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The Parable of the Mustard Seed

by Brant Pitre August 14, 2020 0 Comments

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Alright, let’s keep going. The next parable is probably the most famous parable of all — maybe after the sower — and that's the parable of the mustard seed. In verses 31-32 we read these words:

Another parable he put before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Pause there for just a minute. So what is going on in this parable? Well this parable is a really surprising one right from the beginning. So the first twist is the very first line, “a man took a grain of mustard seed and sowed it in his field.” Now if you do a little study about mustard seeds and mustard trees, especially if you look at some of the commentaries that scholars have written on that today, what you will find out is that a mustard tree is basically a weed. It is not a desirable plant. Nobody makes a field full of mustard trees to harvest them. If you want a kind of visual equivalent, if you have ever seen a tumbleweed in the American West or in Texas, that is what a mustard tree looks like. It's ugly. It's invasive. If you get mustard seeds into your field or into your yard, they are going to grow and you are never going to be able to stamp them out. So the first surprise in this particular parable is why would anybody ever sow a mustard seed in his field? And why would Jesus compare that to the kingdom of God? But it keeps going because he says that the mustard seed is the “smallest of seeds”, and that is true. Proverbially in Judaism in the first century A.D., if you wanted to say something was really small you would say it is like a mustard seed. It was kind of a proverbial image for something that's really, really tiny.

So he says it's the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows it's the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree. Well...yes and no. It does grow into a kind of a big shrub, but to call it a tree is a bit of a stretch. At its biggest, a mustard tree gets about 10 feet tall. So it is hardly the kind of thing that you would expect the birds of the air to come and make nests in their branches, or something like that. What is Jesus talking about here? Well if you look, he is actually drawing on an image from the Old Testament and kind of twisting it. If you go back, for example, to the prophecies of Ezekiel 17 or 31, or to Daniel 4, it was frequently the case that in the Old Testament, if you wanted to describe a glorious kingdom, you would compare it to a tree, because trees are very majestic. So you might say something like “this kingdom was like a cedar of Lebanon.” The cedars of Lebanon were these enormous trees. They were glorious, they were gorgeous. They would cut them down and they would make all kinds of products from the wood of the cedars of Lebanon. The Temple was built from the cedars of Lebanon, these great majestic trees. So Ezekiel is describing the coming of the kingdom of God in Ezekiel 17, and he said it is going to be like a “glorious cedar of Lebanon.” So Jesus here is talking about the kingdom, and his audience, if they knew the Old Testament, they might be expecting him to say that “the kingdom of heaven is like a cedar of Lebanon” or it is “like a a great oak tree.” But instead, what does he say? It is like a weed, it is like a like a mustard bush. And you can imagine them scratching their heads, like “what is this guy talking about? The kingdom of heaven is like a weed, it's like a mustard tree? This doesn't make any sense.” So he says “the birds of the air come and they make nests in its branches.” Well it might make a nest in a small tree like that, but usually you would think that the birds would make their nest in these more glorious, these more majestic trees, these giant trees, like an oak or a cedar or something like that.

Okay, so what's the message of this parable? Well the meaning is really clear if you focus on the twists. The point is this, the kingdom starts out small and it ends great, but it doesn't look like what you are going to expect it to look like. It's kind of ugly. It's kind of like a field with weeds and wheat in it. It doesn't look like the kind of thing you think God would do when he brings his kingdom. So it starts small, but it ends great. It doesn't look like you expect it to. But also notice that the mustard tree, and the mustard seed as well, it's invasive. In other words, once it gets in, it keeps growing and it spreads and it grows and it spreads. And this would make you think of the Old Testament image in Daniel 2 of the kingdom of God. Because in Daniel 2, Daniel saw this vision of the kingdom that starts out as a little bitty stone, but then it grows into a great mountain that fills the whole earth. This is a very, very similar kind of riddle because mountains might turn into little stones over time as they break down over time, but little stones don't become mountains. So it's the same kind of imagery here, Jesus is using the language of the prophets to show the disciples that the kingdom is a mysterious reality. You have to go beyond the visible, which doesn't look like what you expect it to look like, say 12 guys from Galilee, a couple fishermen and tax collectors. On the outside it might not look like much, but if you let it get rooted, it's going to grow and it's going to spread and it’s going to become a great tree so that the birds of the air will want to come and make their nest in its branches.

What does that refer to? Well if you go back again to the Old Testament, Ezekiel 17 and other books of the Old Testament, the images of birds and bees will frequently be used as a symbol for the Gentile nations. So if this kingdom is going to be something that the birds of the air come to make nests in, that's a symbol of the fact that one day not just Israel, the tree — the tree was used for Israel in the Old Testament in Isaiah, Ezekiel and other places — but also the Gentiles, the birds of the air, the beasts, they are going to come and make their home in its branches. So it is going to be a universal kingdom that consists of both Israel and the Gentiles. And sure enough that's what happens. The kingdom starts small, very small, with a rabbi and 12 guys from Galilee, and then it spreads and spreads and spreads throughout the whole earth. And now think about just the Catholic Church alone, how many people are there today? 1 billion Catholics, and that is just right now, that is not all the Christians throughout the entire history of the Church for the last 2000 years. So this this little seed that begins with Jesus and his disciples, and it is going to become this great tree that spreads throughout the earth.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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