I’m not much of a gardener. When I worked at Holy Family Parish in St. Albert, there was a wonderful group of volunteers who used to come through the church a couple times a week to water all of our plants. I distinctly remember one of the ladies berating me for the lack of care I showed the spiderwort plant in my office. She told me that I “didn’t deserve to have a plant.”
My wife – who grew up on a farm – is the one in our family with a green thumb. She grows produce that our kids love to eat and works very hard to make our yard look beautiful. In our previous home, she found that sunflowers grew extremely well in the flower beds which sat right in front of the house. These sunflower plants would start off as a seed smaller than the fingernail of her pinky finger and often grew to be taller than I am.
I think her childhood on the farm coupled with her love for plants puts her in a much better position to understand the various agricultural parables that Jesus tells. Whenever I come across a story like the parable of the mustard seed (we heard this parable from Mark 4:30-32 this past Sunday), I have no frame of reference to picture what a mustard plant would look like. I’ve just imagined that they look something like my wife’s giant sunflowers, as the plants Jesus is describing need to be big enough for birds and other creatures to come and find shelter.
That imagined image has been enough for me to understand the traditional explanation of the mustard seed passage: like a tiny seed that grows into a much larger plant, our current experience of the Kingdom of God is small and humble in comparison to what is yet to come.
Earlier this week, I came across a thread of tweets from Rev. Daniel Brereton ̶ an Anglican priest from Ontario ̶ that presented another layer to this parable that this plant-killing city boy would never otherwise have known.
According to Brereton, it would have been illegal to sow mustard seeds in first-century Israel. Apparently, they were viewed as insidious, unwanted weeds. I couldn’t find a direct reference to the historical legality of planting wild mustard.
I did find that even in Canada today, wild mustard can represent “a serious weed problem.” He also pointed out that farmers and gardeners don’t normally want birds nesting in their fields and among their crops – it’s why they put up scarecrows and garden defence owls.
You don’t need to be much of a gardener to understand some of the implications here. First of all, nobody wants weeds in their lawn, garden, or field. They get in the way. They spread like crazy in unpredictable patterns, and it’s a lot of work to try to get rid of them. In a word: they are inconvenient, and their mere presence can wreak havoc on various growing projects.
Second, when someone is growing a crop, they want to make certain that creatures who might make a mess or damage the plants are kept as far away as possible. We’ve had a number of these try to take up residence in our backyard hoping to feast on our garden – most recently a small rabbit who thought our deck might make a nice home. However, as cute as the bunny might have been, my wife’s lettuce would never have grown with that bunny around. (The bunny has since found another place to live)
I was left with a couple of startling conclusions when I began to consider the weed-like, wild growth of the mustard seed, the unwanted creatures who find safety in the branches of this plant, and what it implies not only for the coming Kingdom of God, but for the Church.
First of all, it’s a good reminder of whose Church and Kingdom all of this really is. We could try to work out well-ordered strategic plans for our work as a Church (and good stewardship asks us to do our best with this), we still need to remember that the work of Christ is going to be a bit messy and unpredictable.
The Kingdom is growing like a weed, popping up in places that seem random and inconvenient… but this is precisely the way the Holy Spirit tends to work (see John 3:8). With that in mind, it makes more sense why the priorities of the Church and the world at large can be at odds with one another. If the Kingdom starts to spread like a weed, we are going to encounter others who want to control it, to limit its sphere of influence, or even eradicate it altogether.
Second, it makes the commandment to love our neighbour even more important. It’s been said that loving one’s neighbour is really easy… right up until you meet a ‘neighbour.’ Then it gets hard, because loving others always demands something of you, and it’s often inconvenient. A parish facilities manager I know used to joke that ‘the building would be in much better shape if we’d just keep the people out of it,’ but in the next breath he’d acknowledge there’d be no point in having a church building that just sat empty.
According to the parable, God’s Kingdom is meant to draw people to shelter under its branches. Some of these people might be easy to welcome and to love – and others we might find more difficult to love (like an unwanted creature in the farmer’s field.) This is where we need to recall that one of the conditions for receiving the Kingdom is the way in which we treat the ‘least’ of our brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40).
Much like the church building, the Kingdom exists to bring all sorts of people in – including all of us who are, at times, going to make a mess of things. I’m not much for growing and taking care of plants. But around my house I’ve learned to trust the wisdom and experience of my wife who is a wonderful gardener. In similar fashion, we need to trust God’s plan as the master gardener who knows precisely what He is building and whom He is inviting.
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” -Romans 11:33
-Mike Landry is the chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools. He is based in Spruce Grove, Alberta.