The Parable of the Mustard Tree

The Parable of the Mustard Tree

The Parable of the Mustard Tree.

“Jesus put before His listeners another parable: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a farmer takes and plants in his garden. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it grows up it is larger than any garden plant and becomes a tree, so that birds flying about come and nest in its branches.”  (Matthew 13:31-32).

St. Matthew reports that in this section of his gospel Jesus decided He had to teach from a boat floating slightly offshore. There were so many who wanted to hear Him speak, that He had no choice. The large group sat on the beach while Jesus taught from the boat. Also, of course, the water amplified his voice so His crowd could hear more clearly. In this setting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus taught exclusively with parables, seven parables in all: the parable of the seed, the wheat and the weeds, the fishing net, the mustard seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure, and the costly pearl. The listeners must have been amazed at His ability to spin so many interesting and meaningful stories like that, one after the other, but their heads must also have been swimming with this amount of content all in one sitting.

Using the fishing boat as His pulpit, Jesus told a very short parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom is like a mustard seed, says Jesus, it starts very small and insignificant, the size of a grain of salt, but gradually grows into something very large and extremely significant. Something nearly invisible can become something that spreads around the world. When Jesus said “the smallest seed,” He was probably just commenting that of all the seeds the farmer would likely plant in his garden, the mustard seed (only millimeter in size) would be the smallest. Jesus wasn’t exaggerating either with the height of the mustard tree… There have been mustard trees in Palestine that have been as tall as twelve feet in height! Most reports have them growing to between five to six feet tall, but it’s not unheard of to grow a mustard tree that towers over everything else in the garden. So a mustard seed could grow into a large shrub, or a sizable tree. Birds have been known to settle into a mustard tree because they find the little black seeds in the tree quite edible. Many birds thus end up nesting in the mustard tree to be close to their food supply. In the parable, the birds no doubt represented Gentiles who would come to the kingdom as the Kingdom spreads. Jesus is saying, don’t be surprised when the Kingdom attracts Gentiles from all over the world. My Kingdom is not exclusive to the historically Chosen People. The Kingdom is intended to spread everywhere. Jesus is saying what farmers know about the mustard plant… it is actually an invasive species, it spreads all over and could even take over the garden. Jesus declared that the Kingdom will be just like that, invasive and spreading everywhere.

The prophet Zechariah, the most messianic of all the so-called minor prophets, celebrated the idea of “the day of small beginnings.” (4:10). He may have not have realized it, but that was a powerful little prophecy about the Kingdom. Small beginnings describes well the mustard seed and how it is a clear picture of many truths in Scripture:

Small Beginnings in the Life of Jesus. Jesus was like a mustard seed planted by the Father-Gardener. Jesus was hidden from the world when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was tucked away from acclaim when growing as a fetus in the womb of an unknow teenager in Nazareth. He was far away from adoring crowds when He was born in cattle shed in Bethlehem. He was out of the picture when a refugee with His mom and stepdad in Egypt for a couple of years. He was in obscurity as He grew up in an isolated little village until He was thirty years old. Nazareth was an overlooked, underestimated, basically forgotten village during the time of Jesus, relatively poor and working class, with a population estimated between 200-300 at that time. It wasn’t the type of village where people would make it a destination. Situated in northern Israel on a steep slope of a hill, midway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth didn’t have much going for it, except that one of its residents was the hidden Son of God. Nazareth was nothing special, rather backwater and unpolished in language and culture, the perfect place to hide someone until the time was right. Jesus was the walking definition of insignificant. Despite His humble upbringing, He ended up starting the biggest movement in the history of the world. Jesus was a mustard seed, planted in the world’s garden by the Father, and grew way out of proportion to His beginnings. And the tree is still growing.

Small Beginnings in the Life of the Church. The Christian Church started with a rag-tag group of unprofessional day workers, ordinary workmen, who were called into the ministry of an unknown rabbi. These disciples were trained and mentored and loved into having historical lives of significance. And the fire that was started by those disciples blazed around the world. At Pentecost after the Ascension of Jesus, the Church grew to around 3,000 people. The body of believers grew to 40,000 followers by AD 150, and then to 200,000 by the year AD 200. The disciples were the mustard seed of the Kingdom, and they became an invasive species. When Jesus told this parable, it must have been especially encouraging to the disciples. They couldn’t be faulted for occasionally wondering, “We are only a small group of fishermen and workmen, what possible influence could we have, what possible difference could we make?” Jesus planted them in the world, the Kingdom grew to immense size, and they indeed made a world of difference.

Small Beginnings in the Life of the Heart. The mustard seed of the Kingdom planted by the Holy Spirit in our hearts will survive if He planted it in rich soil, if we care for it, water it, give it plenty of light, tend it, protect it from natural enemies. and keep the weeds from choking the life out of it. The seed of the kingdom will grow in us and thrive as we continue to deepen our roots in God and His Word, changing us gradually into someone who is formed after the likeness of Jesus. This life of gospel virtue will grow in our lives, and it will sprout, and those qualities of Jesus will lead to a life of fruitfulness. To make a difference in the world, we don’t need to be a spiritual giant in the eyes of the world, we don’t need to be showy and have our name in lights. We are no hurry as the seed grows roots and matures. Our time of relative hiddenness may be longer than we might want. What we can do is, with just a mustard seed amount of faith of our own, offer those little black seeds of the Kingdom to all the birds in the world who are attracted to the Kingdom tree.