The Parable of the Mustard Seed

The Parable of the Mustard Seed May 7, 2017

One of the most profound and yet simple statements I ever heard came from a Catholic priest. It was just six words, and when I share them, if you are a Christian, you probably won’t think it’s any great or rare insight.  But at the time it really hit me and has stuck with me ever since. What he said was, “Jesus is the revelation of God.” Maybe another way to say that is “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.”

I guess this is why, over the years since imbibing that transformative statement, I find myself continually circling back to read the Gospels. It is there that I get the clearest picture of what Jesus did and taught. If Jesus is the revelation of God then I  want to understand better the things that God values by learning what Jesus valued. Additionally, as a Quaker, I believe that God still teaches us and leads us—if we but attune ourselves to listen as individuals and as communities of faith.

In the Gospels, Jesus spoke more than anything else about the Kingdom of God (in Matthew’s Gospel, which was originally written for a Jewish audience, it is referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven in order to not offend Jewish sensibilities about speaking the name of God). The Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned over a hundred times in the four Gospels. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 4:43 Jesus said “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”  But the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven does not mean the place where good people go to after they die. The Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven is not in the great hereafter, but in the here and now. When Jesus would heal someone or cast out a demon or feed a crowd or reach out to a person on the margins of society, Jesus would say, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The Greek word for “kingdom” is basilea, which means “the rule and reign.” In other words, Jesus said “This is what it looks like when God is reigning—when God’s will is being done—rather than Caesar’s or Herod’s or the rich elites or the religious authorities.”

But the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven, according to Jesus, did not look like the popular expectations of the ancient Jewish people: which was of a temporal theocratic government, based in Jerusalem and established by violently driving out the Romans and their collaborators.  Jesus kept saying to the people, in essence, “No, the Kingdom of God isn’t like that. It’s like this…”

So, for example, there is a story in Luke 13:18-19, where just after healing a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years, Jesus says, “What is the Kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.”

 Now, if a prophet (as Jesus was understood by the people to be) were to compare God’s kingdom to something horticultural, you would expect him to choose the mighty cedar tree of Lebanon, which was a time-honored symbol of the nation of Israel and of great kingdoms and empires. To do so would conform to established biblical metaphors of the Jewish people.
Cedrus_libani_-_Lebanon_cedar_02For example, Daniel 4:10-12 (written a few hundred years before Jesus), refers to the Babylonian empire this way:

“These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.”

[Cedar trees, by the way, produce a berry-like fruit which is typically eaten by birds and squirrels but can also be consumed by humans.]

Ezekiel 31 (also written a few hundred years before Jesus), refers to the Assyrian empire in a similar way:

“Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest; it towered on high, its top above the thick foliage. The waters nourished it, deep springs made it grow tall; their streams flowed all around its base and sent their channels to all the trees of the field. So it towered higher than all the trees of the field; its boughs increased and its branches grew long, spreading because of abundant waters. All the birds of the sky nested in its boughs, all the animals of the wild gave birth under its branches; all the great nations lived in its shade.”

A bit earlier in Ezekiel, at chapter 17, Israel is also likened to a cedar tree:

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.”

In his statement in Luke 13:18-19 about the Kingdom of God  Jesus is alluding to these texts—this imagery—which the people hearing him would have known well.  And isn’t the Kingdom of God the greatest kingdom of all—greater than the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Persians or the Egyptians or the Greeks of the Romans?

But Jesus says something utterly unexpected and quite absurd. Instead of a mighty cedar, he compares the Kingdom of God to a noxious, invasive, common weed! His audience would have either gasped in shock or giggled at the irreverence and subversiveness of what he was saying. Sometimes we forget that Jesus often employed humor and parody and sarcasm to get His point across.


Most Christians have heard this parable explained in terms of something very small growing rapidly into something big; as a metaphor for the early Christian church. After all, a tiny mustard seed does quickly grow into a bush that can reach as high as ten or twelve feet. Keep in mind that most trees in ancient Israel didn’t grow very tall (except for the cedars of Lebanon) so there wasn’t that much difference between a tall bush or plant and an average tree, in terms of height.


But this parable is speaking about more than just the church starting small and growing rapidly. In fact, I think the main point of this parable is often overlooked.

You see, in Jesus’ culture, it was not allowed to plant a mustard seed in one’s garden, as the man in the parable does. This goes back to the Torah and the Talmud (the lengthy interpretation of the Torah). If you look, for example, at Leviticus 19 or Deuteronomy 22 in the Torah (part of what Christians call “the Old Testament”), you’ll see all kinds of prohibitions about mixing things: Don’t wear clothing made from two kinds of fabric; don’t plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together; don’t plant different kinds of seeds together; etc.

The ancient Jewish understanding of holiness, or kedosh in Hebrew, had to do with separating. It is understandable that this view developed when you consider that throughout ancient history Israel was a tiny nation sandwiched between great empires who wanted to swallow up and assimilate them. Maintaining a separate and distinct identity was crucial for their survival as a people—as God’s people, in their eyes—and so separation was equated with holiness. At the very beginning of the Hebrew scriptures, in Genesis 1, you see God separating things: Light from dark; water above from water below; sky from ground; etc.

This idea of maintaining separation—kedosh—holiness, permeated Jewish life and resulted in “purity codes.” If someone was deemed ritually impure (which often had nothing to do with sin or immorality), such as a woman during her monthly cycle or a person who had touched a corpse or someone with a skin disease, they had to be excluded from the community and from worshiping God (which was a communal activity) until they were purified. By the time of Jesus, there was a voluminous purity code—which was particularly and meticulously adhered to by the Pharisees. A man could bring about impurity by eating the wrong things or by eating with the wrong people (such as Gentiles) or by mixing the wrong foods together or by not properly washing one’s utensils or by mixing fabrics (no cotton-polyester blends!) or by not planting crops in the prescribed manner or by speaking with a woman in public or by coming into contact with a leper or by touching a corpse, etc., etc.  So many ways to lose one’s ritual purity and be excluded from the worshipful assembly!


And, of course, one’s garden had to be kept kedosh—holy. This meant each type of plant had to be kept separate from the others in neat, tidy rows.

So what would happen if you put a mustard seed in your garden? It would very rapidly spill out of its row into other rows, mixing and mingling with the other plants, dropping seeds everywhere which would sprout up more mustard plants, and before long it would take over your garden! Plus, why would you even bother to plant mustard in your garden when it grew wild all over the place? It was a common weed. No, you would do everything you could to keep mustard plants (and mustard seeds) OUT of your garden! [If Jesus had come to Washington state where I live, instead of to ancient Judea, he might have likened the Kingdom of God to a blackberry bush!]

So, imagine again Jesus saying to a gathered crowd, “What is the Kingdom of God like? … It is like a mustard seed, which a man planted in his garden…” That’s absurd! It’s wrong! It’s contrary to our interpretation of scripture!

But it gets worse…


Mustard plants produce lots of seeds.  Seeds attract birds. Who wants birds in their vegetable garden? Most gardeners do everything they can to keep birds out!

In the parable Jesus told, the birds perched—in other words, they found rest—in the branches of the mustard bush (rather than, as in Daniel and Ezekiel, the branches of a cedar tree). Recently I was running an errand and I parked my car on a residential street. As I got out of the car I glanced across the street and noticed a big, ugly bush—probably six feet high and eight feet across—at the front of a residential yard. I don’t know what kind of bush it was, but my first impression was that it was an unruly eye-sore. But then I noticed that there were little birds all through the bush. They were flitting around within it and chirping and seemed to be having a great time. I imagine they felt a sense of security within the bush, being less exposed to predators and weather.

So, back to our parable: The picture that Jesus is painting here is of a nice, orderly, religiously proper vegetable garden that is about to be messed up by planting an invasive weed! And he says, “That’s what God’s rule and reign looks like! That’s what happens when God’s will is done!”

It makes sense though, if you think about it… When you look at what Jesus did throughout the Gospels (and remember, Jesus is the revelation of God), he kept breaking down barriers and disregarding taboos. He disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with sinners. He surrounded Himself with low-lives and outcasts and those who, socially, were on the margins. Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with despised tax-collectors. Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning Samaritans and even made a Samaritan the hero of His parable about loving one’s neighbor—another absurdity, which would have been highly offensive to many (Jews despised the Samaritans as half-breed heretics). Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning the place of women in society and the segregation/marginalization of women [One of my favorite Gospel stories is the one in John 4 where Jesus is hanging out at a well in Samaria having a cordial theological discussion with a Samaritan woman who has been married multiple times and is currently living with her boyfriend. Another great Gospel story is the one in Matthew 15 where Jesus has a dialog with a Gentile woman and she gets the upper hand in the discussion, convincing Jesus to see things from her perspective: typically in ancient Palestine, if you wanted to write something espousing the great wisdom of your rabbi, you would not show him being beaten in a debate by a Gentile woman!]. Jesus disregarded many other cultural/religious taboos.

Jesus, in fact, did all kinds of things that would have made Him ritually unclean. Imagine that! The man who is the image of God is doing things that will cause him to be viewed as impure and ineligible to be in the presence of God and in the community of God’s people!

This is because Jesus had a different definition of holiness. A pair of Quaker pastors named Philip Gulley and James Mulholland wrote a wonderful book entitled If Grace Is True, which contains the best definition of holiness that I have ever come across:

“Holiness is God’s ability to confront evil without being defiled. God’s holiness does not require him to keep evil at arm’s length. God’s holiness enables Him to take the wicked in His arms and transform them. God is never in danger of being defiled. No evil can alter His love, for His gracious character is beyond corruption. This is what it means to say God is holy—God’s love is incorruptible. Holiness and love are not competing commitments. God is love. His love endures forever. This enduring love is what makes God holy. No manner of evil done to us or by us can separate us from this love. God transforms His morally imperfect children through the power of His perfect love. It is our experience of this love that inspires us to such perfection. Jesus said, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). If this verse was a command for moral perfection, our cause is hopeless. Fortunately, this admonition follows a command to ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44). Perfection is demonstrated not by moral purity, but by extravagant love. We are like God not when we are pure, but when we are loving and gracious.”

Jesus put the worth of people over the religious rules we make which encumber and exclude people.  So, the parable of the mustard seed is, at its heart, a teaching about radical inclusion. Let me say that again because it’s critical: This is a parable about radical inclusion. Jesus is saying, in effect, “If you allow the Kingdom of God into your midst, it is going to make a mess of your neat, tidy garden. It is going to break down your barriers of separation. It is going to attract and shelter the ones that everyone else tries to keep out. It is not going to look majestic and lofty and impressive, but rather, common and unremarkable and initially very small. But…, it will spread like crazy.”

What are we to do with this teaching of Jesus? Will we insist on maintaining our tidy little doctrinal gardens? Or will we do what is absurd—what is taboo—what is risky—and allow God’s rule and reign to mess things up? Which will we value more: order and orthodoxy and exclusivity or radical inclusion and extravagant love? You see, each of us as individuals and each church community is the man with the mustard seed in his hand. We have only to let go and drop it into our garden and then watch what happens.


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