The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Kingdom of Heaven Versus The Law of Diverse Things

What if what looks like disorder is voluptuous growth?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

For Sunday, July 24 , 2011: Year A—Ordinary 17

We have in our Holy Book countless regulations, or laws, to keep order. This would include regulations like the laws of “Diverse Kinds”– i.e. laws against co-mingling. Deuteronomy and Leviticus both say, “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.”

Diverse Kinds

The Rabbinic discussions of “Diverse Kinds” sets forth that: The rules of diverse kinds have as their purpose to bring order into the disorderly world; and the creation of order in this world replicates the division between the sacred and the profane. Where things may or may not be planted or mixed together is important for the maintenance of purity boundaries.

Mishna Kilayim, says, “Not every kind of seed may be sown in a garden, but any kind of vegetable may be sown therein. Mustard and small beans are deemed a kind of seed and large beans a kind of vegetable.”

Mischievous Jesus

And then there is this parable we have for our text today:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his garden; 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.”

Who is this mischievous Jesus with his chaos making ways? What is he up to?

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his garden? You can’t do that that is against the law–to say nothing of how it undoes so much hard work.

Invasive Spieces

Pliny in his Natural History writes that the mustard plant is an annual, which grows wild and reaches four feet high. It is improved by being transplanted. But on the other hand, when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.

What would Matthew’s original hears make of this parable? What should we make of it?

From Pliny and the Mishna Kilayim as well as other Jewish law, we learn of the mustard seed, that not only is it against the law to sow it in a garden, but that it is foolish to do so. It will grow wild and out of control, germinates instantly.

Miracle Growth?

We also learn that the mustard plant only grows to about four feet tall. But not the mustard plant of Jesus’ parable, the mustard seed that tells us what the kingdom of heaven is like. This mustard plant grows into the greatest of shrubs and then–turns into a tree!

Jesus, in a few short sentences has undone the human project and re-established the original wild garden with its original tree. The original tree, which condemned humanity to exile from god, is now the symbol of kingdom of heaven, the sign of profound and on going relationship with God.

The Hardest Question

With every weed we see, with every starling that raids the birdfeeder, God is up to a little mischief, giving as a winking reminder–God will get us back in the garden. Every time chaos creeps in we can be assured of God’s love for us. The Kingdom of Heaven IS. And so, I have to ask:  What if what looks like disorder is voluptuous growth?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Joanna says:

    Really amazing, profound question. Thank you for this–and the whole blog! It strikes me that the parable immediately before the mustard seed is the wheat and the tares–where it is the enemy, rather than the farmer, who plants the weeds. So I echo your question: What is Jesus up to?

  2. I read “God is up to a little mischief” and suddenly visions of Joker are dancing through my head…”be an agent of chaos!”

    I don’t know diddly about farming or baking or pearls, so I’m going to talk this week about something I do know: Superheroes! I’ve been a comic book geek since forever, especially Marvel. But it occurs to me that perhaps their appeal is that (warning: broad brushstroke approaching) it is easy to tell the heroes from the villains.

    Contrasting that is all this stuff from Jesus the last couple weeks: seeds fall everywhere, wheat/weeds, angels separating fish, etc. It seems to be setting the stage for goats/sheep in chapter 25. All of which seem to suggest that in God’s Kingdom, it’s hard to tell “hero” from “villain”, partially because neither group seems to be aware of their hero/villain-hood.

    Chaos indeed!

    So I read as you do, Russell: The Kingdom *is*. The preaching task this week seems to be to hold up a mirror so the people can see the Kingdom already among them while also challenging them to see how it might be in unexpected places as well.

    What if there are no heroes coming to save us? What if, to borrow a phrase, we’re the ones we’re waiting for to be God’s agents of change (and chaos!) in the world?

  3. Rev. Russell says:

    Joanna and Dave, I was talking to THQ contributor Nadia Bolz-Weber about this text a couple of days ago and we sort of liked the idea that the kingdom of God “IS” in all kinds of unexpected ways and places and that we are called to “notice” it. And maybe every time we notice it unfolding we are loosened a little bit from the Kingdom of the world.

How do you read?