A new take on the mustard seed

mustard seeds image courtesy of photobucket.com

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 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.”
~ Matthew 13:31-32

The lesson I’ve always drawn from this parable was that God can do great things even through small things. Whether it be our faith, our ministry, or our testimony. I still think that lesson is a valid one, but it wasn’t until I read Guerrilla Lovers: Changing the World with Revolutionary Compassion by Vince Antonucci that I realized there’s more to the story.

See, I read “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” and mentally stopped there. But Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.” I focused on the smallness of the seed, not the fact that a man planted it in his field. Why is that significant? Vince explains:

Remember, Jesus took center stage with the words, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.” One hundred eleven times the Bible records Jesus saying the word kingdom. And now he asks, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?”

A mustard seed.

Surprise!

When a mustard seed grows it becomes a weed. It’s a vine-like weed which will grow and grow and will intertwine with other weeds. And they’ll continue to grow. And then they’ll come into contact with a flower, which will be overtaken by the weeds. Now they’re growing more. Soon they’ll touch a tomato plant, and pretty soon that tomato plant has been overtaken by the weeds.

In fact, Jewish law at the time of Jesus made it illegal to plant mustard seed in a garden. Why was it against the law? Because they knew that it would grow and grow, invade the vegetables and other plants, and eventually take over the garden. If you let mustard in, eventually you’d be left with only mustard. The secret to gardening for the Jewish people of Jesus’s day was: keep the mustard out!

I wonder how people reacted when they heard Jesus compare his kingdom to mustard seed planted in a garden. Did they just look shocked? Are you serious? Don’t you know about mustard? Or did they giggle? This guy is hysterical. I can’t wait to hear what he’s going to say next! Or perhaps they frowned and thought, Jesus, hush. We like you, and if you keep comparing your kingdom to mustard, you’re going to get yourself killed.

Jesus used a notorious, forbidden weed to describe God’s kingdom. He said God’s kingdom is like a man who planted a mustard seed in his garden. But people didn’t plant mustard seed in gardens. It was illegal. If you did, the mustard seed would grow and grow and take over the entire garden.

I’ve tried to think of modern-day equivalents. If Jesus was here today and asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?” what would he say next? What modern-day metaphor would make the same point and have similar shock value?

Maybe: “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a vicious computer virus a man sent out in an email from his computer, and it spread and spread and infected more and more computers.”

Or perhaps this: “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like AIDS, which infected one person but soon spread and spread and became an epidemic as scores of people received it.”

If we heard that, our heads would spin. We’d say, “What? Are you serious? And the people who heard Jesus back then would have reacted the same way.

So what was Jesus trying to teach us about the kingdom of God?

The Jesus revolution is subtle. It starts small, like a weed in a garden, but it spreads. It reaches out and everything it touches it grabs and pulls in. It spreads one life to another, more and more people getting pulled into it. And the harder you try to get rid of it, the faster it spreads.

I think Jesus is teaching us that the revolution is meant to be viral. It spreads like a disease. It’s a disease you want to catch, but still it spreads like a disease. When you hang out with someone who has the flu, you catch the flu. Jesus is saying the revolution should be sneezable. The revolution should be contagious, and when it comes into an area, it should grow into an epidemic.

But it will only grow into an epidemic if it’s done right. Weeds don’t come in and announce they’re taking over the garden. They don’t invite all the other plants and vegetables to a meeting and ask them if they’d like to be taken over by the weeds. They don’t hand out tracts explaining the benefits of the garden overrun by weeds. They don’t wear weed T-shirts. They don’t put a billboard up for all the vegetation to see: “For the Gardener so loved the garden, he gave his one and only weed.”

No, a weed comes in unannounced, popping up very subtly, and it starts to grow. Then another weed pops up. And if these two weeds meet up, they’ll get enmeshed, and then they’ll intertwine with another weed. Soon they’re pulling in flowers and plants, and eventually the entire garden is taken over by the weeds.

And Jesus teaches us that this is the way of his kingdom. The way his revolution is intended to function, the way it grows best, is not through public meetings, billboards, and TV. No, it’s a love revolution that spreads person to person, one individual to another. And when we try to make it something it’s not, it just won’t work quite right. But when we live it out as it’s supposed to be, watch out.

So what do you think?

Have you ever thought about the the parable of the mustard seed in this way?

Do you think it’s significant that the parable of the weeds immediately precedes this parable in Matthew 13?

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17 Responses to “A new take on the mustard seed”

  1. Louise March 20, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    Pretty powerful — the closing really got me — it’s a love revolution that spreads person to person, one individual to another. And when we try to make it something it’s not, it just won’t work quite right. But when we live it out as it’s supposed to be, watch out.

    That is the way it is supposed to be!

  2. Sandra Heska King March 20, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    I did not know that about the mustard seed, so no, I didn’t know that. Some powerful insights here! Thanks so much, Kathy. This has given me a whole new perspective and some wonderful stuff to chew on.

    P.S. I thought of planting kudzu that takes over everything in the South.

  3. Shelley March 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    Great post! I didn’t know that about the mustard plant…that it grows and invades everything. I guess it’s true, you learn something new every day!

  4. Katie M March 21, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    “The way his revolution is intended to function, the way it grows best, is not through public meetings, billboards, and TV. No, it’s a love revolution that spreads person to person, one individual to another. And when we try to make it something it’s not, it just won’t work quite right. But when we live it out as it’s supposed to be, watch out.” This is such an amazing truth. One of the reasons it took me so long to meet Jesus is because I thought I already had and I didn’t like what I saw. If we are going to be weeds, lets be mustard seeds and not those prickly weeds that stab your feet while you are running through the grass barefoot.

  5. Helen March 21, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    No, I didn’t know that about the mustard seed. I understood it to be a small seed, but I didn’t understand the paradox of what Jesus was saying! I have been continually astounded these last couple of weeks! Jesus was so very bold and unabashed!

  6. Jason March 21, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    That’s awesome stuff, Kat. And I don’t think there’s any coincidence that this parable comes after the parable of the weeds. Jesus was giving an example of the sermon series.

  7. Ryan Tate March 21, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    I did know this about the mustard seed, and there are no coincidences with Jesus.

    I love this exerpt. Thank you for posting it.

  8. Hazel Moon March 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    Interesting and thoughtful post! Too many of desire to “Rest in the Lord.” when he also wants us to “Run with Him.” As you bring out, he also wants us to Plant!
    Being drawn into deep intimacy with Jesus and running
    in servanthood ministry fulfill the two great commandments
    Jesus gave in Matthew 22:37-40.

  9. Amy Nabors March 21, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    I never knew that much about the mustard seed either. Reminds me of the kudzoo here in Alabama.

  10. Dusty Rayburn March 21, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    A similar thought…the Kingdom of God would be like Kudzu. You can’t get rid of the stuff… burn it, cut it, and it keeps advancing.

  11. jasonS March 21, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    Wow, wow, wow! I love this, Kat. I’ve never heard it like this. Thanks.

  12. Mike March 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    Very nice. It makes me wonder how many other things we read over in the scriptures without full understanding. Thanks!

  13. Dr. Michael D. Evans April 21, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    I remember this parable was often told to me by my grandma over and over again. It taught me a lot.

  14. Sarah July 22, 2012 at 2:54 am #

    Thanks!

  15. Elena November 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    I’m working with Luke 13, which brought me to this parable, and I could feel the Spirit nudging me that there was something particularly special about the fact that it’s a mustard seed, and that it’s planted in a garden. Your post has brought this into clarity for me, and I’m about to order the Guerilla Lovers book. Thank you, and God bless you!

  16. shawn February 10, 2015 at 3:34 am #

    you stated:
    Guerrilla Lovers: Changing the World with Revolutionary Compassion by Vince Antonucci is where you learned about this?

    Can you tell us if Vince Antonucci cites his source for how he found out it was illegal to plant mustard seeds in Jesus day? Im wondering if it is a credible source or if he even gives a source at all?

    Thanks!
    Shawn

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