The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

Since reading a book that contrasted the kingdoms of the world with the kingdom of God, I have been reflecting on what Jesus said about God’s kingdom. What is the kingdom of God? I believe that it is a real kingdom that will be established when Jesus returns and that those of us who follow him are to prepare for it now by following his example. What is the kingdom like? Jesus used parables to answer this question, including the Parable of the Mustard Seed. I heard this parable when I was child and I remember being shown how tiny a mustard seed is. The message seemed very simple – great things start out very small. But is that all Jesus was saying?

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.

Mark 4:11

Jesus told seven parables about the kingdom of God. A parable is a story or statement that conveys a message indirectly by comparing something to something else. Jesus used parables because he knew that many people were too hardhearted to understand his message. The parable comparing the kingdom of God to the mustard seed is found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13. Below is the NIV version from Luke.

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?  It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

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When I read the parable of the mustard seed today, especially considering the parable of the yeast that follows it, Jesus seems to be saying that God’s rule in human hearts will start very small and grow or expand exponentially. This seems like a very positive message.

When I searched for commentary on the parable, I found a couple of people who see a deeper meaning and a hidden warning. In explaining what he calls the parable of the growth of the mustard seed, David Legge made a few points about the parable that I had not noticed. One, he said it is important to consider the context of the parable, the timing of Christ’s message. At that time, the teachers of the law were indignant because Jesus healed on the Sabbath; they accused him of being possessed. The Pharisees were plotting with the Herodians on how they might kill Jesus. Even his own family thought Jesus was out of his mind.

In an environment that was hostile to his message, Jesus told the parable of the sower (Mark 4). As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.

The theme of the parable of the soils is that God’s word will be ignored and rejected. And just as birds came and ate seeds from the path, Satan will come and take away the word from many who hear it. Very few people will hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop.

Keeping this context in mind, Legge made a second point. Mustard seeds grow into bushes not into a tree as in the parable. Some mustard plants could grow into a 12 to 15 foot tree but that would be unnatural, abnormal, unhealthy growth.

Legge then made a third point about something in the parable that never seemed significant to me. He said we have to account for the birds in the branches. In an earlier sermon on parables, Legge said that a parable is not an allegory and that every symbol does not necessarily have to stand for something. But in the parable of the mustard seed, he sees the birds as symbolic because birds were also mentioned in the parable of the sower. Legge suggests that the mustard tree represents “an imitation of a great world power. It aspires to greatness beyond its means, it’s reaching to heaven but it is firmly rooted in the earth, and it is harbouring these birds which already in the context refer to demonic forces.”

I looked at the birds in the parable as God’s creatures who find shelter in a great tree. But Legge points out that birds are natural enemies of the sower. In the context of the parables of the sower and the mustard seed, birds could represent false teachers who keep the message of the kingdom of God from taking root. Legge concludes that from small beginnings, the kingdom of God would succeed, in worldly terms, by growing unhealthily and abnormally “to an empire in which its enemies could even shelter and nest.”

This interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed is certainly intriguing. Richard T. Ritenbaugh makes a similar argument in his sermon on the parables of Matthew 13. He notes that a seed is the means by which a plant grows and that “it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that the Kingdom of God grows by means of the Kingdom of God.” In other words, the mustard seed represents an agent of the kingdom of God and not the kingdom itself. The mustard seed represents the church, the few people who are chosen to spread the Good News.

Ritenbaugh continues by repeating Legge’s point about the unnatural growth of the mustard seed in the parable. Something happens to make the mustard plant grow beyond its natural limit. Then the birds of the air, which symbolize demons, find a home in the tree. Ritenbaugh suggests reading Daniel 4:19-27. It tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about an enormous tree. Wild animals found shelter under it and birds lived in it branches. He also saw a messenger from heaven who said, “Cut down the tree and trim off its branches…” Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that he was that tree. God humbled Nebuchadnezzar to force him to acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

This not only shows the rise of the great false church, but it shows the tendency of the church, at all times, to become large, great, and worldly.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh

I am on the fence about whether to believe these interpretations of the parable of the mustard seed. I still see the parable as an encouraging word from Jesus. First and foremost, the purpose of the parable was to explain what the kingdom of God is like, not the church. The parable of the yeast that immediately follows in both Matthew and Luke has no hidden meaning. The kingdom of God will grow exponentially from small beginnings. Finally, I think that Jesus was quite explicit when he warned people about false prophets. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you ahead of time.

Regardless of whether Legge and Ritenbaugh are correct about the meaning of the parable of the mustard seed, I give them credit for making an important point about the unhealthy growth of the church. When churches promote false teachings like the prosperity gospel, when they are more concerned about entertaining people and making money than about souls, when they become too worldly, Satan has made a home in the branches.

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Photo by toinane on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

  1. I don’t think that Jesus meant for his parables to be so complicated that it took nearly 2000 years for writers to understand their hidden meaning. What would have been the point of telling stories that went completely over the heads of his listeners? And why would it be that hundreds, perhaps thousands of church theologians…. the early church fathers, St. Jerome, St, Augustine,Thomas Aquinas, and so many more, from the beginning of the church until now, failed to see their interpretation of this parable?

    I remember as a reading our encyclopedias and seeing a massive forest in southern California called the San Bernardino National Forest and being jealous because Kansas had nothing like that. Then years later, while in the Army, I rode a bus through that forest, and there was nothing but scrub brush, nothing taller than maybe 10-feet tall. What a disappointment! If I remember correctly (and I may not) Daniel was referring to the Cedars of Lebanon, which grow to about 130 feet tall. But in the rocky, arid soils of Judah I’m sure the trees were much smaller, and a mustard bush might have matched them is size quite well. And of course birds will perch on anything that gets them off the ground, no matter how small. Then as now, the people of the Middle East captured and ate small birds, so Jesus listeners would be familiar with the size of a mustard seed, the size of a mustard bush, and the birds that would have perched on them.

    I don’t think Jesus listeners were particularly educated, but my guess is that they had fewer distractions than we do and more time to ponder the meanings of what he said. And they passed these things on to us, not because they thought they were impenetrable, but because they knew with a little thought we might get their meaning too.

    I’ve heard it asked how it was that people were able to remember and write down the things Jesus said thirty or more years after he said them. My guess is that Jesus sayings were written as if each were said only once, but human nature tells me he probably repeated his best material more than once, as he passed from one “audience” to the next. Some events were unique…. changing water to wine, feeding the 5,000, the transfiguration, saving the adulteress from stoning….. and would have been easy to remember when they happened. But the parables and sermons may well have been repeated more than once and that repetition stuck in the apostles heads, even though, as John said, there were many things they did not understand until after the crucifixion and the resurrection.

    Mark was written by John Mark, a companion of Peter, after Peter died. I’m sure he heard Peters stories time after time as Peter spread his oral gospel, and even second-hand those stories Peter and others told him made an impression and stuck with him.

    Luke got much of his story from talking to everyone he met who knew Jesus personally, gathering anecdotes to share with his readers, and he met everyone, from Peter and John, to the most insignificant of his followers. Luke says “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”, so I’m convinced Luke also met Mary and recorded some of those stories only she remembered. After all she was perhaps 50-years old when Jesus was crucified, and she lived with John afterwards.

    And of course John, the one writer who knew Jesus personally, who, along with Peter, was present in nearly all the stories the writers told. I have to say he is my favorite because he’s that one authentic voice who isn’t the repetition of something someone heard from someone else.

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  2. Anonymous

    There are many varieties of plants. I don’t think it would have been that unusual for a mustard plant to grow to the size of a small tree. I have learned to identify a lot of my native wildflowers. This summer I saw a small tree in bloom and when I looked at the flowers and leaves I thought, it looks like a member of the legume or pea (Fabaceae) family. I looked it up and sure enough, there are pea trees (not native to Colorado though).

    Jesus did explain the more confusing parables, like the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds. No explanation was given for the parable of the mustard seed so I think we have to search for deeper meaning.

    John is also my favorite of the gospels. His writing seems much more intimate. He really got to the heart of who Jesus is and the significance of the gospel.

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