The Subversive Mustard Seed
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

by | Aug 3, 2023

PRAYER: God of abundant mercy, you have planted seeds where we least expect them: in our souls. Nurture and grow your love within us that we may break free of the status quo of this world and demonstrate your love in astounding and unexpected ways.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

I wonder how many of you have spent a lot of time or effort in your gardens or your yards getting rid of dandelions? For as long as I can remember, dandelions have been considered nothing short of a pest, a nuisance that must be eradicated. We have chemicals that are supposed to kill dandelions – some of which give us cancer, but that’s another story. Mostly, it’s through backbreaking effort, getting down on our hands and knees, and digging up every last shred of the insidious yellow weed, root and all, that will help us accomplish the goal. Because as we all know, if you leave even a shred of a dandelion root in the ground, they will be back.
My question is why. Why do we go through all this effort, and why are dandelions so despised?
As a little kid, I remember picking a few dandelions out of the ground in the front yard and bringing them to my mother, thinking I was being a good son, giving her flowers. She took the dandelions, put them in a glass on the windowsill with some water and there they stayed for a few days until she threw them out. But make no mistake, my mother hated dandelions and wanted every single one of them picked from the yard. Again: why?
Because we now know that there are actual health benefits to dandelions that we lose sight of when we focus on them solely as pests that must be eradicated. They have both internal and external uses. As a holistic treatment, they have the potential to selectively kill cancer cells. There are studies on this. In other words, the dandelion root is able to rid the body of cells that have been damaged beyond repair. There are studies that indicate dandelions as an effective tool to reduce cholesterol. In some cases, dandelions have shown a potential to help with diabetes and other health problems. And yet, the status quo in our culture dictates that dandelions are bad; they’re nothing more than a weed that we must destroy. They pollute our yards. There is no one that I know of, no one that I can imagine that is going out into their yards and planting dandelions. The over-abundance of dandelions is almost subversive in that they fly in the face of our status quo; they go against our cultural norms. We don’t want them, so therefore they are bad.
When Jesus tells us about mustard seeds, we often hear his parable in the context of the seed being like our faith: even the smallest seeds can grow into something huge and life giving. This is a great analogy and we should not lose sight of it, but there’s one thing about the mustard seed parable that we, in our 21st century context would not as readily understand as those who listened to Jesus’ words first hand. The mustard seed was the dandelion of the day. No one would intentionally plant it. No one would plant it – especially in a field. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” If you’re even the slightest bit familiar with the way farms work, you don’t plant a big giant bush in the middle of a field. The fields that farmers produce, whether its corn or wheat, or whatever, they are carefully managed and tended. One does not plant – intentionally – dandelions or mustard in the middle of these fields. That would be foolish.
There’s a deeper meaning to this mustard seed analogy because the kingdom of heaven is like when it is planted where it’s not supposed to be or expected to be. But the planted mustard seed does its work, hidden beneath the dirt. It speaks to the power and mystery of God that this seed – a tiny weed can be made into a great tree, planted and growing where we least expect it, where we don’t want it, and then providing shelter to those who are typically considered unwelcome guests in a field. There is a subversive nature to the presence of a mustard plant in a field.
Jesus tells us several parables in our reading today, and they’re all connected in some way, shape, or form. I’m not going to go through all of them, but one of the others does parallel the mustard seed planted in the field: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Before I get too far into the subversive nature of this parable, let’s just take one moment and acknowledge that the God figure that Jesus uses here is a woman. “Yeast that a woman took and mixed…” I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that God is not necessarily gender specific.
Yeast has two things in common with the lowly mustard seed. First, yeast is something small that can yield an enormous result. Again, this is the understanding of the mustard seed and the yeast that we commonly associate with this parable. A little bit of yeast can cause a lot of flour to rise. There is a reference here to Genesis 18. Jesus says that the Kingdom is like yeast that a woman hid in a bushel of flour… In Genesis 18:6, “Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Three measures of choice flour is equal to a bushel of flour. Both would produce an absolute abundance of dough – enough to feed about 100 people, and in both cases, it speaks to an enormously generous gift. God is a generous God.
The second thing yeast has in common with the lowly mustard seed is that just as people would not have planted a mustard seed in their field, people of that time and place would not have had yeast in their homes. It would have been considered a nuisance just like the mustard seed would be for the field. The people of that time may very well have heard Jesus say this parable and think to themselves, “why would anyone ever put yeast in the flour? That’s just asking for problems.”
Douglas Hare, in his book Interpretation: Matthew, writes that “Both parables proclaim that God’s action in the world, while almost imperceptible or hidden, is nonetheless real and will in God’s own time come to full fruition.”
The Kingdom of God works over time. It works – not necessarily where it can be seen – but rather unseen, underground, buried within the flour, subversive, breaking down the status quo that we find so comfortable. It does transformative work showing us that those ways that we generally regard as “conventional” or even “normal” are not God’s ways. Jesus invites us to recognize that the ways of the world, the ways that we expect our world to function, the ways that we are so accustomed to seeing the world, are not necessarily God’s ways. God’s ways are, in most respects, subversive to what we would view as status quo.
Jesus’ ways are truly subversive to the status quo of the time. He healed the sick, cast out demons, ate with tax collectors and sinners, urged mercy and forgiveness, promoted access to shared resources, and advocated for households that lived counter to the cultural norms. He told those who would cast judgment to put down their stones. It was corrupting work in relation to the Roman Empire’s status quo because it replaced an unjust hierarchical system which furthered the interests of the elite at the expense of the rest.
We should challenge ourselves to not look at these two parables as an analogy of how the church will grow from something small to become more powerful in the world. Instead, we should regard these parables as an opportunity to view the world as something that needs a little subversive action on our part to bring about the love of God in all that we say, in all that we do, in how we treat our neighbor, in how we love one another.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day expended a great deal of energy dictating who was a sinner, who was acceptable, who was worthy of God’s love and who wasn’t. This is a condition that exists in abundance today as well. There are people who in one breath proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior, and then in the very next breath declare who is not worthy of the Kingdom of God. They decide unilaterally that the subversive nature of God gives them license to declare that the birds are not welcome in the mustard tree that has been planted in the field. They decide that they have mastered God’s judgment and then cast stones.
God’s love is subversive to our status quo. When we are told to not love someone, we should love them even more. When we are told that someone is not worthy of God’s kingdom, we should see them as a shining example of what God’s kingdom is like. When we look at our culture, at our version of status quo, we must stop and remember that underneath the surface, the roots of God’s kingdom are growing, and we are called upon to be branches of the mustard seed, offering shelter, and comfort to those who seek it.
As people of Christ, we must learn to break away from status quo of viewing the world through a binary lens. We cannot, we should not view the world strictly as us vs them, the good guys and the bad guys, the winners and the losers, the saints and the sinners. Christian author Joe Terrell writes, “A Christianity preoccupied with winning and preserving power isn’t a Christianity particularly interested in loving God or people.” The subversive nature of God is one that loves all people, and seeks to offer the shelter of love to all people without cost and without expectation of any kind.
I want to invite you, I want to challenge you to view your faith as subversive to the status quo. Be subversive in how you love one another, in how you choose to view the stranger, and in how you choose to be a part of God’s kingdom.
Just as it may seem very strange for us to plant a row of dandelions in our front yards, God’s love works in ways that we may often struggle to understand ourselves. But when we are open to that love, when we are vulnerable to learning God’s subversive ways, we can become the people we are called to be, declaring God’s love in all that we are and in all that we do.
So as Christians, let’s remember the lowly dandelion and not be afraid of throwing away the status quo. Let’s acknowledge that we can rock the boat and break a few rules. We can be subversive in how we love and in how we live. We can and we must work behind the scenes to bring about God’s kingdom and offer a new way. God’s way.
To God be the glory.