1 Kings 3.5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“Give your servant an understanding mind….”
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
“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.”
In her posthumously published Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor writes, “My dear God, how stupid we people are until You give us something. Even in praying it is You who have to pray in us.” Even as a young woman, O’Connor sensed that the Lord prays in and for us.
At a recent gathering of local pastors, one of my colleagues noted a disjunction between ways in which the national church records parish data and ways in which local congregations actually experience the church such data are meant to record. The pastor said, “We simply don’t have an appropriate metric for information we need to convey.” We don’t have an appropriate metric, an appropriate measure, an apt quantifier, a numeric means to express the church.
We clergy come late to parties. Just when the rest of western culture has begun to show signs of suspicion regarding omniscient claims for quantification, the numeric expression of meaning, clergy grow smitten with the idea of a metric to quantify the poetic, to measure metaphor by number. As Joseph Stalin apparently observed: “Quantity has a quality all its own;” quantity’s quality seduces. Bigger trumps smaller, a larger church outshines a smaller one. How much church do we need? One pound? Two meters? Four light-years? Perhaps 3, 7, 12, or, maybe, 666 ecclesial cubits? I suspect that at the heart of a tendency to quantify the church lurks a bias such as, well, God is, you know, “BIG.” “God is really BIG.” Therefore, the church must be big too, and the bigger the better.
Then cometh the mustard seed. Why does Jesus choose a mustard seed to illustrate the kingdom of heaven? Mustard seeds are small, unimpressive, and plain. Jesus says they’re the smallest of all seeds. How small? He doesn’t provide a botanic metric. Jesus is not a botanist; he intends more than science, more than quantified meaning. He means that, in eternity, small will trump big.
Mustard seeds are small—whether smallest of all is of no matter. What matters to Jesus is that, though small, a mustard seed, nonetheless, grows to become a large and useful shrub—a bush providing shelter for birds. Hence, the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a small thing which grows into something sufficient to provide protection for other small things, like birds, babies and all death-plagued creatures.
No matter how you cut it, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a small thing helpful to other little things of apparently meager import. Even the largest bird is small compared to a fighter jet, a military transport, or even a Malaysian airliner. Oddly, at 33,000 feet, it may have been easier to bring down a Malaysian airliner with a surface to air missile, than, even the largest of birds. Smaller things generally have greater capacity to hide.
Be that as it tragically may be, the fact remains that Jesus does not offer impressive statistics to illustrate the kingdom of heaven, but rather something tiny: the homely little mustard seed. In a world of terrible power, amid cultures of imperial strength and clashing world views, the Lord’s reign is unimpressive, puny, and short-lived. Most of the empires of imperial history (the Roman, the British, the Vedic, the Ming, the Ottoman, the Ptolemaic, the Silla, the Ethiopian, the Incan) managed to survive several decades, and some for several centuries. Yet a mustard shrub lives but a brief time and is gone. As compared to a phenomenon like the Roman Empire, a mustard seed is weak—next to nothing—like the kingdom of heaven. Yet “next to nothing” may be more than all our earthly powers combined.
St. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Spirit helps us not in our strength, but in our weakness. Paul’s little dictum is at home with tiny things, birds, and babies like Johanna; dismissed by the grand and glorious, Paul’s insight is treasured by the least, the little, and the last.
Of course, we can hardly expect the powers of earth to find solace in a spirit of weakness, a teaching that locates greatest hope in deepest weakness, an ethic that acts not on a wealth of strength, but on a poverty of weakness. That would be like asking the bank to loan us money according to our inability to pay it back; like the Packers drafting players based on their disability, inexperience, and lack of winning; it would be like hiring chief executives and generals not according to their superior knowledge, financial clout, and successful track record, but on account of their extensive and repeated failures. How long would Badger Nation praise Coach Anderson if instead of recruiting the biggest, the fastest, and the most decorated, he recruited the smallest, the slowest, and the unrecognized?
Badgers and Packers aside, the kingdom of heaven is alien not only to football, but to all other human endeavors as well. The Spirit helps us in our weakness precisely because in our weakness the Spirit can help us. In our strength, success, and power, we have no awareness of the Spirit, but only of our own spirits. We ourselves are the biggest impediment to God’s Spirit, not because we are stronger than the Spirit, but because we think we are. Unlike Solomon, we refuse to ask for understanding because we think we already possess it; and, clearly, if we think we understand God, we don’t.
“We do not know how to pray as we ought,” precisely because when we are powerful (or think we are), we have no need of proper prayer, no awareness of our need of God, no insight into our total dependence, no proper sense of limit, loss, and liability—liability not merely to civil and criminal courts, but liability to eternal judgment. Awareness of the Lord’s judgment gives desire for the Lord’s grace. Awareness of our weakness reveals our need of Christ. Christ is our strength in weakness before the very God who made us; the One who can erase us with a word; who, amid death and decay, gives us life and hope through the death and resurrection of Christ—the grace to confess and believe. And what is faith? Little more than a drop of water on a tiny child; a mustard seed—not even that—and yet more than enough; more than all, until the Lord gives us something—even something small. Thanks be to God.