A reflection on Matthew 13:31-32 for Sunday, August 15, 2021 at Mosaic Baptist Church
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
Matthew 13:31-32 (NRSVA)
The parable of the mustard seed is surely one of the most memorable of all the stories Jesus told. Short. Simple. Thought provoking. The essence of parable.
It is also, in the Gospel of Matthew, the first of many parables of Jesus that go completely unexplained. There is a remarkable trust in Jesus – and in the author of this gospel – to leave this riddle so bare and uninterpreted. Hearers can so easily do with this parable as they wish. They can imagine in a thousand different directions and apply it to a thousand more situations.
Perhaps as much as any parable Jesus told, the parable of the mustard seed is vulnerable to the hearer’s interpretation and experience.
Not that this stops Jesus embracing this level of risk. He boldly tells this tiny story and leaves it in the mind and heart of every hearer. It a profound act of faith on Jesus’ part. He so believes that the Holy Spirit is at work in each life that he tells this story and immediately abandons it to the thoughts and actions of those who listen.
Perhaps this vulnerability to our experience is intentional.
Like many parables, there is an element of the absurd that triggers our imagination and interpretive skills. Firstly, the mustard seed, although tiny, is not the smallest of all seeds – even of the seeds known to the original hearers. Jesus is obviously not teaching seed-science. Secondly, as many have observed, there is no such thing as a mustard tree. At best, the mustard seed grows into a bush – and is highly unlikely to attract any but the smallest of birds. Clearly there is an element of hyperbole to this story.
A mustard tree is a miraculous tree.
Both these observations would have been blatantly obvious to Jesus’ farming community hearers. Both would have triggered a search for a deeper-than-literal meaning. This was never a story about farming.
It was alway, as Jesus said, about the ‘kingdom of heaven’.
Perhaps we might imagine from this parable that, in God’s economy, small things grow beyond expectation. Little acts become far more significant. Small insights grow out of proportion. Tiny acts of trust expand.
What a wonderful thought to put into the minds and hearts of powerless, oppressed peasant farmers.
Of all the parables, this is the one that sparks my imagination the most. Almost every day it permeates my thinking.
After all, as any communicator of the gospel knows, it is not unusual to encounter people who are resistant. At this point, the parable of the mustard seed becomes a source of hope. In every conversation I plant the tiny ‘kingdom of heaven’ seeds that I can. I choose not to lament all that I cannot explain. I trust the Holy Spirit to do more with these ‘mustard seeds’ that I can possibly ask or imagine. Clearly, the parable of the mustard seed has sparked my imagination in the direction of conversation.
It is far from the only possibility. This story could easily be related to small acts of kindness or love. Perhaps a teacher might relate this to each act of sharing knowledge. A builder or baker to the capable and careful service of each client.
A saviour dead and buried to create a renewed and forgiven people.
In fact, everyone contributes – either positively or negatively – in small ways. I suspect that it is ultimately the only way we contribute to any aspect of our world. After all, every great, life-changing project, is a series of small acts that add up to something much larger.
How much more if the very Spirit of God sits behind every act of service we make.
How do you feel about Jesus telling ‘vulnerable’ stories? Does this make you nervous? frustrated? Anxious? Why do you think Jesus can tell a story that is, in itself, so unclear?
How do you imagine the parable of the mustard seed into your life? What small acts do you do that may contribute to the ‘kingdom of heaven’?