He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. Mark 4: 24-34
For such a brief passage, the parable of the mustard seed works well on so many different levels. Let’s start with the obvious. Appearances are deceiving. Great things can have very humble origins. Mustard is a weed. It grows in the wild from a tiny seed. While other weeds spring from the ground and spread voraciously, the tiny mustard seed inconspicuously comes to life sending out a single root to probe the earth for nourishment. But while the others are gone in a single season, the slow, steady progress of the mustard seed’s offshoots continues on for generations.
Why did Jesus spend part of his precious time with us giving a botany lesson? Because it was the perfect analogy for his mission to build and to spread the kingdom of God. Today we’d call it a grassroots approach. The Messiah did not come storming out of the clouds surrounded by legions of angels to meet and greet the world’s movers and shakers. To all appearances his origins were as humble as the mustard seed. He was an itinerant carpenter who called to himself fishermen and laborers; the poor, the afflicted, the sinners; even a tax collector and a prostitute. Where the cynical would see a band of losers led by a charlatan, the faithful were beginning to understand that they were on the ground-floor of greatness. They had nothing but the Word. They were probably poorer today than they were yesterday. But they understood and they instantly related when Jesus told them: …the kingdom of God …is like a mustard seed.
The lesson is as fresh today as it was twenty centuries ago. In today’s headlines, look to the inspiration of Chen Guangcheng, the lone, blind activist who stood up to China’s massive state security apparatus… or to his predecessors: Solzhenitsyn and Bonhoeffer. The smart money says mustard seeds don’t stand a chance; might makes right; keep your head down; play it safe. But Jesus doesn’t play it safe.
In Christ every one of us has that mustard seed within us. We are called to greatness. But God does not measure greatness by how many points we put on some celestial score board. God’s measure of greatness is love. Are we totally committed to loving God and neighbor? Are we guided by his word? Do we live in an ongoing dialog of prayer… speaking and listening to the palpable divine presence in our lives? If we live to return God’s love, he will surely bring the greatness. And our humble mustard seed will thrive, til God harvests us home.
God love you!
Breu, Jörg, ca. 1480-1537. Harvesting, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55316 [retrieved June 11, 2012].