My brother runs a ministry in the inner city, investing in the lives of kids who have no fathers, very little money and even less hope. He organizes Bible studies and games in apartment complexes and puts volunteers to work hanging out with the kids.
One of these volunteers, a woman named Suzanne, is the wife of the superintendent of our city’s largest public school district. In terms of social influence and name recognition, she carries significant clout. One summer day — Suzanne’s first helping out at a run-down cluster of apartments — my brother sat a bunch of kids down for a story in the lone grassy area of the complex. They soon discovered a problem. Apparently, this grassy spot was also the restroom for the neighborhood’s dog population. You can imagine the smell. But it was hot outside, and the apartments weren’t air-conditioned, so there were no better options.
A week later, my brother arrived at the apartments for another afternoon with the kids. Suzanne was there already, with a shovel in one hand and a paper bag in the other. The dog droppings? Gone. The grass was clean. It wasn’t her neighborhood. It wasn’t her home. Those weren’t her dogs. But she was, in her words, doing something that “needed to be done.” Nothing more than a simple, moderately disgusting act of service. To this day, my brother will say her weekly dung extraction helped out as much as anything else she’s done for his ministry.
Why do I tell you this story? Because in our world’s eyes, Suzanne was (and is) important. Married to an influential leader. Known throughout the city. And yet her best ministry to those kids may have been a very tiny one — something that probably wouldn’t even have crossed our minds.Or which, if it had crossed our minds, we probably would have ignored. Because it involves feces.
Why not? If you’re anything like me, this is why not: Because we’re too often consumed with doing “something big” for God. Something earth-changing. Something important.
But not something small.
What the Kingdom Is Like
And yet, in the gospels, Jesus deliberately equates the kingdom of God with small and unimpressive things. By way of His parables, He compares the kingdom to a mustard seed and a pinch of yeast. He says it’s like a lost coin, a missing sheep, a wayward son.
Let’s take a closer look at His imagery. In Matthew 13, Jesus says the kingdom starts off small only to expand into something much bigger. A mustard seed grows into “the largest of garden plants,” with branches large enough for birds to nest among them.Matthew 13:32. Don’t overlook the evocative imagery here: The mustard seed grows so large it’s able to shade, protect and sustain life. A tiny batch of yeast is enough to leaven a huge quantity of flour.Matthew 13:33. The original Greek word used here is satas, which the NIV describes as “a large amount” and other versions translate as “three measures.” The equivalent of three satas is about 50 pounds of flour. I’m no foodie, but I’m pretty sure that much flour is no ordinary household baking situation. Jesus is talking about something BIG.
Jesus makes a slightly different point in Luke 15, where He associates the kingdom with things that appear insignificant to most of the world — a sheep, a single coin, a dishonorable son — but which are held in great esteem by someone else:
- A shepherd abandons 99 sheep in the wilderness in order to find one that’s gone missing, then throws a veritable block party when he finds it.Luke 15:1-7.
- A woman drops everything to find a lost coin. Then, when it turns up, she hosts a party.Luke 15:8-10.
- And in what is perhaps the most famous parable in the Bible, a heartsick father sprints down the road to welcome his lost son, who has squandered the family’s money and made some seriously bad lifestyle decisions. He embraces the prodigal son and throws (yep) a big party.Luke 15:11-32.
In God’s kingdom, things that appear to be small and unimpressive are treasured by the One who matters most. Their loss is catastrophic. But their recovery is cause for celebration.
It’s a theme throughout the Bible. We meet Moses as a helpless baby floating down the Nile in a basket, years before God chooses him to lead his people out of Egypt. David, the youngest of his brothers, defends his people by taking down a giant with a teeny little rock. Esther, an adopted orphan, saves her nation from genocide. God himself enters His creation as an infant, born in a barn to a teenage peasant and a carpenter.
In the kingdom of God, little things matter. The unimpressive are central. Smallness is huge.
Don’t Be Naaman
In light of the Gospel’s emphasis on smallness, we need to ask a significant question: Why, in the culture of modern Christianity, are we so focused on big things? Megachurches have profound influence because they’re, well, so “mega.” Best-selling authors dominate religious book stores. Our most prominent musicians are not the deepest or most visionary, but those who sell the most records and play to the biggest crowds.
The bigger-is-better approach to life is as American as it is anything else, so maybe the institutional church shouldn’t be blamed for turning Christianity into a super-sized religion. You can’t really control that, and neither can I. But what we can control is whether or not we take that approach as individuals.
One of my favorite Old Testament stories is the story of Naaman, from 2 Kings.Specifically, 2 Kings 5:1-19. Open your Bible to the middle, then head left. Naaman is a serious power player, the commander of the army of the king of Syria, and “a great and honorable man” in the king’s eyes.2 Kings 5:1. But he gets leprosy. And back then, having leprosy means becoming a social outcast — an untouchable — so it’s a very bad thing for an important guy like Naaman.
Naaman hears from a servant girl that the prophet Elisha can heal his leprosy. So the commander travels to Elisha’s home, parking his horses and chariots at the door. (That’s sort of like pulling up to your doctor’s office in a tank. Or an F-16. It’s total overkill, pretty much for the purpose of announcing how awesome you are.) Despite Naaman’s grand arrival, Elisha is unimpressed. He doesn’t even speak to Naaman directly. He sends out a servant, who tells Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Do that, he says, and your leprosy will be gone.
Naaman is furious. He thinks he deserves 1) instructions from the great prophet Elisha himself, not a secondhand message from some measly servant; and 2) a more impressive cure. Wash in the Jordan? Compared to the rivers back home, Naaman says, the Jordan is a dirty, insignificant little trickle. He’s not going to stoop to that to fix his leprosy. He wants Elisha to do something. Put on a big healing show, with fireworks and spectacle and a soaring soundtrack.
To his credit, though (and thanks to the advice of his own servants), Naaman ends up following Elisha’s orders. And — surprise! — he gets healed. But he almost misses out on the healing because he had his sights set on something bigger. He nearly missed God’s plan for him, because the opportunity placed before him was too small.
Just about every Christian young adult — especially those headed for the ministry — dreams of doing something big with his or her life.For instance, I used to want to be a famous, influential, wealthy writer. Instead, I’m just … a writer. Sigh. We want to change the world. We want to do something powerful for God. This sort of optimistic goal-setting is OK, as long as you don’t miss out on the small things God plans for you along the way.
Maybe that means, as it did for Suzanne, scooping up dog droppings so some inner-city kids can have a Bible study. Maybe it means volunteering in the nursery at your church, providing a lap for a toddler to sit in. Maybe it means spending time at a nursing home, where you can be a listening ear for a lonely resident who longs for conversation. Maybe it means doing the dishes at your next family gathering, just so your mom or grandmother can sit and relax post-meal.
These might be seemingly insignificant actions that, like yeast or a mustard seed, God will expand into something big. Which, to be honest, would be wonderful and fulfilling.
But we also need to remember that small acts of service occasionally remain, well, small. There are no amazing results.
Like a lost coin or a little lamb, they may appear to have little value from our perspective, but they have incredible worth in God’s kingdom. That’s why we persist in doing them regardless of the outcome. That’s the very definition of grace — a free gift, with no expectations attached.
The everyday kingdom of God is built on small moments of servanthood, thoughtfulness and kindness. Let’s not overlook them. Don’t let a sense of your own importance — or a desire for greatness — keep you from experiencing what God has in store for you today.
Copyright 2007 Jason Boyett. All rights reserved.