The Mustard Seed Story.

Mark 4.30-32, Matthew 13.31-32, Luke 13.18-19.

Another of Jesus’s agricultural parables. In Mark he told this one right the Independent Fruit Story, in Matthew it’s in between the Wheat and Weeds Story 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) Jesus starts it by especially pointing out it’s a hypothetical comparison to God’s kingdom. Just in case his listeners weren't yet clear he’s being parabolic; after all there are certain literalists who struggle with the concept. I’ll get to them.

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?”

So what’ll we compare God’s kingdom with today? How ’bout a mustard seed? Various preachers, and maybe a Jesus movie or two, like to imagine Jesus holding up one such seed, as if he was carrying around this prop just so he could whip it out during the lesson… as if anybody in the audience could even 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, and can grow to be the 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 just like that. Didn’t start from much, and now a third of the world claims allegiance to Jesus. Likewise when one of our evangelists comes into a community and starts sharing Jesus, it may begin 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.

The mustard plant and its tiny seeds.

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. We make what we call “brown mustard” of it. Or used to; when we tried to use mechanical harvesters on it, they had the worst time, so now we largely use Brassica juncea, which tastes the same. Oh, and yellow mustard is made from a different species, Sinapsis alba.

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.

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?

Literalists will therefore jump through all sorts of semantic hoops to explain why Jesus didn’t literally mean a mustard seed is the smallest seed on earth.

  • He meant the smallest edible seed. (Not that orchids aren’t edible, but we typically don’t eat ’em.)
  • He meant the smallest cultivated seed. The smallest seed we deliberately planted in our herb gardens.
  • He meant the smallest seed in the Galilee, ’cause orchids don’t grow there.
  • He meant the smallest seed the Galileans cultivated; he didn’t care what other cultures commonly grew.
  • Orchid seeds don’t count as proper seeds. They have underdeveloped embryos and no endosperm. A proper seed should have these things.

And so on. There are all sorts of explanations which they’ll consider plausible. But where they won’t go is the route the NIV’s translators chose in their 1984 edition—when they straight-up “fixed” the bible. I’m not kidding.

Mark 4.30 NIV (1984)
“It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.”
Matthew 13.32 NIV (1984)
“Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

Didja catch what they did there? They simply added some “yours” to the gospels. It’s “the smallest seed you plant,” and “the smallest of all your seeds.” There ya go; now Jesus isn’t factually inaccurate anymore.

The NIV is translated by inerrantists, who believe the bible has no errors whatsoever, and anything which looks like an error—which we Evangelicals popularly call a bible “difficulty”—has a reasonable, plausible explanation. But rather than leave it to preachers to give these explanations, they took it upon themselves to delete all the difficulties. Alter the verses so people can’t see any potential problems, put what they did in the footnotes (and who reads footnotes?), and problem solved.

This didn’t fly with the literalists, who got ’em to put the difficulty back in.

Mark 4.30 NIV (2011)
“It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.”
Matthew 13.32 NIV (2011)
“Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

Regardless, most people don’t know squat about botany, so the issue seldom comes up. Preachers simply say, “Mustard seeds are the smallest on earth,” with no qualifications: As far as they know, mustard seeds are the smallest. Didn’t Jesus say so? And he created ’em, so he would know.

The problem is when Christians run into an argumentative skeptic who happens to know a little botany, who correctly points out mustard is not the smallest seed. “Well you can’t be right,” Christians’ll stammer, “because Jesus said it is the smallest…” but gradually it dawns on them this argument ain’t gonna work on skeptics. And in many cases, ’tain’t gonna work on them either. Now they have doubts.

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

It’s not a literal mustard plant!

The solution to this whole quandary is extremely simple. Comes from the fact Jesus introduced his mustard plant thisaway:

Matthew 13.32 KWL
“…which is smaller than all seeds, and can grow to be the largest of the greens.
It becomes a tree, so wild birds are coming and living in its shadow.”

Go look at that black mustard plant photo. Does it look anything like a tree to you? Has it branches? Anything one bird, much less multiple birds, can actually perch in, like Luke describes? Has it serious shade for any birds to find shelter under? Does it look anything like the sort of tree Jesus described?

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

Remember 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 Walt Disney turned into a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Same with Jesus’s mustard plant. It grew so big it became a tree. Real mustard plants never grow that big. But Jesus is describing how unexpectedly, impossibly large God’s kingdom grows: So huge, Jesus’s mustard plant becomes gargantuan. Bigger than any real-world mustard plant. Big enough to house birds.

Like I said, most people don’t know squat about botany. Jesus’s audience did. They recognized he was using hyperbole. Literalists will note that a real-life black mustard plant might actually grow 2 meters tall, and isn’t that plenty big enough to shelter birds? But Jesus isn’t talking about any 2-meter mustard; 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 will grow. It doesn’t compare with literal plants! It compares with fantasy plants. The people of Jesus’s day knew how big mustard plants grew, and knew this story leaves the real world far behind. In comparison, preachers today don’t know botany, and don’t realize what Jesus was going for. The kingdom is much, much grander than you ever expected.

Got it now? Hope so.

No, the birds aren’t a secret code.

As I mentioned in my article on connect-the-dots interpretations, there’s a school of thought which believes all Jesus’s parables follow a particular code key. One known to people of Jesus’s day, but somehow we lost it… unless we’re clever and piece it back together. Remember the seeds in the Four Seeds story, are “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.

Years ago one of my pastors preached a sermon making this very claim. In the Mustard Seed Story, the tiny seed still represented “the word.” A tiny word. ’Cause seed always represents “the word.” And when it gets planted, though it’s tiny, it grows into a great big tree. ’Cause that’s what the word does: It won’t return void, y’know.

How about the birds? Oh, they represent Satan.

The Four Seeds Story tells of birds which ate the seed on the road, and when Jesus explained the story for his kids, he said the birds represent when the devil snatches the word from people’s hearts. Lk 8.12 So if you insist the parables share a code key, here’s two codes cracked:

  • Seed: Word.
  • Birds: Devils.

And whenever the word spurs growth, the devil shows up, and hangs out in our branches, lest we do it further damage.

Yep, this is how my pastor interpreted the Mustard Seed Story. Thought himself kinda clever for figuring it out, too. Y’never heard that spin on this story before, right?

I hadn’t. ’Cause it’s rubbish. Parables aren’t codes. As proven by the fact Jesus elsewhere compares faith to a mustard seed. Mt 17.20 Which is it, the word or faith? (And don’t go saying, “Well, a word of faith. That’ll cover both.”) If Jesus were following any actual code, he completely messed it up.

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 their relationship is like his kingdom.

In the Mustard Seed Story, Jesus states flat out: The seed represents the kingdom. Mk 4.31 Not the word, as in the Four Seeds Story. Not faith, as in that other teaching. The seed is 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 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 another agenda. We wanna talk about growth… whatever “growth” means to us. We wanna talk about that instead of God’s kingdom. We bend this story till we can claim Jesus is talking about our thing. 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 τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ/ta peteiná tu uranú, “birds of the sky,” as opposed to flightless domestic birds) can nest anywhere they choose. Preferably a tall tree, so animals on the ground can’t pester ’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.

Is this the sort of kingdom we promote in our churches? Or would we rather the “wild birds” go somewhere else? Or perhaps we do want ’em to come, but they don’t feel we’re accepting enough: Is that our problem? Do our churches encourage people to do better, and gently offer God’s forgiveness when we inevitably fumble? Or do they spend more time angrily ranting about the nasty sins of the world?

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