The Mustard Seed story.

Lots of weird botany involved in this story.

Mark 4.30-32 • Matthew 13.31-32 • Luke 13.18-19

Another of Jesus’s parables about agriculture. In Mark he told this one right the Independent Fruit. In Matthew it’s in between the Wheat and Weeds and its interpretation, Mt 13.24-30, 36-43 and in Luke it’s after Jesus cured a bent-over woman. Lk 13.10-17

Uniquely (in two gospels, anyway) he starts it by especially pointing out it’s a hypothetical comparison to God’s kingdom.

Mark 4.30 KWL
Jesus said, “How might we compare God’s kingdom?
Or with what parable might we set it?”
Luke 13.18 KWL
So Jesus said, “What’s like God’s kingdom? What can it be compared with?”

Just in case you weren't yet clear he’s being parabolic. After all, there are certain literalists who struggle with the concept. Particularly in this story. I’ll get to them.

So, what’ll we compare the kingdom with today? How about a mustard seed? Various preachers, and maybe a Jesus movie or two, like to imagine Jesus holding up one such seed—as if any of his students could actually see the tiny thing between his fingers. This, Jesus said, is like the kingdom:

Mark 4.31-32 KWL
31 “Like a mustard seed?—which, when sown in the earth,
is smaller than all the seeds in the earth.
32 When it’s sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all the greens.
It makes great branches, so wild birds could live under its shadow.”
Matthew 13.31-32 KWL
31 Jesus set another parable before them, telling them, “Heaven’s kingdom is like a mustard seed,
which a person takes, sows in their field—
32 which is smaller than all seeds, yet can grow to be largest of the greens.
It becomes a tree, so wild birds are coming and living in its shadow.”
Luke 13.19 KWL
“It’s like a mustard seed, which a person takes and throws in their garden.
It grew and became a tree, and wild birds settled in its branches.”

Memorable story, right? Tiny little seed becomes a great big tree. God’s kingdom is like that. Didn’t start from much, and now a third of the world claim allegiance to Jesus. Still doesn’t start from much—when an evangelist comes into a community and starts sharing Jesus, it begins with one or two people or families, and before we know it there’s a huge church, and everyone’s flocking to it like wild birds.

That’s the rather obvious interpretation of this parable. That’s the consensus of what Christians have been teaching for millennia. Small beginning, big finish.

So what’s the problem? Well, Jesus wasn’t giving a botany lesson; he was using a parable to teach on the kingdom. But Christians, particularly literalists, keep getting hung up on the botany.

It’s not a literal mustard plant!


Black mustard. Wikimedia

Mustard plants grow wild all over Israel. All over the United States as well; it’s the same species, Brassica nigra, black mustard. Our popular condiment is usually made from yellow mustard, Sinapis alba, but many cultures make a mustard or curry sauce from black mustard.

Thing is, black mustard does not literally produce the smallest seeds on earth. Orchids do. Mustard seeds are about 1-2 millimeters in diameter. (So are the poppy seeds on your lemon muffin.) Orchid seeds can be as small as 0.05 millimeters. That’s the smallest seed we humans deliberately put in the earth—when we’re trying to grow orchids.

Now if you’re a biblical literalist, you’re gonna hate that fact. ’Cause it implies Jesus (or Mark and Matthew) was wrong when he described the mustard seed as “smaller than all seeds.” Mt 13.32 The infallible Son of God, the one who created plants in the first place, was wrong about plant trivia? What the heck?

Hence I’ve heard various literalists jump through all sorts of semantic hoops to explain why Jesus didn’t really mean “smaller than all the seeds in the earth.” Mk 4.31 He only meant smaller than all the seeds humans cultivated at that point in history. Or smaller than all the seeds in their earth, namely the land of Israel. Or these literalists invent some reason why orchid seeds don’t count as smaller seeds: They have underdeveloped embryos, and no endosperm, and a proper seed would have these things, and Jesus only meant a proper seed.

More commonly, they never ever bring up the idea there might be smaller seeds than mustard. They simply repeat the statement, “It’s the smallest seed on earth,” with no qualifications. Problem is, whenever Christians run into an argumentative skeptic who happens to know a little something about botany, they’re regularly dumbfounded when the skeptic correctly points out mustard isn’t the smallest seed. “Well you can’t be right,” they stammer, “because Jesus said it is the smallest…” and gradually it dawns on them that argument isn’t gonna work on a skeptic. And in many cases, it’s not gonna really work on them either. Now they have doubts.

So let’s deal with the doubts, shall we?

The solution to this quandary is really simple. Comes from the fact Jesus described his mustard plant thisaway: “It grew and became a tree, and wild birds settled in its branches.” Lk 13.19

Go look at that photo of a black mustard plant again. That look anything like a tree to you? Does it have branches a bird can actually settle in? Does it produce serious shade for a bird to find shelter under? Mt 13.32 Does it look anything like the sort of tree Jesus described?

Nope. Because Jesus wasn’t talking about a literal mustard plant.

You recall the story of Jack and the beanstalk? Kid’s mother throws “magic beans” out the window, and they grow into a beanstalk so tall it reaches into the clouds? Now you know there’s no such thing as such a beanstalk. There are beanstalks, but none grow that large. This is a children’s story, a fairy tale, something Disney turned into a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Same with Jesus’s mustard plant. It grew so big, it became a tree, and birds perched in it? Real mustard plants don’t grow that big. But that’s the way God’s kingdom grows: So large, so huge, the mustard plant Jesus compares it to becomes an unrealistic, gargantuan size. Bigger than any real-world mustard plant. Big enough to house birds.

This is the point which literalists regularly miss: Jesus is describing an impossibly large mustard plant. Instead, they insist he’s describing a literal mustard plant; that a real-life mustard plant can actually grow about 2 meters tall, and isn’t that big enough to shelter birds? But Jesus isn’t talking about any 2-meter mustard plant! This is a full-on 50-foot mustard tree. You could keep eagles in it. That’s what he means.

Get fixated on the literal mustard plant, and you’re gonna totally miss Jesus’s idea about how big his kingdom is gonna grow. It’s not gonna compare with literal plants. It’s gonna compare with fantasy plants. The people of Jesus’s day knew how big mustard plants grew, and knew he’d left the real world far behind. In comparison, preachers today don’t know botany, so we don’t realize what Jesus was going for. The kingdom is much, much grander than you ever expected.

Got it now? Hope so.

The birds aren’t a secret code, either.

There is, as I mentioned in my article on connect-the-dots interpretations, a school of thought which believes the parables all follow a secret code. One known only to people of Jesus’s day, but has been lost in our day… unless you’re clever and have pieced it all back together. So you remember how, in the Four Seeds story, the seeds were “the word”? According to these folks, seeds mean “the word” in every story. In every parable, in every apocalyptic vision, in every instance of Hebrew poetry; heck, you can even try to extract secret meanings out of a literal use of the word “seed” in the bible.

So that’s what this pastor did. In the Mustard Seed story, he claimed, the tiny little mustard seed still represented “the word.” Because seed always represents “the word.” And when it gets planted, even though it’s a tiny little seed, it grows into a great big tree. ’Cause that’s what the word does: It won’t return void, y’know.

Okay, what about the birds? Oh, they represent Satan.

Remember, in the Four Seeds story the birds came and gobbled up the seed on the road, and Jesus pointed out the birds represented when the devil snatches the word out of people’s hearts. Lk 8.12 So if you’re following a codebook interpretation, that’s what the birds have to represent in the Mustard Seed story. Whenever you see “bird,” think “devil.” Whenever the word has any kind of growth in our churches (i.e. the big branches), the devil will come hang out at our churches, and pester us ’cause we’re doing real damage to its kingdom.

Yep, that’s how this pastor interpreted this story. Thought it kinda clever of him to come up with it, too. You’d never heard that spin on this story before, right?

Pity it’s rubbish. Jesus’s parables don’t follow any codebook. As proven by the fact Jesus elsewhere compares faith to a mustard seed. Mt 17.20 According to a codebook interpretation, each codeword can only have one interpretation. So which one is it? The word, or faith? (And don’t go saying, “Well, a word of faith. That’ll cover both.” It actually won’t cover it as well as you’re hoping.)

Fact is, every parable Jesus tells, every vision Jesus relates, has to be interpreted individually. Because Jesus isn’t using these individual elements to describe the kingdom; he’s using the story. It’s not about what the seeds are, what the mustard tree is, and what the birds are: It’s how the seeds, tree, and birds relate to one another. And how that relationship is like the kingdom.

In the Mustard Seed story, Jesus states flat out: The seed represents the kingdom. Mk 4.31 Not the word, like “seed” did in the Four Seeds story. Not faith, like it does in that other teaching. It represents the kingdom itself. The kingdom is like this seed. We don’t have to guess how to interpret the mustard seed in this story: Jesus told us right there, at the start of the parable.

So why do we leap over the obvious, and claim the seed means other things? ’Cause we’re paying more attention to our interpretive scheme than our Lord. ’Cause we’re more fond of our own wisdom than his.

Or ’cause sometimes we have other things we wanna see grow really bit like that mustard tree. So we want to make Jesus’s story about our own prosperity instead of the kingdom’s. Or the growth of our idols. We bend this story till we can claim Jesus is talking about our growth. But this story is about his kingdom, not ours.

And to repeat the obvious: God’s kingdom doesn’t start very big at all. But Jesus’s goal is to make it a huge sphere of influence. Wild birds (literally peteiná tu uranú/“birds of the heavens,” as opposed to flightless domestic birds) could nest anywhere they choose. Preferably a tall tree, so animals on the ground can’t get at ’em. This mustard plant would have to be impressively large to make ’em want to seek its shelter. That’s Jesus’s point: The kingdom should become a similar sort of haven for the wandering lost of this world.

So is that the sort of kingdom we’re trying to promote in our churches? Or would we rather the “wild birds” go elsewhere? Or perhaps we do want ’em to come, but they don’t feel we’re accepting enough: Is that our problem? Are our churches encouraging people to do better, and gently offer God’s forgiveness when we inevitably fumble? Or are they ranting angrily about the nasty sins of the world?

Jesus wants his kingdom to grow large, and be a shelter. Are we contributing towards that goal, or have we gone our own way?