By Rev. Kathryn Ray
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
The familiarity of the images in this well-known piece of Scripture perhaps obscure the fact that this parable is odd. Mustard seeds do not grow into trees. Mustard seeds grow into small herb bushes. “The greatest of shrubs” (or perhaps a better translation, “the greatest of vegetables”) is perhaps closer to what one might expect could grow out of a mustard seed, but it is still a rather bizarre distinction to achieve. So what is going on here?
At our youth retreat over President’s Day weekend, we discussed how we might be like the mustard seed. We reflected on times in our lives when we were underestimated for being young or small, and thought about how we might surprise others with what we can do for the kingdom of God.
I know I was surprised last year when the youth asked me if they could cook for themselves, instead of having someone else cook for them. And I continue to marvel at how they organize themselves, shape the menu, and execute meals that are fragrant and tasty like mustard seeds.
In parables, unusual things happen. A merchant sells everything he has to purchase a single pearl. A father throws a party for a prodigal son who has returned, but somehow forgets to send an invitation to his other son. And mustard seeds grow into trees. Unexpected twists and hyperbole are par for the course in parables. This is because the genre is designed to provoke us to think. How do we live out and live into the kingdom of God, if we imagine it to be a mustard seed that grows into a tree?
According to Paul’s letter to the Romans, “The kingdom of God is…justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (14:17).” This is a beautiful vision, but it requires a good deal of work to figure out what that means for us from day to day. What does justice look like in our context? How do we find peace in the midst of turmoil? How can we be agents of joy in a roiling sea of anger?
This is where parables can help us. They challenge us to reframe our vision and reconsider situations in our daily lives that we might take for granted. According to Dr. AJ Levine, professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School, parables “challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge.”
We are entering the season of Lent on the Christian calendar, which is a period of time in which we are invited to explore new pathways by which we might walk more deeply into the heart of God. During this season, I am teaching a Sunday School class in which we will explore Jesus’ parables and identify the questions they lead us to ask and the values they reveal within us.
Whether you are participating in this class or not, I invite you to seek out the challenge of the kingdom of God in your daily life this season. What might God be inviting you to pay closer attention to? Where have seeds been planted in your life that might be growing into something you did not expect? What tiny kernel has gotten stuck in your shoe, continuing to irritate you until you stop moving, pull it out, and see exactly what it is?
In little ways and big, how are you being challenged to live more deeply into a reign of justice, peace, and joy?
 Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), p. 3.