Rethinking Mustard Seeds
"With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it."
In Chapter 4 of Mark's Gospel, Jesus is depicted as speaking to his followers using agrarian imagery that would have been familiar to his first century audience of poor farmers. The metaphors are simple in structure but profound in content--they communicate incomprehensibly complex truths about the Kingdom of Heaven and the nature of discipleship. And though the message remains immensely pertinent to us some two thousand years later, that same language of mustard seeds and oil lamps and bushel baskets, which would have invited Jesus' original listeners into an immediate and intimate understanding of his topic, requires unpacking for a modern listener. So what's he trying to tell us?
We're all doubtless familiar with the parable of the mustard seed, and we likely memorized its central premise as children: the mustard plant is among the smallest of seeds, but it grows into a very large bush. Thus, if we have even a tiny bit of faith, God will grow it beyond our imagination. This applies to us as individuals, and to the Church as a whole. But there are other lessons to be drawn from this parable, 3 of which we'll highlight here--each of which ultimately reminds us of our powerlessness and the need for total reliance on God.
(1) "You didn't grow that." Try telling that to a farmer some time, and see how it goes over. And yet, that's precisely what Jesus reminds his listeners in the first section of today's Gospel. The farmer plants, tills, and harvests, but, ultimately, it is the earth that brings forth the fruit. Without nutrients in the soil, rain from the skies, and sun to provide energy, no amount of farming prowess will matter. The farmer, rather, is invited to participate as co-creator in the process of bringing forth life, but, in our own lives as in agriculture, there are myriad factors beyond our control. A farmer might "do everything right," and still experience a drought, or bug infestation, or flood. The same is true for us--we might study for an exam, get good grades, work hard at an internship, and still we might not get into our top choice for graduate school. We might pour all of ourselves into a human relationship, and still, it might not end up the way we'd hoped. For as much as we like to think we're completely in control of our lives, moments such as break-ups and rejections--like droughts and floods--remind us that we are not.
(2) Mustard shrubs were an invasive species. Early farmers, like their contemporary counterparts, sought to plant productive grains and fruits in their fields. Olives, grapes, and wheat would have been the most common types of plants raised in the region. Mustard shrubs were wild bushes that grew uncontrollably and spread into unplanned parts of the vineyard--they were basically considered a weed. It is telling that Jesus selects this particular botanical example, because there were other plants that began as small seeds and grew into even larger plants than the mustard shrub. But few spread as prolifically or unpredictably--might that be a lesson about the Kingdom of God? That the Kingdom is not a nice, domesticated sort of thing, like olive trees, that will stay precisely where we put them. Rather, the Kingdom is wild and necessarily beyond our ability to control. It spreads to places we had not anticipated and causes havoc with our neatly designed plans.
(3) Even weeds have a purpose. Mustard shrubs may have been considered a bit of an agricultural pest, but they likewise served a purpose. Jesus points out that the shrubs provide shade for birds, but the full range of mustard's benefits goes far beyond that. Anyone who has visited California wine country at the end of winter knows that Napa and Sonoma are awash in mustard plants, covering the vineyards in brilliant yellow flowers. (See: "The Magic of Mustard in the Vineyards") Contemporary agriculturalists can tell you that the mustard serves multiple purposes, replenishing the soil with necessary nutrients, naturally repelling pests from the vines, and preventing soil erosion. (Kendall Jackson's Winemaker Explains).
This final point gets back to Jesus' remark from today's Gospel, one that is easy to pass over, in which he says that the man scatters seeds, and it grows "he knows not how." Even when we think we understand how something works, be it farming or our own lives, there may be more going on that we even realize, as is the case with mustard seeds! Little did the first century farmers know that the mustard plants were infusing the soil with nitrogen and warding off parasites! All of which points back to our roles as farmers, as co-creators, as those invited to participate in the process of bringing forth life and building the Kingdom. While we have an important and necessary role to play, we are not ultimately responsible for the conditions that dictate the size of the harvest; and the spread of the plants is beyond our control; and all of this might have a purpose we cannot begin to understand.
In fact, the parable of the mustard seed is, itself. kind of like a mustard seed… the message starts out small, and, by the grace of God, it grows beyond our imagining!