Mark 4:30-32

FROM SMALL TO GREAT

Mk. 4:30-32

He said: “How shall we find something with which to compare the Kingdom of God, or what picture will we use to represent it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown upon the ground, is the least of all the seeds upon the earth. But, when it is sown, it springs up and it becomes greater than all the herbs; and it sends out great branches so that the birds of the heaven can find a lodging under its shade.”

There are in this parable two pictures which every Jew would readily recognize.

First, in Palestine a grain of mustard seed stood proverbially for the smallest possible thing. For instance, “faith as a grain of mustard seed,” means “the smallest conceivable amount of faith.” This mustard seed did in fact grow into something very like a tree. A traveller in Palestine speaks of seeing a mustard plant which, in its height, overtopped a horse and its rider. The birds were very fond of the little black seeds of the tree and a cloud of birds over a mustard plant was a common sight.

Second, in the Old Testament one of the commonest ways to describe a great empire was to describe it as a tree, and the tributary nations within it were said to be like birds finding shelter within the shadow of its branches (Eze.17:22ff; Eze.31:1ff; Dn.4:10; Dn.4:21). The figure of a tree with birds in the branches therefore stands for a great empire and the nations who form part of it.

(i) This parable says, Never be daunted by small beginnings. It may seem that at the moment we can produce only a very small effect; but if that small effect is repeated and repeated it will become very great. There is a scientific experiment to show the effect of dyes. A large vessel of clear water is taken and a little phial of dye. Drop by drop the dye is dropped into the clear water. At first it seems to have no effect at all and the water does not seem to be coloured in the least. Then quite suddenly the water begins to tinge with the colour; bit by bit the colour deepens, until the whole vessel is coloured. It is the repeated drops that produce the effect.

We often feel that for all that we can do, it is hardly worth while starting a thing at all. But we must remember this–everything must have a beginning. Nothing emerges full-grown. It is our duty to do what we can; and the cumulative effect of all the small efforts can in the end produce an amazing result.

(ii) This parable speaks of the empire of the church. The tree and the birds, we have seen, stand for the great empire and for all the nations who find shelter within it. The church began with an individual and it is meant to end with the world. There are two directions in which this is true.

(a) The church is an empire in which all kinds of opinions and all kinds of theologies can find a place. We have a tendency to brand as a heretic anyone who does not think as we do. John Wesley was the greatest example of tolerance in the world. “We think,” he said, “and we let think.” “I have no more right,” he said, “to object to a man for holding a different opinion from mine than I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my. own hair.” Wesley had one greeting, “Is thy heart as my heart? Then give me thy hand!” It is good for a man to have the assurance that he is right, but that is no reason why he should have the conviction that everyone else is wrong.

(b) The church is an empire in which all nations meet. Once a new church was being built. One of its great features was to be a stained glass window. The committee in charge searched for a subject for the window and finally decided on the lines of the hymn,

“Around the throne of God in heaven Thousands of children stand.”

They employed a great artist to paint the picture from which the window would be made. He began the work and fell in love with the task. Finally he finished it. He went to bed and fell asleep but in the night he seemed to hear a noise in his studio; he went into the studio to investigate; and there he saw a stranger with a brush and a palette in his hands working at his picture. “Stop!” he cried. “You’ll ruin my picture.” “I think,” said the stranger,” “that you have ruined it already.” “How’s that?” said the artist. “Well,” said the stranger, “you have many colours on your palette but you have used only one for the faces of the children. Who told you that in heaven there were only children whose faces were white?” “No one,” said the artist. “I just thought of it that way.” “Look!” said the stranger. “I will make some of their faces yellow, and some brown, and some black, and some red. They are all there, for they have all answered my call” “Your call?” said the artist. “Who are you?” The stranger smiled. “Once long ago I said, `Let the children come to me and don’t stop them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven’–and I’m still saying it.” Then the artist realized that it was the Master himself, and as he did so, he vanished from his sight. The picture looked so much more wonderful now with its black and yellow and red and brown children as well as white.

In the morning the artist awoke and rushed through to his studio. His picture was just as he had left it; and he knew that it had all been a dream. Although that very day the committee was coming to examine the picture he seized his brushes and his paints, and began to paint the children of every colour and of every race throughout all the world. When the committee arrived they thought the picture very beautiful and one whispered gently, “Why! It’s God’s family at home.”

The church is the family of God; and that church which began in Palestine, small as the mustard seed, has room in it for every nation in the world. There are no barriers in the church of God. Man made barriers and God in Christ tore them down.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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