Last week my wife Marie and I celebrated with her mother on her 96th birthday. It gave me pause. As a few gifts were distributed it set my memory to remembering gift giving times over the years.
in remembering Christmases and birthdays past, doesn't it feel as if there were more gifts to be opened, that the piles of presents seemed larger? Perhaps the gifts were larger in size and so it appeared as if there were more of them. And as seen in a recent commercial small children think bigger is better. A bigger cookie is better than a small cookie, and a bigger gift is bound to be better than a smaller gift. But with age comes wisdom, at least in the gift department. A smaller velvet box can mean an engagement ring for a young woman in love. A flat business card-sized envelope for a teenager can mean a gift card for a favorite store. A business envelope to new parents might mean a savings bond for their child's college fund. Good things can come in small packages.
So says Jesus in the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus insinuates that no one expects much of the "smallest of all seeds" (Matthew 13:32), but when planted, it grows so large that birds are able to nest in its branches. What begins as seemingly insignificant can, with nourishment, care, and time, become something amazing. Good things can come in small packages.
The mustard seed parable challenges our hierarchical preferences and invites us to expect the unexpected with Jesus. If the kingdom of God is like a small seed becoming a big tree, what might that mean for us? What might that mean for those we see as less than we are? Good things can come in small packages.
To Jesus' listeners this parable was more than unexpected. It was counter-cultural. They were expecting the kingdom of God to come blazing into their lives with power, authority, and influence. They were expecting grandeur and excess, clout and control. They were certain that something big was coming with the kingdom of God. With the eyes of children waiting for the gift of a lifetime, they were anticipating something really big.
But here comes Jesus, a simple, Jewish carpenter, telling stories and traveling around with his buddies. Jesus' message is not what his listeners want to hear. In fact, Jesus' ushering in the kingdom of God is so different from what everyone is expecting that Jesus is forced to use parables like this one to help people understand. In a clever twist, it is Jesus' crafty use of stories that will stay with the disciples when he is gone.
Jesus knew that the kingdom of God, like the mustard seed, would grow gradually. There would be a "growth spurt" until long after Jesus was gone. The disciples would need his encouragement, his wisdom, and his stories to remind them that Jesus knew what was coming; he knew the challenges they would face. Like a mustard seed faced with droughts, floods, and scorching heat, the seed would prevail and a fruitful plant would grow, just as Jesus promised.
The disciples became a band of friends who left everything they knew and loved to follow Jesus. They gave years of their lives to him. After the crucifixion, they could have scattered in fear or they could cling to a parable such as this one and remember that mustard seeds turn into great bushes under the right conditions. What might happen to the kingdom of God under the right conditions?
Jesus' message holds words of hope. With this parable he leaves a legacy for the disciples and offers hope to everyone hearing the story. The widow with her small children hears the voice of Jesus and dreams of a day she will not struggle. The paraplegic lies on the outskirts of the crowd and listens to Jesus' words and wonders how he too might make a difference in the world. The social outcast hears about Jesus' parable of the mustard seed, shakes her head in agreement, and says, "I knew it! I can be more than they think I am!"
Good things come in small packages. Good things come in unexpected packages. According to Jesus' parable, no one expects much of the mustard seed, but from it grows a plant large enough to shelter animals. No one would likely come to expect much of the disciples after Jesus' death. They were a group of mavericks who gambled on an individual who suffered the most gruesome and humiliating of all public deaths. Yet from these disciples grew the church that took root and grew across the world.
With its small size but enormous impact, the mustard seed holds hope for us all. With our human frailties and misgivings, we each fall about and sometimes feel quite small. This parable, however, shows that even the kingdom of God allows for times of growth spurts and pruning. Once small and hesitant about its growth, the kingdom of God is still bearing fruit and will continue far beyond our life span. Thanks be to God for than.
So, were the piles of gifts from Christmases and birthdays bigger when we were little, or have we become wiser in valuing that which comes in smaller wrappings? Size matters in the story of Jesus. Watch out! Good things come in small packages.