I have preached on this passage many times over the years and I realized this week that I have often missed the real point. This is a great passage to run out to the Indian grocer, buy some mustard seed for the children’s sermon, and talk about what a wondrous plant comes from humble beginnings. Therefore, if the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, we can have hope when we feel our efforts are unremarkable compared to the world’s need, and trust that God is going to do great things from our small plantings, and spread the Kingdom among us. Don’t be afraid to start small in life, because God always has a bigger plan. That is not a bad sermon to preach. I do believe that God can often be found in the small things and lost in large undertakings. But after a little research, I decided that is not Jesus’s point here in the Gospel.
The first problem I encountered is with the nature of the mustard plant. Despite the value of mustard seeds for flavor and medicinal purposes, it is not something you want in your garden. Think mint on steroids. It does grow into a fairly large bush, maybe four feet tall, and will spread quickly to every horizon. And what would you do with all that mustard plant? If you have ever cooked mustard greens, you will know that a little bit goes a long way. It has a horseradish kick, and you are not going to eat like you would potatoes or tomatoes. Mustard, in the Middle East, is a weed growing on the hillside, filling in the untamed and agriculturally undesirable spots. Most of the domesticated mustard grown in the world to make your Golden’s spicy brown mustard is grown in two countries, Nepal and Canada. My guess is because they have a lot of land areas not really valuable for anything else. There are no mustard farms in Iowa. When Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, watch out. It means that things could quickly get out of hand as you are unexpectedly overtaken.
And what about the birds, who come make their nests in the branches of a mustard plant? I always thought this was a comforting image of how tiny seeds provide a home for the poor birds who have nowhere to nest. Actually in ancient agricultural areas, where seeds were sown by hand and scattered across the fields, birds were a nuisance. Remember the parable of the sower who lost many of the seeds because the birds came and ate them. You really don’t want to encourage the birds to nest around your fields, hiding in the mustard patch and eating up your crops.
As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses — if you could control it (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).
This is really not what I expected from the parable. Note that not everything is beyond our own doing. The first verse says that we play the role of farmer scattering seeds on the ground. But after that, seed and soil take over and we have little to do with it until the harvest. We plant, we take an action, and then so much of the result is out of our hands.