The Greatest of All Shrubs

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

What a time in the life of the American church to read this brief parable of Jesus: “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.” A shrub. Not a towering redwood, not a spreading chestnut, nor a big oak, and not even a nice fruit tree. Just a shrub. At least Ezekiel thought the kingdom of God would be a cedar, about as big a tree as existed in the ancient Middle East. But a shrub? What’s going on here, Jesus?”

We American Christians tend to think of God’s kingdom a bit more triumphantly than a mustard bush. Surely, God’s Reign has more substance to it than comparing it to shrubs and bushes and the smallest of all seeds? Mustard bushes are small and squatty. Furthermore, they do not put forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in their shade like Jesus said. I have no doubt that Jesus knew what he was talking about and so did his listeners. They likely knew he was parodying the imagery of Ezekiel who said, “Under [the cedar] every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind” (17:23). Nothing like some humor from Jesus to remind us what God’s Way looks like and how it acts.

Every day I pick up our local newspaper and read letters to the editor criticizing unauthorized immigration, and most every letter quotes the Bible in support of anger, fear, and hostility against those so-called foreigners. On other days the Lord is invoked against caring for creation, or in support of everyone carrying their own personal assault rifle, or in support of flying the American flag, or against same-sex marriage, or in support of another war, or … on and on. Jesus comes along and says, “For Pete’s sake! You’ve got it all wrong! God’s Way is not the big cedars of Lebanon. God is not into power and spectacle, or flying banners, beating drums, and shouting and yelling. God’s Way is a mustard bush, small seeds, or a little leaven in flour.”

From what I’ve read, apparently mustard bushes were not only small, growing low to the ground, but also highly invasive, persistent, and hard to get rid of. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove likes to say that mustard bushes are sort of like the South’s ubiquitous kudzu: it grows everywhere and takes over everything. Out in West Texas, where I grew up, the best comparison might be the mesquite. Mesquite trees love the thin soil and dry conditions where little else grows but prickly pear cactus and grass. If ranchers clear a pasture so the grass will grow, in no time mesquite bushes spring up everywhere. If left unchecked they’ll soon take over and grow so thick that a person can’t walk across the pasture. Over a couple of decades or so some will become big gnarly trees but most never get beyond thorny bushes. It’s almost impossible to get rid of them.

I have a woman in my congregation who has Multiple Sclerosis. Since I’ve known her she has declined from a very active life, involved in a variety of concerns including backpacking and camping, to a person who is in a wheelchair and some days can’t get out of the house. But every single day she writes letters and notes and cards. Every day. She writes our congressman urging him to work for peace or to care for God’s good creation or to show compassion for the least of these. Every day she sends birthday cards to members of the congregation and every single day she sends prayer cards telling people who are ill or suffering of her prayers for them. Every day, day after day. Never relenting, never giving up. No one blows trumpets or shoots fireworks when she slowly, sometimes painfully writes her notes and cards and most of the time no one knows about it at all unless you’re the person on the receiving end of her correspondence. But like the mustard bush she persists. Like a mesquite root under a sidewalk, one day the sidewalk cracks. Our congressman has no idea what he’s up against.

God’s Way is quiet, small, slow, and humble, yet persistent and unrelenting. God does not give up. We organize ourselves and kill him on a cross and in a few days he’s been resurrected and comes back. And while the media tells every day of efforts of American Christians to rule and dominate, God is working quietly through a struggling woman praying and writing letters, small communities of faith serving those in need, and multiple other small efforts of love and mercy.

click here for a previous bLOGOS reflection on these texts – 2011 (Kyle Childress) 2008 (Debra Dean Murphy)

2 Responses to “The Greatest of All Shrubs”

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  1. Kamalesh Stephen says:

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts; blessings on your work


  1. […] Kyle Childress writes on this blog of how he has come to see this principle lived out in his […]

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