Jared Fogel became a familiar figure on television by revealing his dramatic weight loss through selectively eating Subway sandwiches. The national fast-food chain, however, has a current advertizing campaign, boasting that “Bigger is better. Biggest is Best.” This reference to their fountain drinks might make one wonder whether Subway actually originated in Texas rather than New York City. “Bigger is better. Biggest is Best” does sound like something Texans would say.
Texans love to brag about the fact that their state has a county bigger than Rhode Island, that it takes 900 miles of driving to get from the Rio Grande to the Oklahoma line. Its state song originally contained the phrase “largest and grandest,” but the admission of Alaska to the Union caused a painful identity crisis and forced the legislature to change it to “boldest and grandest.” Still, the phrase “Everything is bigger in Texas” continues as a matter of pride in the state. Of course, it’s not just Texans who are subject to such views. Claims that the United States has the biggest economy and functions as the most powerful nation in the world is a reality for almost all Americans. We are big, and we are proud of it.
Respect for bigness in Texas or at Subway or by anyone certainly has its place. It obviously has its value. Bigness can be good. Bigness can often accomplish what smallness cannot. Bigness can bring a richness of resources, useful diversity, power for the good and economy of scale.
But bigness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, for sure. There is also a bad side of bigness – one that rural folk like to tout. They worry about computerization of everything in life – about Big Brother watching. They worry about regimentation and loss of individuality, depersonalization in a mass society in which one can become lost in the crowd, and the pitfalls of cities – traffic jams, crime, pollution and the like.
And there might be another negative about bigness that can harm us all. It can result in the sin of pride – of thinking that bigness, in and of itself, is so wonderful that it can accomplish anything; and that smallness is necessarily inferior. In this light, smallness seems ineffective, insignificant, powerless, second rate. All of us, including Texans and Subway, need to recognize this truth.
Maybe a way for us to think about the value of size is to imagine if this were the generation that God came in human form back to earth. Where would the modern day Christ be born? In America? In New York or Washington or New Orleans? That seems very unlikely. What about China or Russia or Japan? Surely not. Maybe a medium-sized country such as Mexico or Sweden? No. Not if the presence of God could reveal itself in the same way as in the first century. Probably Christ would come to some place like Bolivia or Rwanda or Thailand.
Look back to where Jesus was born and lived 2,000 years ago. Not in the powerful city of Rome or among the grandeur of Greece or in the Han Dynasty or any other major civilization of the time. Rather, as we know, he came to Galilee – in the province of Judea, a tiny, insignificant fourth-rate country. And yet – from that small place – came the greatness of God. That reality underscores the gospel view that the bigness of the world can easily become an illusion, and that God stands everyone on the side of the “little people” – the downtrodden, the sick, the poor, the lonely, the homeless, prisoners and captives, the victims of oppression.
Smallness is a focus of today’s gospel reading – the Parable of the Mustard Seed. From God’s perspective, things are often not what they appear to be at first. The tiny mustard seed may seem small and insignificant, but within it looms something very valuable, a usual part of creation. Doesn’t this parable help us realize that size can be deceiving? Doesn’t it help us understand that out of a small thing can come something grand and wonderful and powerful? In this parable, Jesus spoke to the truth that smallness has its strengths and advantages and possibilities.
Smallness is a norm to which Jesus returned again and again in his ministry. And we know, too, that smallness is the basis on which the church began. The church operates best when it carries into larger ministries the insights and techniques of smallness. We are at our best when we engage in individual ministries because we have but one ministry as an example – that of Jesus himself. He gathered around him a small band of followers, totaling at best two dozen people. He worked closest with a select band of 12 who gathered with him at the Last Supper and heard his message of servanthood. When the church was forming itself, it first felt empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry the good news of Christ out into the world. It found expression in a small group of 11 who became empowered by the risen Lord in an upper room of fear.
The people Jesus chose to carry on his work were, by the world’s standards, small men – fishermen, unlearned, probably illiterate. One was a despised tax collector. They were simple people, ordinary people. Some of his band of followers were the very rejects of society. By all outward appearances, they were small people. This, of course, is based on the judgment and standards of quantity and wealth and education and worldly power.
But by the standards of quality and stature in God’s eyes, they can be seen as the greatest of people. And we can learn that, in the midst of a worldly culture that idolizes bigness, for the Christian there is a norm that honors smallness – the kind of smallness with which Jesus worked. We can see that no matter how large a congregation may grow in numbers, its success as a part of the Body of Christ depends on its ability to maintain standards illustrated by Jesus. This means maintaining concern for individuals, providing opportunity for ministry for everyone, promoting the feeling of worth in everyone, making sure that all are interconnected, so that, for example, there is somebody to miss you when you are absent. Small-town people and those who live in tight neighborhoods in urban areas understand the value of natural and easy connectedness, of fellowship in the Christian sense. Others in different settings do well to work hard to make this kind of small community connectedness a reality in the midst of a mass culture. Congregations, small or large, can learn to live into the power of such a dynamic.
If, spiritually, we become “too big for our britches” – if bigness and its illusion of power becomes a problem for Christians, individually or as a faith community – the mustard seed image remains instructive. The small size of community does not devalue its potential. From the right kind of “small thinking” can flow the values and mission that Jesus gave to his first followers who have passed it on to us. This parable reminds us that it is not the size that is important but what comes from it. It is not the size of the seed that is important, but what counts – in God’s eyes – is the quality of God’s love that we can spread among each other and into the wider community.