A few years ago Tim Thorpe came to visit Dallas on a business trip. I had the chance to meet up with him, and we briefly toured the resort at which he’d been staying. Among the items in the indoor park area stood a large oak tree—or at least a replica of one. This large, fake tree really did look like the real thing, and it better have, because the plaque said that it cost $250,000 to produce. Works righteousness can never grow a flourishing tree—only a fake one.
Jesus’ parables of the mustard seed and the leaven illustrate how the insignificant can often surpass our expectations. Take a moment to read—or re-read—the parable of the mustard seed:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
Take a moment and see if you can identify the components of the parable. Jesus tells us that the seed represents the kingdom. So who is the “man?” Who are the “birds of the air?” What is our responsibility to the kingdom, according to this parable?
Like the parable of the sower (Mark 4), this story emphasizes the inevitability of growth through the work of the Sower. Since God’s kingdom flourishes through God’s will alone, then we might easily see that the “man” is none other than God himself. The “birds of the air” represent all who might enjoy the benefits of the flourishing kingdom. Some have speculated that the “birds” most specifically represent the Gentiles—the non-Jews who would come to experience God’s blessing once grafted into the vine of Israel.
So if God does the work and we experience the blessing, this naturally challenges at least two assumptions we might have about the kingdom:
- First, it challenges our efforts to grow the kingdom on our own. The “seed” comes from God; not us. If we reduce God’s kingdom to a set of religious projects, then we have confused means for their ends. Daily devotions, worship services—these are only as valuable as the God to whom they point. Turn them into the end themselves, and we’re constantly worried about doing Have I read my Bible enough? Have I prayed enough? Have I shared my faith enough? We fail to rest in God’s kingdom, instead devoted to building our own empire.
- Second, it challenges our assumption that faith is found in “surrendering our hearts to God.” Such language sounds pleasant and devoted—even the opposite of the works-based faith above. But what happens? The same questions rise again: Have I surrendered enough? Have I really “given my heart to God?
We can say two things: first, none of this will ever be enough. Second, when we try these approaches, we end up building a big, expensive fake tree rather than allow God to grow his kingdom through us. The gospel isn’t opposed to human effort, mind you—it’s just opposed to us earning it.
Too often we feel that if we just had a little more faith, could do just a bit better at repenting—then our relationship with God would really take off. But don’t you see how this parable challenges this? It’s not the quantity of our faith that matters; it’s the object of our faith. We can truly rest in God’s grace knowing that the work that he’s accomplished truly is enough.