This week let’s consider and ponder the parable of The Mustard seed (Matthew 13:31–32)
In order to understand this scripture, it’s important to put it in its first century context and ask ourselves “How would the first hearers of this comparison understood it?”
Well, for the Israelites (the Jewish people) of Jesus’ time, there was a great disconnect between their identity as God’s chosen people and the reality in which they were living. Over a few centuries, they had gone from the great heyday of national power under Kings Solomon and David to a brutally conquered nation, split and under occupation several times over and they were currently, of course, under Roman occupation during Jesus’ time no doubt a very dark time of confusion and feeling abandoned.
Jesus would have grown up with the language of the “Kingdom of God” which his family and friends, and all of the Jewish people of his day envisioned as a place of triumph and power; a time when God’s goodness and holiness would prevail. And when this kingdom finally came, God’s chosen people would be empowered once again and would launch a new era of universal peace.
An image often used of this kingdom that would some-day-soon come to be (found many times in the Old Testament) is that of the great cedar tree of Lebanon. These enormous trees would be comparable to the great red woods we have in California – towering some 300 feet or more. So they dreamed of God’s kingdom as a time in the future when, God’s chosen people would tower and rule over all nations, just like the image of the great cedar, well-known in Jesus’ time and culture as the greatest of all trees.
In light of this, Jesus’ metaphor of the mustard seed is really very surprising and jarring – it turns the whole “cedars of Lebanon” image on its head because the mustard seed was the smallest and most insignificant of all seeds. The mustard seed wasn’t highly prized at all. In fact, on the contrary, it was considered something of nuisance. You didn’t dare plant it in your garden or it would crowd out all the other plants and literally and take over. In fact (it was so bad) the rabbinical law of the day that identified holiness with order and sin with disorder, had very strict rules about what you could plant in a household garden and a mustard seed was one of the most forbidden things to plant because it caused such great disorder and upheavel – it grew fast and choked out anything growing around it.
So the hearers of Jesus’ parable here would have known that the person planting the mustard seed in his garden was doing something illegal! 1 You can almost hear them gasping in disbelief some 2000 year later! And the rest of Jesus’ story just continues to confuse. Some translations call it a tree but what grows from a mustard seed is actually more of a shrub. It isn’t a particularly attractive plant and again, most people of Jesus’ day regarded it as a bit of a weed.
So, Jesus has literally cut the great cedar of Lebanon image of the Kingdom of God – down to the image of an annoying, somewhat ugly bush, planted illegally in someone’s backyard garden that causes great upheaval and disorder when it grows.
As we have mentioned before, a parable is a metaphor drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought. So, a parable is a kind of riddle designed to both mystify and instruct. 2 So what did Jesus want us to know about the kingdom of God by likening it to this small, relatively unimportant and somewhat pesky seed?
Well, I’m sure I don’t know…but we can wonder together a bit…
Perhaps Jesus was suggesting that the kingdom of God starts small and hidden that God is not necessarily going to intervene in some big showy manner to change our world so we shouldn’t be just waiting around for a mighty apocalyptic intervention. Maybe he is suggesting that God’s way is much deeper…quieter…more subtle…
Maybe Jesus himself was a kind of seed planted in our very own history – a small, vulnerable baby, the most humble and gentle of entrances – but designed to grow and guide us in taking a giant evolutionary leap through a deeper understanding of the power of love – the only force strong enough to change our course.
And perhaps we can say this seed of God’s kingdom grows mysteriously in ways that we don’t fully understand. Thomas Keating puts it this way “If we lead a holy life we might get one or two people to follow our example. Like the mustard seed, we will have modest results.” Jesus is suggesting that God’s greatest works are not done on the grandiose level. The kingdom is to be found in everyday life, with its ups and downs in its virtual insignificance.
And maybe by using this image of the seed, Jesus is saying that waiting in darkness for the seed to sprout can take a long time and even be a bit painful and that we need to relinquish control – even our desire for control. For though we know the conditions that feed and nurture the growth (water, sun, time) we can not control or cause the growth ourselves. So, if we are expecting some great expansion of our church, or our faith, we may be on the wrong track. This may not be God’s idea of success. Jesus is telling us that the mightiest of God’s works are within us – in our attitudes and little improvements we make each day to our behavior in an effort to follow Jesus more closely. No one may even notice these little changes in us, but nonetheless, THIS is the slow and steady work of God – much like a plant growing from a seed, right?
Fr. John Powell once gave a teaching about God’s will that has stuck with me since I was a teenager. He said God has both a specific and general will for our lives. God may (or may not) will you to follow a certain career or marry a certain person. in the end, we may never feel like we know or have found God’s specific will in our lives….but Jesus makes God’s general will for our lives crystal clear. Jesus simply says do something loving with your life. Everyday God sets before us 24 hours and in that time encourages us to set out to do something loving…to make loving choices….
Can you remember a small kindness that someone extended to you that changed you? A perfectly timed word of encouragement? A thoughtful gift? A surprising sacrifice? Small acts, kindness (or cruelty for that matter), leave their effect long after the effects of events of seemingly much greater importance have passed away.
This is a profound realization. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus assures us, is about mustard seeds, about small, seemingly unimportant things, but which, in the long run, are the big things. We don’t remember the supposedly “important” big things that happen: Who won the academy awards last year? Or the Nobel Prize two years ago? Or what team won the Super Bowl three years ago? We tend to forget quickly these supposedly “important and significant events” almost as quickly as they pass. But we remember who encouraged us when we felt insecure. Who comforted us when we were in pain.
Sometimes the only thing we can remember from a given year is some small mustard seed kindness.
Mother Teresa said “What I do – you cannot do; but what you do – I cannot do.
But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”
Mother Theresa reminds us with both her words and her life that something good doesn’t have to be something big….God’s ways are not our ways….those who are faithful in small matters can do great things….in other words, God loves small.
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