Jesus said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”~Luke 13:18-19
The parable of the mustard seed evokes thanksgiving and a sense of advent. What was small and humble has grown and is useful! Even so, it remains a humble plant that people might not notice among the cultivated plants of the garden. Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is like this.
Jesus’ followers recounted this short parable in the three synoptic gospels. One mentions a garden (Luke) and another, a field (Matthew). Mark writes that the seed became the greatest of all vegetables, while Matthew and Luke write of a tree. In one account the seed is sown (Matthew), while in another it’s simply tossed into the garden (Luke). All three enable Jesus to tell us—millennia later—about a small mustard seed that became a dwelling place for birds.
Jesus’ parables are condensed, metaphorical stories that enable the heavenly to be viewed through the lens of the earthly, captivating our imagination and schooling our character. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that when sown in the earth grows to shelter living creatures. Imagine that! How then shall we live?
Parables tell the truth in such a slanted way that they provoke, disturb, challenge, illuminate, fortify, and teach. Like a dazzling sun the parable sheds light, offers orientation, and anchors us with gravity. Jesus tells us that the small seed becomes a home. Do you register that dazzling, orienting, anchoring truth?
Jesus tells truth and also is the Truth which dazzles. Jesus speaks metaphors and is one, too: “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). In his parables the natural world becomes witness to the spiritual world. What is the mustard seed’s testimony?
Mustard is hardy, ancient, and no respecter of borders. It germinates with abandon, without cultivation, wherever it’s sown. People throughout time and around the world have benefited from it as food, spice, and medicine. This humble, reliable herb is neither delicate nor gorgeous, sprouting with little more care than that provided by sunshine and rain. Mustard sprouts and spreads exuberantly!
In the third millennium after Jesus told this story, situated in the Global North which so wholly embraced Christianity for centuries, many people are wondering about the Kingdom’s mustard in our neighborhood today. Note that Jesus identifies a process: sowing, growing, and sheltering. He doesn’t describe pearly gates or a pristine garden. His story is about a seed bursting forth from its shell, spilling life force into the earth, and bursting upwards in wood, leaf and flower. He points to the energy of grace, not fixities of doctrine and structure.
Grace flows from the one who takes the seed of life in hand and scatters it on the earth; through the development and flourishing of the plant; to the harboring of the nesting birds (who themselves participate in the flow of generative life). Do we trust that this grace is flowing in our time and place? Do we recognize it?
Mustard plants are sometimes accused of being weeds. The name has been applied to a toxic gas in which the plant plays no part. Maybe Jesus is not only saying that the Kingdom is fertile and generative, but is also telling us that the Kingdom is alive and well, even though overlooked. We’re invited to participate in God’s grace; not manufacture or control it.
For nearly forty years at New College Berkeley people have sown spiritual mustard seeds, tiny capsules of life-changing grace. We hear from people who were part of NCB in different decades, with different teachers. More than what they learned in books or lectures, they tell us how their souls were nourished. In one person’s words: My walk with God has been deepened and expanded, and I have learned and grown in ways I never expected.
Mustard seeds are sown. We at New College Berkeley are grateful to be part of God’s grace as it dazzles and spreads, orients and anchors, feeds and prunes. To God be the glory.