"God's Astonishing Economy"
Mark 12: 41-44
Matthew 13: 31-32
demanded a sign from Jesus to validate the source and legitimacy of His power. He’s not resting
long before, as Matthew records, “Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat
and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.” We envision the pulpit a fishing vessel,
its sails at rest; the pews, large and small rocks dotting the shoreline. And Jesus begins to teach
about the nature of the Kingdom of God with a series of short stories; the first of which are three
seed stories. The last and shortest of these is the familiar parable of the mustard seed. Let’s join
Jesus at the shore by turning our attention to the 13th chapter of Matthew, verses 31 and 32.
(Read Matthew 13:31-32)
A sales manager from a car dealership was named his community’s “Business Person of the
Year.” From all outward indications, he was coming off a banner year for sure – a new lakefront
home; a fully-loaded twelve passenger pontoon boat; an extended vacation in Europe. His rise in
wealth and success had been so meteoric that the local commerce group unanimously chose him to
receive the coveted award.
Later that year, a banquet was held to recognize the man’s achievements. He rose to accept the
award and proceeded to give a speech on the keys to his success. Business people in the audience
sat eagerly, pens in hands, waiting to take notes on the insights of this rising star. The salesman began: “There are five simple keys to my success. First, I treat others the way I’d want to be treated.
Second, I always sell product at a fair price. Third, I’m honest in my dealings. Fourth, I take care of
my employees and try to keep them happy. Fifth, my aunt from Cleveland died and left me three
It’s no late-breaking news that the big and the flashy always capture our attention. We assume
that the wealthy and the powerful of this world have some secret key to life we need to get our
hands on if we ourselves are going to unlock the door which leads to the good life. As we flip the
channels from 2 to 200, we notice how many of those channels feature well-groomed salespersons
trying to convince us that he or she has the magic key which will open wide the doors of prosperity,
success, and happiness. A series of inspirational DVD’s or podcasts promises to change our attitudes
and our life. A secret nutritional supplement or ground-breaking diet will melt away fat from waist
lines in just a few months. A new financial strategy will not only insure a worry-free retirement from a money standpoint, but will insure the availability of liquid assets anytime we need them. A
spirituality of worldly prosperity guarantees – based on the word of God – that an investment into
the right evangelistic ministry will parlay into unimagined personal wealth. The presenters of these
“keys” wear their mantles of success: double-breasted Armani suits; colorful yachting garb; skin-
tight but not sweat-soaked exercise outfits; their backdrops from House Beautiful, or a sun drenched Hawaiian beach, or a view of the New York City skyline, or a gold-gilded studio church. It
is the flashy and dazzling image – the polish of worldly success – which convinces people to invest
massive sums of money to get a hand on that secret and coveted key.
According to Jesus’ parable, the work of God – the key to growth and success in the Kingdom of
God – is likened to a mustard seed; tiny enough to lose under a fingernail, easily overlooked; seemingly insignificant; sown without much fanfare, or even without a great deal of expectation. After all, what could come out of such a miniscule seed? It’s difficult for us to think in these terms in a culture which consistently broadcasts the message that bigger is better; flashy is fabulous. It’s a
challenge to believe that the sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing God of the universe works most
powerfully through the small and seemingly insignificant.
Being sufficient in God’s self, God doesn’t need our massive sums of money; our sharply-honed
theological minds; our political might. But surely, isn’t it easier for God to get holy work accomplished when there’s some clout to back it up? So we work hard to grow mega churches and multi-site church campuses; to have our religious answers on the tips of our tongues to debate anyone who doubts; to have influence in the political arena; to be accepted and endorsed by our culture. We often assume that the big, and the flashy, and the substantial are the attention-getters God needs to be successful in the work of God’s Kingdom. To witness the work of Trinity Broadcasting Corporation, or Joel Osteen Ministries, or other grandiose religious organizations of this ilk, we would assume that the big, and the flashy, and the substantial are the attention-getters the Church of Jesus Christ needs to be about the work of helping build God’s Kingdom.
But Jesus teaches that God’s economy – investment, growth, success, prosperity – stands in
stark contrast to the world’s economy. God takes the smallest of things, and in God’s good timing,
brings them to growth and fruition. By and large, there is nothing flashy in the way God brings the
Kingdom to bear. God gets our attention, not by way of the gilded and grandiose, but by way of
the simple and understated. Humility, meekness, childlikeness – these are at the root, the very
basis, of the Kingdom of God. Patience and forbearance provide the nutrition the fledgling plant of
the Kingdom needs to grow. The stages of development may be slow, even plodding from the
world’s perspective. There is the seed – small enough to be easily overlooked. There is the shrub –
keeping a generally low profile.
Then comes the day, after patient waiting, after caring and nurturing attendance, after many
seasons of rain, snow, sunshine, drought, the shrub becomes great; no longer hugging the ground,
but lifting its branches upward and outward into the sky. “…so that the birds of the air come and
make nests in its branches.” This may have been Jesus’ way of saying that all would find places of
rest and inclusion in the fullness of the Kingdom; Jews and Gentiles alike. But the larger point Jesus
is making is that from the miniscule, humble, unassuming beginning, there would be enormous out-
growth. A man sows seed in his field, whatever that happens to be; even “the smallest of all
seeds.” In the cycle of seasons God initiates and sustains, God brings the growth. And fullness of
the Kingdom comes, likened unto the greatest of shrubs which becomes a tree. This is investment,
growth, success, productivity. This is God’s astonishing economy!
There’s a lesson in the mustard seed which speaks to Christian stewardship; to the ways we use,
to the glory of God and for the benefit of others, the “seed” which is placed in our hands; the seed
we are called to sow in response to the One who gives. How often do we think that what we bring
will be of little significance in the bigger picture? Sometimes we see our gifts as not being that
important; the seeds we sow too small to make any real impact. We look about us at the big, the
flashy, the grandiose, and sometimes think to ourselves: “How can I make a difference; the seed I
hold small enough to get lost under a fingernail?” Well, the word here is that if we are sowing into
the work of God’s Kingdom, in faithful response to God’s provision to us – however small or large
that seed may be – God will bring great things out of it. God will give the growth; the success; the
productivity. And toward that end, God invests in us that we would in turn invest in the Kingdom. That’s the stuff of Christian stewardship. That’s the stuff of God’s astonishing economy.
What does this look like in real time? I’ll use my wife as a first example. In the mid-90’s, Vale
had on her heart to begin a quilting circle at Carrollton 1st Presbyterian as a way to help support the
mission of the church. So she stepped out and sowed a tiny seed. “Ladies, (or men), if you’re
interested in a time of fellowship and service through needle work, join us.” A couple of modest signs hung around the church. A few announcements in the Sunday bulletin and monthly newsletter. For almost a year, I watched in wonder as Vale would go to the church at the scheduled time and sit alone quilting and listening to Christian music, anticipating the arrival of her first quilting partner. And the better part of a year passed before the first one showed up. That mustard seed had finally sprouted the first tiny tendril. As I remember, months more passed before the second quilter came. But in what we know to have been God’s time, the seed became a tiny plant; a low-lying shrub. By the time we left Carrollton six years later, there was an established group with over a dozen members – young and old; men and women, even reaching into the larger community and welcoming those outside the church into the church’s mission. And all I could do was sit back and reflect on how I thought it would never happen. I credit Vale with having a better understanding than me of God’s astonishing economy.
And what of a group of members from a tiny church, all of whom felt they didn’t have enough
quality to bring to the choir. They came together against the odds of the mustard seed, rehearsing week-after-week, month-after-month; practicing at home on their own or in groups. Then on that first Sunday they dared step into the chancel, from them came forth some of the sweetest
sounds ever heard in that church. Or what of Mary Ann, who shied away from teaching Sunday
School because she feared she didn’t have enough ability, or a significant enough contribution to
make? She stepped out against the odds of the mustard seed and said, “Yes.” These days, Mary Ann
has children who refuse to be graduated to the next class level because they want to remain her
students. Or what of that family which brought what little they had to contribute toward a new
organ for the church? Against the odds of the mustard seed, they sowed. Today, their gift combined with many others – that church’s new organ speaks loudly and clearly to the glory of God.
Or what of that poor widow who slipped in among the wealthy, the flashy, the grandiose, and
quietly dropped in the kettle her two copper coins which make a penny? She dared approach
God’s treasury against the odds of the mustard seed. And of her, Jesus exclaimed, “…this poor
widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” That’s God
As stewards of God’s gifts – however large or small those gifts may be – let us never sell ourselves
short on the worth, value or potential of what we can sow. We are not called to come with flash
and might; dazzle and fanfare. We bring what we are given, and we bring it in faith. And what may
appear small and insignificant by the world’s standards is multiplied in the work of the Kingdom of
heaven to accomplish great things. That’s the secret. That’s the key. That’s God’s astonishing
economy. It’s as simple as a mustard seed.