Suppose you were watching a movie with a lot of cultural reference jokes.  Let’s say, Shrek.
You are watching Shrek except that you never have read a single fairy tale. So the whole movie
references fairy tale after fairy tale, children’s story after children’s story.  They make a Pinocchio joke,
a Snow White reference, characters from the three little pigs, and you don’t get any of it. It is truly
a bizarre, unfunny tale.

This is how most of us read the Bible.  
The Bible is packed with references to ancient myths, histories, folk tales and literary references
to other portions of the Bible.  In fact, the book of Revelation alone holds approximately 2000
references to passages in the Old Testament and countless references to Jesus’ teaching, but
most people want to think of it as a unique vision of their newspapers.  When we miss the context
of a literary work, we usually miss the intent of that work. We can read something over and over
again and just don’t get it.

So let’s look at the background of a passage we are very familiar with. The parable of the Mustard Seed.
First, we gotta go back, waaaaay back…

Psalm 104
This is a description of how God established creation through the image of Eden.  In the middle
section of the poem is a detailed description of how God continues to supply all creation with water.  
God supplies water through springs and rain, the mountains and streams distribute the water and the
trees and animals are sustained through that distribution.  It describes an ecosystem, begun by God
and perpetuated by all creation. In the midst of this description the mountains are seen as a home for
all creation with the line, “Beside them the birds of heaven nest, lifting up their voices among the
branches.”  So the birds thrive because of God’s provision through the mountain, through the trees,
through the streams, from the spring. It all works together.

Ezekiel 31
God through the prophet speaks to Egypt, saying, “You are just like Assyria.”  An analogy is given
that Assyria was like a huge cedar tree that took on a huge amount of resources, but supplied the
animals and birds.  In this analogy, the birds are the nations of the world whom Assyria took on as
clients. “All the birds of heaven nested in its branches,” the text says.  God provided the resources of
the earth to Assyria, and Assyria’s responsibility was to fairly distribute them among all the nations.

However, as we continue to read, we find that Assyria didn’t do that.  They withheld the resources for
themselves, causing their tree to rise higher and higher and leaving the nations to survive on scraps.
 In reality, the Assyrians destroyed and tortured whole civilizations in order to retain everything for
themselves. So, says Ezekiel, God chopped down that tree and the birds thrived on the remains.  
Because the nations of the world could thrive better with Assyria dead than alive.

Daniel 4
Emperor Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a tree which grew high and “the birds nested in its
branches”.  But the tree was shown to be inadequate and it was chopped down. Sound familiar?
Daniel tells the Emperor that the tree was him and he was in danger of seeing his power drained.
 Daniel’s recommendation was that the Emperor “give to the poor” generously, and to give glory to
God as the creator of his empire. That his empire had a divine purpose— to distribute to many,
especially the poor, so that all might thrive together, according to the creation-plan of God.

Mustard Tree
That’s the background.  Now let’s get to the meat, Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like
a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes
the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can nest in its shade.”  
Mark 4:30-32

Here, we see the key phrases that brings to mind the previous passages. “Huge branches that
birds nest in.” In the ancient Greek translations, the group of phrases use the same words as the
three passages quoted above.  

The mustard seed parable is half about the growth of God’s kingdom.  It is also about the nature of
the kingdom. The kingdom is the distribution of the resources of God, according to the mercy and
love of God.

The kingdom Jesus speaks about begins tiny, with one man distributing God’s healing, food,
deliverance and forgiveness to as many as he could reach.

The kingdom will have reached it’s apex when whole nations, ethnicities, corporations, churches
and religions join in God’s distribution network, making sure that everyone obtain what they need to
both survive and thrive.  As the kingdom’s distribution network grows, so does the world thrive.

Who Got This?
Interestingly enough, the early church understood this immediately.  The first church, as described in
Acts, distributed food to the poor in Jerusalem, and when their was controversy whether enough
people are being feed, the church leaders made sure that everyone was provided for.

Paul himself in Galatians said that though he disagreed with Jerusalem leaders about some issues,
they agreed that distribution to the poor was an essential aspect of the church.

Even the Romans agreed in the third century that they needed to persecute the early church, but that
the church “provided for our own poor as well.”

In the fourth century, as the church was getting organized, a group could not be officially claimed to
be a “church” unless they had a distribution network for the poor in their system.

What about us?
I do not identify the “kingdom” with the churches we see.  Because part of the core nature of the
kingdom of God is distribution to the poor, needy and outcast, as Jesus displayed and taught.  Not
everyone who teaches Jesus displays this basic understanding. Many who proclaim the name of
Jesus, teach or display a withholding of resources, sowing a distrust of the poor or outcast.  These

y: “arial”; font-size: 11pt; font-style: normal; font-variant: normal; font-weight: 400; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; white-space: pre;”>churches are not a part of the kingdom of God as Jesus described it.

And there are many secular organizations that do demonstrate the principles of God’s kingdom.  
Even as in Jesus’ teaching of the Sheep and the Goats shows, many who have done the acts of the
kingdom will be a part of it, even though they didn’t know who Jesus was.

Let us not think that our task is primarily or mostly “spiritual”, focusing on just prayer and word.  If we
do not organize and provide for the physical needs of the people in our community, we are not a part
of Jesus’ kingdom.