The Mustard Seed

Luke 13:18-19II Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:40 - 32

Kacy Madsen

Setting:

Throughout the Synoptic Gospels, the kingdom of God emerges as a central theme, occurring eighty-three times. The people of first-century Palestine would have understood the expression kingdom of God “in light of a long history of Jewish thought within the writings of ancient Israel -- the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings” (Hultgren 384). They would have understood the kingdom of God as referring to God as king over the universe, ruling an everlasting kingdom.

With that in mind, the parable of The Mustard Seed is introduced as a parable representing characteristics of the kingdom of God, specifically in reference to the growth of the kingdom (Hultgren 385). This parable is widely thought to have come from the mouth of Jesus in response to unbelieving Jews who failed to see how the preaching and healing ministry of Jesus represented the mighty kingdom Israel had been expecting. Jesus rebutted this challenge with the charge “look to the mustard seed” (Hultgren 397).

The parable of The Mustard Seed is found in Luke 13:18-19, with close parables in Mark 4:30-32; Matt. 13:31-32; and in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas 20.

Exegetical Analysis:

A careful study of this parable reveals recurring themes that should be addressed. First, the symbol of the mustard seed should be analyzed regarding two characteristics: 1) its infinitesimally small size, and 2) its connotation of an unclean element. According to Hultgren, the mustard plant was “an annual herb … [with a seed] measuring .075 inches in diameter;” however, the subsequent plant can become 6, 12, or in rare instances 15 feet high (395).

The mustard seed owes its reputation as a weed -- an unclean thing -- to the rabinnic Law of Diverse Kinds. This law evolved from “scriptural prohibition against commingling different classes of plants, animals, and fibers,” and serves the “purpose of maintaining the order of creation” (Scott 382). "Order," in this case, represents "holiness," while disorder denotes uncleanness. Therefore, “because of the potential for uncleanness in planting a mustard seed, a hearer would be sensitive to where and how the mustard seed was planted …. By planting the seed in a garden the gardener risked breaking the Law of Diverse Kinds [and thus] creating the garden as an unclean space” (Scott 383).

The second symbol that must be considered is that of the tree that the mustard seed becomes. According to Jeremias there is an eschatological character established by the metaphor of the tree (Ezek. 17:23; 31:6, and Dan. 4: 9, 11, 18), where “the tree which shelters the birds is a common metaphor for a mighty kingdom which protects its vassals (i.e., the people of God)” (147).

The use of the mustard seed as a symbol associated with the kingdom of God would have been controversial to its first hearers because of the mixed images it evoked. In the Biblical community it was noted for its smallness and its uncleanness. Jesus' forced his audience to reconcile the mustard seed and its intrinsic connotations with the image of the tree, representing the growth and realization of the kingdom of God.

Message:

The parable of the Mustard Seed is one whose message lies in Jesus’ ability to capitalize on the power of contrasting ideas and on thought-provoking imagery. Return to Jesus’ charge to look to the mustard seed: “in spite of its small size, a great plant grows from it” (Hultgren 397).

In the community of Jesus’ time the kingdom of God was present in the smallest manner, in Jesus' and his disciples’ teaching and healing.“Such small, seemingly insignificant beginnings [could] hardly appear to be signs of the glorious kingdom to come” (Hultgren 400). But the parable of the mustard seed was given to provide certainty that indeed the kingdom would come. According to Hultgren, “by means of the great contrast between the tiny mustard seed on the one hand, and the tree or huge shrub on the other, the accent [of the parable] was on the certainty and powerful significance of the coming of the kingdom even though its glory may not have been visible [at that present time]” (401).

Jesus utilized the imagery of the mustard seed to challenge His followers. He, therefore, sets before the people a parable in its truest sense -- introducing the riddle, the seeming contradiction that a great and glorious kingdom would emerge from insignificant, blemished beginnings.

Application:

Life is realized in the smallest of beginnings. In the human body growth and maturation are directed by DNA- proteins wound in a double–stranded helix, which is composed of amino acids, which are composed of molecules so small no microscope could bring them into view. Considering this, should it surprise us that a tree could emerge from the germination of a tiny mustard seed, or that God's rule could be realized through the ministry of one man?

Our limitations are drawn by the boundaries we build around ourselves. Those boundaries are composed from awareness of our humanity -- our blemished imperfection, our fear of failure. While we cower in our shadow of imperfection, the world moves and breathes around us as molecules collide and coagulate forming the backbone of creation. The beauty of the parable of the mustard seed is the portrayal of life -- the vision of strength and protection that emerges from the seed of an insignificant, unclean weed.

It is amazing how God can use us in spite of obvious ineptitude if we make ourselves available to be used. Only in the hands of our Creator can our full potential be realized. Despite our imperfection, weaknesses, and faults, God can bring from our efforts a great harvest. He can bring out of our insecurity and insignificance a tree that will shelter the heads of those around us, which will provide a sanctuary of stability and support -- a Kingdom.