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Matthew 13:31-32 NIV31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

The mustard plant of Palestine was very different from the mustard plant which we know in this country. To be strictly accurate the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds; the seed of the cypress tree, for instance, is still smaller; but in the east it was proverbial for smallness. For example, the Jews talked of a drop of blood as small as a mustard seed; or, if they were talking of some tiny breach of the ceremonial law, they would speak of a defilement as small as a mustard seed; and Jesus himself used the phrase in this way when he spoke of faith as a grain of mustard seed ( Matthew 17:20 ).

In Palestine this little grain of mustard seed did grow into something very like a tree. Thomson in The Land and the Book writes: “I have seen this plant on the rich plain of Akkar as tall as the horse and his rider.” He says, “With the help of my guide, I uprooted a veritable mustard-tree which was more than twelve feet high.” In this parable there is no exaggeration at all.

Further, it was a common sight to see such mustard bushes or trees surrounded with a cloud of birds, for the birds love the little black seeds of the tree, and settle on the tree to eat them.

Jesus said that his Kingdom was like the mustard seed and its growth into a tree. The point is crystal clear. The Kingdom of Heaven starts from the smallest beginnings, but no man knows where it will end. In eastern language and in the Old Testament itself one of the commonest pictures of a great empire is the picture of a great tree, with the subject nations depicted as birds finding rest and shelter within its branches ( Ezekiel 31:6 ). This parable tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven begins very small but that in the end many nations will be gathered within it.

It is the fact of history that the greatest things must always begin with the smallest beginnings.

(i) An idea which may well change civilization begins with one man. In the British Empire it was William Wilberforce who was responsible for the freeing of the slaves. The idea of that liberation came to him when he read an exposure of the slave trade by Thomas Clarkson. He was a close friend of Pitt, then Prime Minister, and one day he was sitting with him and George Grenville in Pitt’s garden at Holwood. It was a scene of beauty, with the Vale of Keston opening out before them, but the thoughts of Wilberforce were not on that but on the blots of the world. Suddenly Pitt turned to him: “Wilberforce,” he said, “why don’t you give a notice of a motion on the slave-trade?” An idea was sown in the mind of one man, and that idea changed life for hundreds of thousands of people. An idea must find a man willing to be possessed by it; but when it finds such a man an unstoppable tide begins to flow.

(ii) A witness must begin with one man. Cecil Northcott tells in one of his books that a group of young people from many nations were discussing how the Christian gospel might be spread. They talked of propaganda, of literature, of all the ways of disseminating the gospel in the twentieth century. Then the girl from Africa spoke. “When we want to take Christianity to one of our villages,” she said, “we don’t send them books. We take a Christian family and send them to live in the village and they make the village Christian by living there.” In a group or society, or school or factory, or shop or office, again and again it is the witness of one individual which brings in Christianity. The one man or woman set on fire for Christ is the person who kindles others.

(iii) A reformation begins with one person. One of the great stories of the Christian Church is the story of Telemachus. He was a hermit of the desert, but something told him–the call of God–that he must go to Rome. He went. Rome was nominally Christian, but even in Christian Rome the gladiatorial games went on, in which men fought with each other, and crowds roared with the lust for blood. Telemachus found his way to the games. Eighty thousand people were there to spectate. He was horrified. Were these men slaughtering each other not also children of God? He leaped from his seat, right into the arena, and stood between the gladiators. He was tossed aside. He came back. The crowd were angry; they began to stone him. Still he struggled back between the gladiators. The prefect’s command rang out; a sword flashed in the sunlight, and Telemachus was dead. Suddenly there was a hush; suddenly the crowd realized what had happened; a holy man lay dead. Something happened that day to Rome, for there were never again any gladiatorial games. By his death one man had let loose something that cleansed an empire. Someone must begin a reformation; he need not begin it in a nation; he may begin it in his home or where he works. If he begins it no man knows where it will end.

(iv) But this was one of the most personal parables Jesus ever spoke. Sometimes his disciples must have despaired. Their little band was so small and the world was so wide. How could they ever win and change it. Yet with Jesus an invincible force entered the world. Hugh Martin quotes H. G. Wets as saying, “His is easily the dominant figure in history…. A historian without any theological bias whatever should find that he simply cannot portray the progress of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth.” In this parable Jesus is saying to his disciples, and to his followers today, that there must be no discouragement, that they must serve and witness each in his place, that each one must be the small beginning from which the Kingdom grows until the kingdoms of the earth finally become the Kingdom of God

“Though few and small and weak your bands,

Strong in your Captain’s strength,

Go to the conquest of all lands;

All must be His at length.”

William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible