The Mustard Seed.
I have to confess that I often get discouraged about the health of the church. Though there are indeed many fine congregations and some are doing very well, it seems that the church as a whole often gets off track. Problems abound, and sometimes it seems there is very little difference between people of the world and people of the kingdom. We frequently get caught up in the debates and issues of the day and lose sight of our primary calling. In many places the church isn’t growing, and in too many it is actually shrinking. It’s easy to get discouraged and lose heart over these things.
It helps, though, to remember the true nature of the kingdom. In yet another agricultural parable, Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19). The main point is indicated pretty clearly in Matthew and Mark by the contrasting words “smallest” and “largest.” The mustard seed was proverbial for its small size (cf. Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6), yet this tiny seed yields a final growth way out of proportion to its small beginning. So it is with the kingdom of God. This parable points out how drastically larger the kingdom will ultimately be compared to its humble beginnings.
I don’t think the parable is intended to tell us the extent of the kingdom’s growth at specific points in time, but it seems clear that we are currently well past the small beginning of the God’s reign among us. The seed of the kingdom has germinated and spread throughout the world. But as mentioned, it is not necessarily growing and healthy everywhere. There is good growth in some countries today, but still, a generous, all-inclusive count of Christians in the world is estimated to be only about 30%. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of people who have authentically submitted to the kingship of Christ is considerably smaller, but even if it is 30%, that means 70% are not Christian. With that background, this parable encourages us by reminding us that the ultimate end will be way out of proportion to how it began. If we also remember the truths in the parables discussed previously, that while we have a role in planting seeds, God himself will bring about the growth of his kingdom, we can be even more encouraged.
So the main point of the parable of the Mustard Seed is the tiny beginning of God’s kingdom among us will result in a vast end. Does it teach us other lessons too? We’ve expressed caution before about assigning meaning to every little detail in the parables, and I do think the contrast between the small beginning and vast end of God’s reign is clearly the main point of this one. But there are a couple other aspect of it that are worth mentioning and considering.
All three accounts of the parable of the mustard seed mention birds that nest in the branches of the fully grown garden plant. That may be merely another way of emphasizing how large the plant grows to be. The Old Testament background, however, suggests the birds may represent the Gentiles or Nations (Daniel 31:6; cf. Daniel 4:12 with v. 22). We know that it’s true the Gentiles were to be included in God’s kingdom; we just don’t know for sure if Jesus was including that truth in this parable. Historical sources suggest first century Jews would have thought birds can be a metaphor for Gentiles, and that adds weight to the possibility Jesus was referring to them here.
A more subtle and therefore less certain point has also been suggested. The Old Testament allegory (Ezekiel 17:2) of a shoot that became a tree that birds could nest in tells of it being planted at the top of a high mountain. Such a tree would have been prominently visible, like the one in King Nebuchadnezzar’s similar dream (Daniel 4:11, 20). First century Jews would likely have understood that Ezekiel’s prophecy of the tall tree that sheltered birds would be fulfilled by Israel’s triumph over pagan invaders like the Romans. Could it be that Jesus’ use of a large garden plant instead of a tall tree on top of a mountain was intended to communicate something about the humble, servant nature of the kingdom in contrast to the grandeur of the “mountainous” Jewish expectations? Again, we know the point is true. Mark, in particular, places a strong emphasis on the central point that Jesus is a suffering servant and the humble way of the cross is integral to God’s kingdom. But it is difficult to say for certain whether Jesus was making that point here.
Regardless, the main point is clear. The kingdom began humbly and has grown considerably. The parable shows us that we can yet expect results vastly larger than its beginning. Perhaps that will encourage each of us as we seek to submit more fully to God’s reign in our lives. And perhaps it will encourage us as we contemplate God’s work in the world at large.