values of his Kingdom.
Jesus told many parables about the Kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. He showed that the kingdom is both of this earth and not of this earth – we should seek to live as if the kingdom of heaven is among us, here and now, even though it is only fully realized in eternity. The parables of the talents, of the labourers in the vineyard, of the wise and foolish virgins – all are about the kingdom, and its different aspects.
There is also another side to his parables of the kingdom, however –which is about punishment for those who don’t live up to the values of the kingdom. This is the message of the uncomfortable parable about the fish and the net, which we heard in today’s gospel.
It reminds us that we have a choice: God gives us the free will whether to respond or not to the teachings of Jesus. It reminds us that turning our backs on God does have consequences, and that these may well be uncomfortable.
But we also know that God gives us the power to live in accordance with the ways of the kingdom – through faith in Christ, who gave himself up to death on the cross so that all might have the chance to come to him, to follow him, to believe in him and so be saved, both in this life here on earth and in the next.
So the kingdom of God is – or can be – among us, if we seek it. The small beginnings are important, both in their own right and for what they might lead on to. Let us pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven – and ask God to show us how to play our part in helping this to come about.