“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
You probably just read that and thought, “Why the heck are we talking about mustard?” Valid question. You may, from the text, have imagined a mustard seed as the size of a ladybug’s eye and a mustard “tree” the size of… well, a tree. Valid, but it’s complete hyperbole, yet important.
The contrast of size between the seed and the tree is obviously important to understanding the parable. It would be easy to interpret it as follows: the kingdom is like a mustard seed because it grows or because it grows exponentially or because its growth shelters people and lets them make a home within it.
Those are nice. And true. Interpreting parables can stop there. They can give us comfort and reassurance. But we can also (and I would argue, should also) take our interpretations further until they are more a provocation than a pep talk. When we start to feel uneasy, restless, and uncomfortable, that’s when I think Jesus is working within us.
Before we begin, let’s acknowledge and accept that Jesus messed everything up for people. Yes, I’m saying he was radical and revolutionary, but I’m also pointing out that he reacted to a preexisting world. In order to develop a deep interpretation of his words and actions, we need to understand the world to which he was reacting.
“The text without a context is just a pretext for making it say anything one wants,” my favorite biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine wrote. She continued, “If we get the context wrong, we’ll get Jesus wrong as well.”
So what was Jesus’ context? To what was he reacting? What did he mess up for people?
When one looks at the kingdom of God parables in the gospels, an insightful student would see them as echoes of Israel’s scriptures.
Jesus’ contemporaries would have memorized verses such as these:
“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar… I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain… in order that it may… become a lofty cedar. Under it, every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” (Ezek 17:22-23)
“The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds – Your Majesty! You are that tree!” (Dan 4:20-22)
Put those passages next to the parable of the mustard seed. Woah. We have a problem. The kingdom, heaven, God, He’s like a cedar tree! A large and strong tree atop a mountain! Not a little mustard bush.
The parable does mark a contrast between small and great. It demonstrates that great outcomes arise from small beginnings. Examining the context more closely and thinking more deeply leads to several more provocative interpretations:
The Kingdom is domestic.
The kingdom Jesus spoke of here is not on a “lofty mountain,” “visible to the whole earth.” It’s in a planter’s field or garden (depending on the gospel). The kingdom of God is in the daily work of men and women and the generosity of nature. It is present when we go out on a limb to shelter ourselves and our neighbor. So foster it in your own backyard garden and appreciate it when you see it growing in another’s.
Some things need to be left alone.
In the Ezekial and Daniel passages, the trees are grafted, planted, and tended. Jesus complicates this in his parable because the seed is sown almost passively. In some translations, it even says it was “tossed” in the ground. Nevertheless, the seed insists on growing. It is a gift that God provided through the laws of nature. Something so small, allowed to do what it naturally does, yields fantastic results.
I confess to being a “fixer.” Ask Gabi: INFJs like to be right (because they usually are). Not everything nor everyone needs our constant attention. We must be willing to accept that we are part of a larger process; we are often a facilitator for something bigger than ourselves, something we may not even get to see bear fruit. Although we may plant a seed, once it starts growing, it can often do quite well on its own. Get out of the way.
“Who sowed [the seed] is much less important than the tree into which the seed grows” (Levine).