Building a Kingdom
Matthew 31-33, 17:20
I love the newspaper comics. I have several taped to the door of my office. Occasionally I catch students looking at them. I hope they get as much pleasure—and instruction—from them as I do.
One of my favorites shows a little boy digging a hole, planting a very small sapling, and watering it. When his father asks him what he is doing, he replies, “Building a tire swing.”
We laugh at his childhood innocence and naiveté, but he does have a point—and that’s where the instruction comes in. Every tire swing has to start somewhere, and it begins with a tree limb. Every tree has to start somewhere, and it begins with someone planting a sapling. The father may not be around when the tree is big enough to swing from, and the boy may have passed his swinging years, but eventually, given enough time, water and sunlight, the tree will be big enough to give some child of the future the pleasure of a tire swing.
Jesus wanted to explain the kingdom of heaven to his followers. So many people came to hear his words that he had to sit in a boat while the crowd stood on the shore. There they were, surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation—mostly simple working folk, and he taught them in words they could understand. He talked about planting seeds, not just in one parable, but in several. Over and over he hammered home the point that the kingdom was not something that comes quickly, but something that grows over time. He knew that those who heard him—even those closest to him—wanted immediate change. They were looking for someone who could make things happen now, someone who could bring about instant revolution. He also knew it wasn’t going to happen that way.
“The kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow and encountered different types of soil,” he said. Also, “The kingdom is like a farmer who sowed good seed, but his enemy came at night and sowed weeds.” And then, “The kingdom is like a mustard seed. Give it time and care and it will grow into a tree.”
Waiting for seed to sprout is as frustrating as waiting for a tree to grow. Many of us have had the experience of watching impatient children wait for seeds planted in a Styrofoam cup to bloom. Not just once a day but every hour—and even more frequently—they check for progress. How disappointed they are when nothing seems to be happening. How joyful when the first green appears, and finally, after much waiting, a plant, and then a flower.
Waiting for the kingdom takes faith, but it also takes action. We know we have to cultivate it, as surely as the boy in the cartoon had to water that sapling. Nothing of value grows by leaving it to chance. It takes a lot of care for seeds and saplings to become plants and trees. We may not be around to see the results, but we know we must remain faithful. What we do will help bring in the kingdom. We can’t just sit and wait, we have to get up and do.
Jesus addressed this, too, further along in Matthew’s gospel. He did it by returning to the mustard seed. “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed,” he tells us, “You can move mountains.” Surely not! Surely we can’t stare a mountain down and make it change its location by even a fraction of an inch.
But maybe that’s not what Jesus had in mind. James, in his letter, tells us that “faith without works is dead” (2:17). It isn’t enough just to sit around waiting and hoping for the kingdom. We have to build the kingdom step by faithful step. We have to plant the tree and care for it if we want that tire swing some day.