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.”

***

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.

****

Photo by toinane on Unsplash

Letting the Weeds Grow

I have been listening to a sermon series at my church about parables. Jesus taught with parables, simple stories that illustrated a spiritual lesson. When the disciples asked why he used parables, Jesus said it was because “the knowledge of the secrets of heaven has been given to you but not to them.” Many people hear the message but do not understand it. Even the disciples were bewildered at the meaning of his parables.

This week’s sermon was about the parable of the weeds.

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who sowed wheat seed in a field. While everyone was sleeping, his enemy sowed weeds in the field. When the wheat sprouted, the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants asked him if they should pull up the weeds. The owner said “no, because when you pull the weeds, you will also uproot the wheat. Let them grow together until the harvest.”

Jesus explained that the field is the world and he is the sower of the good seed. The good seed is believers, or the “sons of the kingdom.” The enemy who sows the weeds is the devil; the weeds are non believers. At the end of the world, Jesus will send angels to weed out of his kingdom all who do evil and everything that causes sin.

The preacher made several points about this parable.

  • Believers may identify with the servant who wanted to destroy the weeds. We want to root out the evil and make things right in the world. But the servant is not even a key character in this parable.
  • The weeds look remarkably like wheat. A false believer may resemble a true believer.  Many people profess faith in Christ but do not know him.
  • We often take it upon ourselves to judge who is a true believer and who isn’t but we also often misjudge people.
  • We don’t see the big picture as God does. We only see a tiny piece of it. God’s plans are unknowable to us.

There are a few lessons for me in this bewildering parable. One, I should refrain from judging whether a person is a true believer or not even when it seems clear to me that a person does not know Jesus.

Two, I need to be patient and let God work his field. He is the landowner. I am not. God is working in the lives of people in ways that I cannot perceive.

Three, in his infinite wisdom, God knew it would be beneficial to both the weeds and the wheat to let them grow together. The field is the great testing ground. It is here in the weeds that we learn how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And when believers “let our lights shine” among the weeds, we bring glory to God.

via Daily Prompt: Bewildered