Why starting small and growing slow is good for us (aka The Mustard Seed Strategy)
Mark 4:26 – 34 (11th Sunday OT, year B)
The Canadian Federal Election is over five months away and already ads are everywhere. Campaigning is in high gear. Though politics and governments have changed since the days of the Roman Empire – THE kingdom at the time of Jesus – much has stayed the same. The goal of leaders is still to gain as much power as quickly as possible. They want their kingdoms to start large and grow rapidly.
Jesus also came to build a kingdom, something He called the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. He spoke of this kingdom in parables. In it, God is in control. The values, priorities and goals of the Kingdom of Heaven should reflect what God wants. As Christians, we are called to build up this kingdom. This is a two-step process. First, we look at our world – whether it is our country, parish or family – and ask ourselves, “if Jesus was in charge, what would He change?” Second, we go and make this desired change a reality. Eventually, at the end of time, the Kingdom of God will have full reign and authority. Until then, it is a work in progress.
The way that the Kingdom of Heaven grows is completely different to the way that a leader of a political party would want to grow their kingdom. Here is the strategy of a politician: gain maximum power in the minimum time possible. The Kingdom of God follows the strategy of the mustard seed: it starts small and grows slowly. Though this strategy seems counterintuitive, it is for our own good.
The strategy of the mustard seed is particularly evident in the early growth of the Church. The Church started small and humble. It had its roots in an politically insignificant part of the Roman Empire. From the start, those who joined the Church in the largest numbers were people who the rest of society viewed as irrelevant: women and slaves. The growth of the Church was slow and marked by many challenges and persecutions. Until the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity was outlawed. Catholics were forced to practice their faith in the shadows. Many were martyred. When the Emperor Constantine became Christian in the 4th century, the Church became more and more influential. When the Roman Empire fell in the West, the Church stepped in and filled the vacuum, becoming the most powerful force for a time. By this time, the mustard seed had grown to be a large plant.
It took centuries for the Church to slowly gain influence with the rest of the world. This slow growth was necessary. Politicians want to posses the most power as quickly as possible. This can hurt themselves and others. Power can corrupt leaders. Corrupt and cruel leaders hurt countless people when they are given influence. God wanted His Church, which is working to build up the Kingdom of God here on earth, to exercise influence on the entire world. This power however, had to start small and be gained slowly. The Church had much to learn before it was ready to exercise such influence. The Church learned the importance of humility and always caring for the marginalized and outcast in society. The Church learned how power could be abused. The centuries of struggle taught her to always rely on God.
This slow, mustard seed growth is important not just for the Church as a whole but also for individuals within the Church. We learn much along our journey. God gives influence to those building up His Kingdom when they are mature enough to wield it. A powerful example of this is found in the life of Pope Francis, an inspiring example of someone working to build up the Kingdom of God. As Pope, he has incredible influence. He is able to do so much. It can seem like a shame that He was only elected at the age of 77. Could he not have done more if he were elected earlier? The truth is that Jorge Bergoglio was only ready to become Pope Francis at the age of 77. In his life he experienced many challenges and setbacks that formed him into the man he is today. Jorge Bergoglio was made a provincial superior in his religious community – a very important post – at the very young age of 37. For a decade he exercised great influence. His Church career was on a meteoric rise. Then, everything changed. He fell out of favour with his superiors, was stripped of his role and banished from any position of authority or influence. These were very difficult years for him but they were, by his own admission, necessary. He learned a lot through his suffering. He gained humility and grew in kindness to those who suffer. He became the man we now know as Pope Francis.
There is a very simple reason why the Kingdom of God must be like a mustard seed. It starts small and grows slowly because God is more concerned with changing our hearts than with changing structures. God is God; He could act in anyway imaginable. He could come into the world as a powerful King and make sweeping structural changes. He could create a tax structure that justly distributed wealth and eliminated poverty. He could physically force people to go to Church. He could make it utterly impossible for us to develop weapons and wage war. God could do this, but He does not because He wants to change our hearts and not just structures. He wants us to become the kind of people who want to give to the poor. God wants our hearts to change so that we desire to go to Church. He is working to transform us so that we never want to wage war. God wants to change our hearts to become like His own. This work starts small and takes time.
We often prefer the growth strategy of a politician over that of the mustard seed. When we see a problem, whether it is in our country, city or parish, we want some kind of change made quickly. Generally the kind of change we demand is external. Jesus, however, teaches us that the kind of change that matters is internal. Because this change is painful and difficult, we tend to flee from it. Today let us remember a fundamental principle of the Kingdom of Heaven: the world will change when our hearts change.