Reading: Mark 4:21-34
Last week we studied the parable of the soils — and this week we will focus on the parable that tells us that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; which starts so small, yet it becomes something huge. This is a parable that many of us can connect with. Anybody who has made pickles likely has put whole seeds in the brine for flavor — I have a little jar of mustard seeds myself, though I do not know if these are fertile.
Now, it is pretty easy to get hung up on some of the details of this parable. Jesus talks about how huge the mustard plant is; big enough for birds to shelter in them; but, those of us who are familiar with the plant know that it is generally between three and eight feet tall. It is a large plant for the garden, but it is not exactly a tree either.
Perhaps the best way to explain how the ancients saw the mustard plant is to tell you what an ancient writer said about it. Pliny the elder wrote a 10 volume set on natural history we think was published in 77 AD. Pliny’s Natural history is basically an encyclopedia of plants and animals. Pliny writes on Mustard:
With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being planted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once. (Pliny the Elder, Book 19, chapter 54)
Basically what we are looking at is an edible weed. Mustard is good for seasoning and good to eat. You can eat the greens; the seeds can be used as a spice, they can be pressed for oil, and they can make a flour that is quite nutritious. The problem is that the plant does not need any human help or effort to grow. It is not something you would be likely to plant in your garden, because it has a tendency to spread and take over the entire garden. Nobody wants a plant that it is nearly impossible to weed out!
Mustard has always been a weed that plagues field crops such as wheat and corn. When mustard is in a grain-field, farmers will find that their yield is cut in half, and it is even harder on a corn crop than it is on wheat and Soybeans. Farmers will delay planting so they can plow it under, or burn it, or if they have GMO crops that are highly resistant to herbicide they will kill mustard with chemicals.
Even though mustard grows like a weed, and in many contexts is a weed, it has also been domesticated for over 5000 years. Mustard grows well in a wide variety of soils with minimal effort. Mustard is one of those plants that can grow in very poor soil, and somehow enriches the soil it grows in. Because of this, mustard is sometimes used as a cover crop, and a green manure. In addition, mustard grows extremely quickly, produces eatable leaves and seeds that are valuable for both their flavor and their oil.
A single mustard plant will produce thousands of seeds in just 2 or 3 months. The plant produces seed-pods, each with a number of seeds inside. If the seeds are harvested, a single plant will produce thousands of seeds, and if the plant is not harvested, the seed pods will rupture and seed the whole area, and new mustard plants will grow. If the gardener is careless, mustard can spread to take over the whole garden — and the garden will fill with birds who are there to eat the bounty of seeds.
The kingdom of God is like mustard. The seed is so tiny, but it takes root and grows. In one generation, a single seed becomes a cup, or more, of seeds. Before the growing season is over, the scattered seeds take root and another generation comes; it does not take many seasons for a single seed to have filled an entire field with mustard plants. The kingdom of God is like mustard; something that takes root when the soil is less than perfect, and yet it will fill the field giving nourishment to the soil, to the birds, and to people. Once we’ve got God’s kingdom planted and growing in us — we have all of it’s nourishing benefit, but it is not something that is easy to control, nor to free ourselves of it; God’s kingdom will take us over.
Last week, the parable of the soils talked about a sower planting grain — mustard isn’t grain, and if the sower planted mustard instead, the mustard may have pushed out the weeds, given enough moisture it would have grown in the rocky soil, and in good soil it would have produced 5,000, 10,000, and 50,000 fold. I believe that we are invited to have the kingdom of God in us — and that our hearts and lives are where this mustard will grow.
Remember, though, mustard isn’t the only parable that applies to the kingdom of heaven, and to disciples. We see, and are, salt and light. There is a sense that the Kingdom of God isn’t only to sprout and change a few people’s hearts, but it is supposed to enlighten the whole world, to bring flavor to the whole world, to in a real sense bring salvation to the whole world.
When we look at the world around us; it often seems like the kingdom of heaven is the furthest thing away in the world. The west has been secularized. Even devout Christians often seem to prefer the way the kingdoms of this world works to the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes it seems like things are being pushed backwards.
The truth is, it is exactly as Pliny wrote: when the mustard grows, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it. We forget how far we have come. The wisdom of the ancients and the world was that only the wealthy and the powerful had any value — and that the gods had no interest in the poor, only in the most elite. Jesus challenged this, and now the world at large realizes that the poor have value; this is the effect of Mustard.
To get a sense of how strong this view was, remember when Herod killed the babies after the wise men came? Historians do not mention this at all; granted, we are talking about a couple dozen poor kids who would never grow up to be anybody anyways. Today, this would be news, and would be condemned as an atrocity, this is the effect of Mustard.
Ancient Romans would take unwanted babies out into the wilderness to die; today, there is a real attempt to save babies, including saving those who might otherwise be thrown away. Systems have been built with the intent to save such babies; first by churches, but also now by governments. We have gone a long way since churches had ‘baby hatches’ or foundling wheels to collect unwanted babies and make sure they were cared for from about 1000 years ago to when they have become unnecessary in the western world in the 19th century. (Though, the practice has recently been resurrected here in Indiana.) We live in a world that looks for ways to save babies that would once be taken out to the woods and left to die — this is the effect of mustard.
Jesus was born into a culture where most human life was not valued. Blood sports and executions were popular entertainment. Even as Rome became Christianized, the cultural norms of the Roman people still continued. It took centuries for the gladiators to stop killing each other for the entertainment of the masses — however, these ended in the fifth century. A monk, Telemachus went from the East to Rome. While in Rome, he went to the Coliseum and went onto the field where the gladiators were fighting, and asked them to stop. The crowd was so furious that he interrupted their entertainment that they threw rocks at the monk, and stoned him to death. After the audience killed a monk, the gladiator games came to an end, and Telmachus’ name was included in the names of Christian martyrs that people remember. Ever since this time, it would be unthinkable to re-introduce entertainment where two people try to kill each other; this is the effect of mustard. (Theodort’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 5 chapter 26)
The kingdom of God is like Mustard; and that Mustard is growing in the Church, but it also spreads to everything that the Church touches. The world we live in is changed because the Seed grows throughout the world. The Kingdom of God is taking root — and, while there are attempts to weed it out, Pliny the Elder was correct: It is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.