Parable of the Mustard Seed (The One About the Yellow Condiment)

Here is my message from last Sunday.

Mark 4:30-32
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

Who knows if I’ll be able to make an entire message out of two verses. I don’t know if I’m that good yet, but we’ll see where it goes. This parable finds itself in three of the gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke. It also can be found in other writings such as the Gospel of Thomas. All the versions are pretty similar. Similar enough that I would say they don’t really deserve to long of a debate to decide if each author was trying to say something different or just giving their altered version in their own style, at least not a debate here. So we will work out of Mark, for no other reason but because I like Mark. There are some textual differences between each version, such as how they start the parable, if the mustard seed grows into a tree, a shrub or a plant with great branches. The other is where the seed is planted, some say a garden and others say a field which I will get to.

A few weeks ago we talked about the parable of the growing seed. In this parable there is a man who scatters seed all over the ground and then while he sleeps or if he gets up, the seeds sprout and grow, though he does not know how. Just before the parable of the growing seed, we have the parables of hiding a light under a lamp and all Jesus’ talk about things being hidden and being revealed at the right time. The Mark jumps right into the parable of the mustard seed. His theme and message is very similar. However some scholars believe that this parable and the next one, the one with the leaven were uttered because he was trying to into better perspective the end time’s theology of everyone there.

Which could be why he starts the parable as a question, maybe Jesus is just wondering out loud here? Some scholars admit that we could obviously take the parable starting with a question as just a throat-clearing introduction. But they do suggest another way to look at it. Could this be Jesus’ way of moving away from the end times problems with evil? Basically he starts to raise all these issues, issues we have raised here on a Sunday morning. Ok, so the kingdom rises up all by itself, unbeknownst to me. My goodness is all just part of the plan, I get it. But what about evil? Are we supposed to just let evil rise up and do damage? Shouldn’t we protect ourselves and the kingdom? He acknowledges evil and he gets our juices flowing hoping for judgement. Now we are all expecting some sort of answer to it. Tell us what you are going to do to the evil ones, tell us what is going to happen on judgment day. Rather, he responds with these parables of the mustard seed and then in some gospels the yeast and leaven. He brings up the problem of evil, and then skirts it, he wants to just wait a little bit longer, and he’s not ready to deal with it.

Then he says the kingdom is like a mustard seed that is planted in the ground. The idea of the mustard seed is a very old one. Even though it’s not the smallest seed in existence, it is symbolic for smallness. Jesus uses it in other places in forming the idea of smallness and it can be found as that kind of reference throughout older Jewish writings. So it’s important to note that when speaking of a mustard seed we are talking about something that is very small and that is what it signifies. It is also important to note that it is the Kingdom being sown in this parable. The kingdom is not a result of someone else sowing, but it is the very act of sowing.

The last important point of this sentence is to see where the seed was sown. See Mark sows the seed into the earth, Luke has it sowed into a garden and Matthew has it sowed into a field. In this point, it is important to note that if in fact this parable is about sowing a mustard seed into a garden, then we are saying something completely different than just planting a seed. If this is the case, this means that the farmer has violated the law of diverse kinds. In Leviticus, it says that they shall not sow their fields with two kinds of seed. This law was basically set to maintain order in creation. Typically law abiders were to grow mustard seeds at the edges of their field because they would look too much like grain and not be different enough next to the grain. Mustard also tends to run wild and would start to move into other plants and confuse what should be distinct.

“Under controlled conditions mustard seed can be planted in a field, because the space is large enough to make distinctions. But it cannot be sown in a garden, because the small space would result in mingling. Because of the potential for uncleanliness in planting a mustard seed, a hearer would be sensitive to where and how the mustard seed was planted….The seed’s planting and its growth create a conflict for a hearer. Is this growth a divine blessing or a violation? Is it clean or unclean? How is one to decide?”
– Bernard Scott

What could this mean for its hearers? The farmer is sowing this seed could in fact be breaking all sorts of laws about how to grow mustard seed. What does this say about the kingdom?

We then move on to what this mustard seed turns into. This is another point of contention between the gospels. See in Mark, which we are reading the seed grows into the greatest of all plants. We sort of know that already, we know that it spreads and takes over all sorts of other plants in the garden, which is why it is supposed to be separate. However in Matthew and Luke the seed turns into a tree. Now if you know anything about seeds and plants, you know that there is no such thing as a mustard tree. Darryl originally pointed this out to me and then I started finding it in other books and I find it interesting because while sure there is the possibility of them just trying to show off the contrast between the seed and a massive plant, there is also the possibility that the authors are trying to do something a bit different here. Could these authors be saying that the kingdom is like a mustard seed that miraculously and mysteriously grows into a plant that no one ever expected or has seen before? Could it be that this ‘mustard tree’ was purely intentional in placing there to not just show contrast but add to the weirdness and mysteriousness of the story?

The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet, like the leaven, which leavens all, the birds find shelter in the shrub’s shade. Many have preferred the mustard tree, this unnatural malformity of mythical botany, to the recognition that God’s mighty words are among the unclean and the insignificant.”
– Bernard Scott

You’ll notice that in the parable of the mustard seed, there is no sorting of the bad from the good. The evil isn’t punished. In fact, if you remember previous parables, birds of the air were usually the enemy that came and ate up all the seeds that were sown, and now the kingdom is a plant that provides a haven for them. This is why some scholars believe that the parable of the mustard seed is Jesus wrestling through the ideas of judgment and end times, and sometimes skipping over it completely because Jesus never thought the judgment or the separation was the point, so in this parable not only does he ignore it he makes room for enemy to be protected and a place to find food.

However, the key of this passage is two key words that come up throughout it. The word “smallest” and the word “largest.” Almost every author I read on this parable agrees that the main thrust of this parable is not about the specifics of the mustard seed, not about where it was sown but the mustard seed was chosen because of its small size. You see parables address questions, so it’s important to dig a little to see what question exactly the parable is trying to answer. Most agree that this parable is addresses the question about the unimpressive and unexpected nature of the kingdom that Jesus claimed was already present.

The point of this parable is that what one sees with Jesus will lead to what one hopes for in the kingdom. Could what was happening with Jesus and his disciples really be the establishment of God’s kingdom? Was not the kingdom supposed to be a mighty display of God’s defeat of evil and the removal of nations afflicting Israel? This didn’t make sense in any sense of any kingdom that has ever been known before. A guy comes to earth, tells people to be quiet about his presence, starts doing less and less miracles, tells people to put away their swords and then he goes and he dies. What kind of kingdom was this? This kingdom never defeated Rome (which is what the Jews were expecting) rather people barely knew it happened. It happened along side a few unknown criminals. Sure the miracles of Jesus were nice, but where the heck is this kingdom that they’ve been waiting for all their life?

To me, this parable is about smallness and not discrediting it and an encouragement to the hearers that they didn’t have to wait anymore, because the kingdom had already come, thought it may be as small as a mustard seed, soon it will grow to be larger than anyone could ever imagine a mustard seed could grow into.

“The Mustard Seed similitude urges, possibly warns, that no one should be put off by what appears unimpressive. Like the tiny mustard seed which grows to a large plant, so the kingdom is present, even if hidden, unnoticed, or ignored, and its full revelation with its benefits will come…The kingdom, which has already begun with Jesus, does not come with a glorious bang and the defeat of Rome; rather , it comes unexpectedly, almost unnoticed…Jews, disciples of Jesus or otherwise, did not need to be told the kingdom was coming. What they needed to know what that the future kingdom was already present in Jesus’ teaching and work. God’s longed for kingdom has begun, it has started and will come to fulfillment. ”
– Klyne Snodgrass

There is an entire new movement beginning under the description of small is the new big. We send out an article this week in the e-mail update by the guy that coined the phrase and why small is becoming the new big. Basically what he is saying is that for the last little while, it was all about big. Big worked, it meant more could be made by numbers and that the more you had the more you could make. Big organizations just worked better than small ones. But then big companies started getting audited by other big companies and then they started failing big. Big became a target, just look at t he world trade centers, or TV advertising or look at big airline corporations get taken down by the little guys. Big computers are now silly, big boom boxes are now replaced by the Ipod shuffle. Organizations that are small can accomplish more because the big policies aren’t there to jump through. Little companies often make more than big companies. Look at Craigslist website who has 18 employees which does just as well if not better than Ebay who has 4000 employees, and they certainly are growing as fast. Look at small churches, small churches work because when you are sick the pastor knows your name and people in your community actually know you. Small is the new big.

I went to Africa thinking that I wanted to participate in something big, something that I would actually leave a mark. I came back thinking the only way I could help was to wash dishes and not be a burden in breaking my back in front of the old ladies. Everything I want is big. I want to run big conferences, I want to have a big audience on my blog, I want lots of people to admire me, I want to preach to big crowds of people, I want to make lots of money in large sums, I want to make a big impact to everyone I talk to. I have completely lost any concept of what it means to be small and to realize that the kingdom only grows out of smallness. In fact, I don’t like small at all. Small seems insignificant and pointless. Why would I spend all my time and energy on something that is only going to affect or help one person? Why would I do the small task of bringing groceries to my neighbor, after all the Inn of the Good Shepherd is huge and they take on the task all by themselves.

I just got back from the LA dream center where they are a massive church running a massive ministry. I’ve been to Willow Creek which has close to fifteen thousand people in attendance on a Sunday morning. While what they are doing, what they are talking about is beautiful; I can’t help but wonder if their bigness really in fact gets in the way of the kingdom?

If in fact the kingdom is sowed as a small mustard seed, what does that say about our pursuits of bigger, better and more? Are they misguided?

I bought Rachel this painting from a girl we met at Artwalk for her birthday. There is this sense that I have that Mother Teresa has insights into the Kingdom of God that we don’t understand here in the West and are in some cases very offensive. She spent her lives being small, insignificant and ineffective in almost every sense of the terms. She spent her entire life with those that have been cast aside in the poorest areas on earth. She spent her entire life being with people that our world doesn’t care about. Yet she rocked our world with her generosity and love. She won a Nobel Peace Prize and has been admired all over the world. She is the one that said

“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”
Mother Teresa

I wonder if this is partly the message of the Mustard Seed. Our pursuit and desire for big things, for the kingdom to kick evil’s ass and finally set things straight isn’t really pure. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. In fact, once you put this seed in the ground it basically disappears amongst the soil. If I planted a mustard seed in the ground and pointed to the general area of where I planted it, good luck finding it. The kingdom is like this small, unnoticeable thing that is just there, we know its there, but we can’t see it. One day it grows up to be a monstrous plant from that tiny little seed. It doesn’t say we grow up to be monstrous ,it doesn’t say that we have to do any work or force it to become big, it just does it, all by itself. That is the kingdom, a kingdom that takes pride in and depends on being small. Let’s pray this together.

Remind us of our smallness
Remind us that you are still working, even when we can’t see
Remind us that the kingdom exists all around us
Remind us that hope is found buried and covered in dirt

Transform our desires away from the big and loud
Point them to the small and insignificant
Remove our pride to become known and important
Point them to being unknown and servants

We trust and hope that your kingdom will reign
But not through our sinful pursuits or shortcuts
We trust that you will grow your own kingdom
And we will wait patiently and live in it

2 thoughts on “Parable of the Mustard Seed (The One About the Yellow Condiment)”

  1. really interesting study on this piece. am doing a sermon on same myself and in the research stumbled across this. was really blessed as i feel that similar points are addressed in this. what the kingdom of God looks like is nothing like what the Jews thought, nothing like what we think.. it’s challenging.

  2. i can’t get the concept of the weedy mustard seed, and the unclean seeming leven out of my head.. it’s so weird that this passage is always taught like the mustard tree is a real big oak looking thing and if we just beleive enough… it’s so not what Jesus was saying.. God bless. I hope you dont’ mind but I think I might borrow that Bernard Scott quote – it’s quite wonderful! Blessings in Him, Lisa

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