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The Mustard Seed

No sooner was Jesus done speaking about wheat and weeds, he launched into another parable about a mustard seed, saying that it was the smallest of all seeds, but when it grew it became the greatest of all shrubs.

The first thing that people who know such things might think is that the mustard seed is by no means the smallest seed there is. That honor belongs to the seeds of tropical orchids that weigh just 10 billionths of an ounce! And when mustard seeds grow, the plants usually attain a height of about four or five feet, which by no definition makes then “the greatest of the shrubs”. So what gives?

One could, of course, point out that at Jesus’ time the mustard seed was the smallest seed that people knew. It is highly unlikely that any of them had heard of an orchid, much less seen one. And one could also point out that while it was true that most mustard plants didn’t attain any sizable height, there were some, especially offshoots from the black mustard seed, that could grow as tall as ten feet. But this would, of course, be totally missing the main point of the story which is that great things can happen from little beginnings. And that these things were going to take place because of divine intervention, not natural laws.

There are only two other places the mustard seed is mentioned in the Bible, and both references are from Jesus. He said, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). He is quoted as saying something similar in the Gospel of Luke. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6).

Jesus said this to his small band of followers. It seemed like there was little they would be able to do to impact the world around them, but Jesus was telling them that this was not the case; if they had enough faith they could—and would-—make a huge difference. There would undoubtedly be huge, mountain sized challenges that they faced, but they were not to be daunted by them because they would be able to deal with the situations that came their way. 

There were, indeed, many obstacles that stood in the path of the apostles. Many were arrested, beaten, even killed [see Box: Persecution]. It seemed very unlikely that they would be able to succeed against the forces arrayed against them. Yet, Christianity spread to every corner of the globe with people from every nation (the birds) coming to salvation (making nests) in its branches.

There are some interpreters who say the birds represent the devil, because Jesus spoke about how “the birds came and ate up the seed” (see The Parable of the Sower;  Matthew 13:1-9), but most of these interpreters seem to have an unholy agenda. Besides, the birds being representative of evil doesn’t fit into the context of the story. There are also other references to trees and birds in Scripture that shed some light. Ezekiel had made one such allusion years earlier although the prophet used the analogy of the loftier cedar.

On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind (Ezekiel 17:23). 

Why didn’t Jesus use the same analogy of the mighty cedar that Ezekiel did? This is a symbol the people would have certainly understood. But as we’ve discovered through this series, the parables weren’t supposed to be easy to understand. Jesus wanted his listeners to think about what he said, and think beyond the obvious. The secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven were not easily accessible, but revealed only to people who earnestly sought them. To speak about a cedar tree growing tall was, therefore, nothing of great note; cedar trees were expected to grow tall. But to speak of a mustard plant growing tall and becoming a tree was out of the ordinary—something miraculous—and Jesus wanted them to understand that this growth was exactly that—miraculous! That is what God did, grow his Church to the humongous size that it has become today miraculously

However, just because something has grown huge doesn’t mean that it is safe! Looking at the next line in Ezekiel’s book, we read this: All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it (Ezekiel 17:24).

If God can raise then God can bring low too, and human history should have taught us by now that God can be ruthless in how he humbles nations just as he humbles people. 

The Book of Daniel also has something to teach us in this regard, and this too speaks about birds and trees! King Nebuchadnezzar, who seemed to spend more time dreaming than ruling, had a vision of a tree. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed (Daniel 4:11-12).

A wonderful vision, it described the king himself, but then, a holy watcher, coming down from heaven cried aloud and said: ‘Cut down the tree and chop off its branches, strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from beneath it and the birds from its branches (Daniel 4:13-14).

God destroyed the tree, but he left the stump and roots in the ground so that the kingdom shall be re-established for you from the time that you learn that Heaven is sovereign (Daniel 4:26).

For seven years, King Nebuchadnezzar lived like an animal, his mind totally lost, until he finally changed his focus from himself to the one true God who deserved to be worshiped and praised. He turned from his pride and towards God. The restoration was immediate. God forgave Nebuchadnezzar and returned all that he had lost, plus a lot more. 

Although the lesson is obvious, pride continues to be the downfall of people—and institutions. If we can see and understand what is happening to God’s church today, instead of burying our heads in the sand like some dumb ostrich pretending nothing is wrong, we can also understand that one thing is urgently needed. To turn from pride and towards God, and experience the restoration that he always brings. We have seen such restoration many times in Scripture, in stories from David’s to Peter’s, and we can take much hope from it. Otherwise, the madness that was Nebuchadnezzar’s will continue to be ours and generations will pay the price.