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“Then He said, ‘To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on Earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade'” (Mark 4:30-32, NKJV).

The simplicity and complexity of God’s Word are reflected in this famous parable. Some have pointed out that, as early as the 13th century, Rabbi Nachmanides compared the early universe to the size of a mustard seed, and some scientists believe that he came eerily close to the .88 millimeter size that some believe it was in its earliest stages (thousands of times smaller than one percentage point of today’s size).

I have always been blessed to know that, while mustard seeds come in different colors—black, white and yellow—the mature plants (the kingdom of God more fully developed) are virtually indistinguishable. May it be so with us, Lord.

Yet the most impactful message that comes through to me from this narrative is the mustard plant itself. Of all the potential plants and trees to represent the kingdom, the Lord chose the mustard? Not the tall cedars of Lebanon or the mighty oaks of Bashan (Isa. 2:13)? No, because our God will always associate Himself with the unexpectedly meek and lowly to resist our desire to equate the kingdom of heaven with the kingdoms of this world, which are built on the grand and opulent.

Kings have castles; ours hadn’t even a foxhole in which to lay His head. Kings are born wrapped in regal Egyptian sheets; ours in rude swaddling linens. They come from centers of learning such as Jerusalem; ours from the backwater of Bethlehem. Their brothers and sisters are part of the royal family; ours are Samaritans, a most unanticipated royal priesthood for siblings.

In fact, some commentators wonder if the Lord was, perhaps, teaching that this “weed” of a plant was not a symbol of a false kingdom, not a garden plant at all. But the mustard plant was and is often planted in vineyards to prevent erosion, protect from bacteria and provide a rich mulch for the vines. Moreover, the mustard plant becomes a place of refuge and solace for others. It is a living shelter, the embodiment of the church of Jesus Christ.

When Quasimodo, the titular hunchback of Notre Dame, seeks shelter from Paris’ murdering mob, he goes to the church and shouts out, “Sanctuary!” He—and many around us each day—are seeking the shelter of a “mustard-seed-plant church,” the kingdom of God found in us, so that they can “nest” and be “shaded” from life’s sometimes crushing pain.

Jesus, You were the seed planted in the garden sepulcher, risen to give us life; may we embrace the lowly mustard seed plant as a symbol of surprising shelter, and become a living refuge for the world You created and love.

Prayer Point

Father, help us to rest in Your shadow and become a refuge to others, bringing Your transforming love to a world too frequently exposed to pain and hopelessness. Let the church be a sanctuary to all, and may rich and poor, the small and the noted, weak and strong, come to know our gracious, sheltering Father and Lord.

Share your thoughts. See comments below, and add your own.

is the president of Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.

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