Week 2 – The Mustard Seed
In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a man planting a tiny mustard seed, which eventually grew into a tree and provided a home for birds to come and make nests. Much has been written about the physics of mustard seeds; are they really the “smallest of all seeds” like Jesus says? Do they actually grow into trees? Could birds nest in them? And on and on. It’s important to note that Jesus is telling a parable here, not describing a plant for a botanical journal. Parables, like any story, tend towards hyperbole to make their point plain. By describing a minuscule seed that grows into a giant tree, Jesus is emphasizing the surprising, inordinate growth of the Kingdom despite its humble origins.
And unlike the Parable of the Leaven, Jesus includes an aspect of shelter in the Parable of the Mustard Seed with the birds of the air building their nests there. The Kingdom has space, and it’s a welcome place to find refuge. Interestingly, if you’re a farmer, you typically don’t want birds anywhere near your plants. If you’ve ever grown berries you know you have to put bird nets over them, otherwise you’ll lose every berry to those winged thieves. When Jesus mentions the birds making nests within the mustard plant, he may have only been referencing the way the Kingdom provides shelter to the harried and oppressed; “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” But he also could’ve been hinting that the Kingdom specifically has room for those you’re inclined to shoo away.
I think it’s worthwhile to mention how the mustard plant that Jesus was talking about, Brassica nigra, grows in Israel. It’s a weed. Even to this day, it’s all over the roadsides there. It grows similarly here in North Carolina; if you have a garden and you were to let mustard go to seed, you’d have little mustard plants popping up everywhere. It’s tenacious, and Jesus’ agrarian audience would’ve been known this, further emphasizing the inordinate impact of the Kingdom and its humble, even seedy, beginnings.
This parable, unlike some of the others in the set, gives a more external view on Christianity. It started out as an amateur social movement, eventually dissolving after the embarrassing death of its visionary leader. But then, remarkably, it began to spread, and then it accelerated, pushing past geographic borders and across continents, providing a home for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the unwanted. If ever someone thought the Kingdom was contemptible, a place for the inferior of the world who need the crutch of religion or a paltry movement of grandstanders, this parable makes sense of that view. Our worldly sensibilities would expect the Kingdom of God to come with austere grandeur, not humility. But to a bird, a mustard plant is a lovely place.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Matthew 13:31-32 for us?