notre dame montreal


Sermon for Ordinary 11
mustard seed

Jesus and the Mustard Seed

The Reverend Canon Charles Royden

Today we have a parable spoken by Jesus. We love parables because they are stories and we all love stories. They are also really important because Jesus was the parable expert. Nobody before or since has used them so widley or effectively,

  1. The Mishnah is the earliest rabbinic literature we have from 2nd century ad and it has no parables.
  2. They were not used at Qumran, not in the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Apocrypha or Pseud pigrapha
  3. The Early Church never used parables and so we know that they never super-imposed them on Jesus.
  4. There might have a been a few Jewish ones which predated Jesus but not many, we see just a few in the Old Testament.

They are a personal signature, so we know these are the words which Jesus spoke !

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

Is it really appropriate for Jesus to liken the kingdom to a mustard seed? It might not be the smallest seed, apparently the orchid seed is smaller and that is a very pretty plant, or the cypress seed is smaller and that is a spectacular tree. The mustard seed was spoken about proverbially at the time as the smallest seed, but it doesn’t grow into a big tree, rather it grows into something more like an invasive weed. The Pharisees forbade it being planted in a garden (m. Kil. 3:2) because it was considered to be uncontrollable. I suspect it was a little like Japanese Knotweed in our country which has all kinds of laws preventing its planting and removal. You could be fined £5,000 or be sent to prison for up to 2 years if you allow contaminated soil or plant material from any waste you transfer to spread into the wild. You even have to declare it if you sell your house!

I am sure that the disciples would have preferred the kingdom to have been likened to a cypress tree. In the Book of Daniel Nebuchanezzar was compared to a mighty tree

‘Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and  on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.’

That is the kind of kingdom that the disciples might have wanted, something like mighty Babylon. Instead they get a mustard seed and a very large weed. I know that we often think about this parable in terms of how big things come from little beginnings and the mustard bush sprouted up after a very short time, but did Jesus really have to choose a weed?

Looking at the life of Jesus we can see that God did not choose to reveal himself as a ‘Cedar’ a God of impressive power. God chose to come to the world as a tiny baby, not in the palace of the Romans, or the Temple of the Jews, but rather in weakness as a baby in a stable with nowhere to lay his head.

In a manner this is quite a simple parable compared to other parables such as the parable of the sower. This parable just says relax, the kingdom is a seed and guess what seeds grow. God's kingdom will grow, and God will bring it about. Not you and not and not our mission programmes.
The Greek word which is used is that the seed grows automataeia - it sounds a bit like our word automatic - and that is exactly what it means ! Does that sound a bit simplistic? Well that is what Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is going to happen, it claims all aspects of human existence. Out of the ground the seed grows.

The message we have is that

  1. It’s not the size of our faith that matters
  2. It’s the person in who we have faith – Jesus

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you. Luke 17.5-10

No wonder that Jesus taught that it was something children were better at than adults!