The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches. [Matthew 13:31-32 (NLT)]
Following the Parable of the Four Soils and the Parable of the Weeds, Jesus told a third parable of growth by comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. I know little about farming and soil but I’m familiar with black mustard, (Brassica nigra), the kind of mustard grown in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Its clusters of bright yellow flowers are a common sight in the meadows, thickets, vacant lots, and fallow fields in my home state of Illinois.
Both times Jesus mentioned the mustard seed, He referred to its small size. When comparing the size of our faith to that of a mustard seed, He told us even if our faith were as small as a mustard seed that, “Nothing would be impossible.” When comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed, He called it the “smallest of all seeds.” Having admired the mustard seed charm my sister had on her bracelet, I questioned His statement. While it was small, I knew other seeds are even smaller. Surely the One who was there at creation’s beginning knew that the almost dust-like seeds of orchids and begonias are smaller. Additionally, while the mustard plant can grow as tall as 10 to 12 feet, it’s not a tree!
Jesus, however, wasn’t teaching botany, He was telling a parable and hyperbole (an exaggerated statement not taken literally that’s used to emphasize a point) was a common technique in rabbinic teaching. Jesus used it when speaking of recognizing a speck in our neighbor’s eye but not seeing the log in ours, Pharisees straining the gnats out of their water while drinking a camel, and trying to put a camel through a needle. When we look at the original Greek, however, we find less exaggeration. Jesus refers to the mustard seed as the smallest seed which a man sows in his field. While not the smallest seed in existence, mustard was the smallest seed that would have been sown in a Palestinian field. Jesus says it grows larger than a lachanōn (a garden herb or vegetable) and, indeed, black mustard does seem like a tree when compared to most herbs! That a seed measuring less than a tenth of an inch can grow 1,440 times its original size into a 12-foot plant in just one season is impressive and that was His point!
While most of America’s farmers consider this pervasive plant a noxious weed, it’s been cultivated as a crop for thousands of years in the Holy Land. Its seeds were powdered or made into a paste for medicinal and culinary purposes. Unlike most of us, Jesus’ listeners were familiar with mustard’s characteristics. As I describe those qualities, consider how they might apply to God’s Kingdom here on earth.
With its narrow clusters of small yellow flowers, mustard isn’t a showy flower—one might even call it a humble little thing. Nevertheless, a golden field of mustard is a thing of beauty. For a variety of scientific reasons, black mustard has a competitive advantage over most other plants. It’s one of the first plants to spring up after a fire and can out-compete anything else growing in the same field. It produces thousands of seeds every season and mustard’s long-lasting seeds can survive underground for as long as 50 years. An annual, while it dies at the end of a season, it regenerates at the next rainy season.
Although mustard was welcome as a cash crop in Palestine, because of its characteristics, black mustard is considered invasive in 44 of the 48 contiguous states. Nevertheless, in spite of the Midwest’s farmers’ persistent efforts to eradicate it, black mustard returns every year. Nature Collective describes it as “an ornery guest that refuses to take the hint.” In spite of persecution from Jewish leaders and Rome, the early church was just as defiant, determined, and persistent as black mustard!
Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with the plant’s beauty and ability to self-seed, lay down a deep root system, and grow almost anywhere, along with mustard’s knack of surviving and thriving in less-than-ideal conditions. Jesus’ point was that from small and humble beginnings, the Kingdom of Heaven—Jesus’ domain as Messiah—would gradually grow into a large and beautiful entity. Once seeded, nothing seems to stop mustard and the same goes for the Kingdom!
May our faith be as persistent, hardy, determined, steadfast, and as difficult to destroy as the mustard seed!