Two Things You Didn’t Know About Mustard Seeds 

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Mark 4:26-34. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

Jesus said, “The Reign of God is like a mustard seed…” and we all know what comes next.

We all know that the story of the parable is about a tiny seed that grows into a big ol’ shrub, an inconsequential sprout that leads to surprisingly abundant growth.

And we all know what the parable means, we all know the moral of this story. Even a little faith can do great things. Even the most seemingly inconsequential good deed done for God can lead to abundant spiritual rewards.

We all know what Jesus is getting at with this parable.

But parables always mean more than we think they mean. Parables always have more going on than shows on the surface.

So here are two things about mustard seeds that you might not already know.

First, Jesus’ saying here is not entirely original. Jesus is copying an older saying, something his audience would have known, and he is copying it with a deliberate and intentional twist. That makes the mustard seed not just a parable, but also a parody.

The saying Jesus is parodying is a prophecy from the Book of Ezekiel; and our lectionary very helpfully provides that as our first reading today. Ezekiel sees God taking a twig from the top of a tree – a tiny twig, a tender shoot, an inconsequential cutting – and God takes this and plants it on the mountain of Israel, and it grows into a great, vast tree, whose branches reach out so far that all kinds of birds of the air come and make nests in its shade. And that of course is the part that Jesus is copying: the growing branches that make shade for the birds.

Now Ezekiel is talking about a cedar tree. And in the lexicon of metaphors in Hebrew poetry, the cedar tree is a stock image. Whenever you see it in the Hebrew scriptures, the cedar tree is almost always a symbol of kings and dynasties and rulers and empires. The outstretched branches of the cedar tree are a symbol of the wide-ranging power of imperial ambition. And Ezekiel’s prophecy of the cedar tree is a promise that God will take an heir of the Davidic dynasty, and bring him back from Exile in Babylon, and establish him in Jerusalem, and raise up the kingdom of Judah until it is a world player, until it is its own empire, bigger than Babylon, so big and so powerful that all kinds of other kingdoms and nations find protection under its shadow. Ezekiel’s mightily growing cedar tree is an empire that is to come.

But when Jesus copies Ezekiel’s image, he isn’t talking about a cedar tree. He is talking about a mustard shrub. This isn’t a noble evergreen growing on a mountaintop; this is a bush that pops up in the corner of your yard. This isn’t a highly prized and much-sought-after aromatic wood; this is an ordinary plant that everybody has.

And of course that is part of Jesus’ point. Jesus is taking Ezekiel’s prophecy and taking it down a peg – taking it down  several pegs, actually! – and in the process he is changing what the prophecy means. Jesus is proclaiming that the Reign of God is not just about kings and dynasties and empires. The Reign of God is not like the reign of Babylon, or of Rome, or of America for that matter. The Reign of God is not just about organization, but about transformation. The Reign of God is not just about governance, but about guidance. The Reign of God is ordinary, meant for everyone. The Reign of God comes into being in every single life where there is justice and peace and love – right-relationships of mutual well-being with giving and receiving in freedom and generosity. Wherever that happens – in nations, in towns, in churches, in families, in individuals, in hearts and minds and spirits – wherever that happens, God reigns there. When that happens among us, God reigns here. The Reign of God, like a mustard seed, is for everyone.

The second thing you might not know about mustard seeds is that mustard is a weed. An invasive weed. In some places it is even legally classified as a noxious weed. In Illinois, where Lee used to live, there are laws on the books prohibiting farmers from leaving their fields fallow, all fields must be planted with something, because an empty field will be invaded by mustard, and once the mustard gets established it never goes away. Mustard is a weed that just gets everywhere.

And, as disturbing as it may be to hear Jesus compare the transcendent and glorious Reign of God to a noxious weed, that also is part of Jesus’ point. Once God’s Reign gets started, it never stops. Once God’s activation for right-relationships of mutual well-being with giving and receiving in freedom and generosity puts down roots, it gets everywhere. Once we get even the tiniest energy of the Holy Spirit moving us to take part in Christ’s mission in the world, we can never go back again. Let God in the door, and God will take over the whole house. Let God plant the seed, and it will grow in you, you do not know how, until everything in you is ripe for harvest for God. Let God bring you into Christ, as God is bringing Henry into Christ in baptism this morning, and there will be a whole new creation.

I know we look around the world and it sure doesn’t look that way. The justice and peace and love that we recognize as the Reign of God seem so often to be fragile things, constantly under threat, always coming up against injustice and violence and oppression and hatred. Our own hearts can be filled with worship and devotion and prayer in one moment, and the next moment seem cold and uninspired and hardened and, frankly, kind of atheistic. So often it seems to us as though justice and peace and love are things we have to create for God, things we must make happen in this world, against huge and overwhelming odds, in order to accomplish something good to give to God.

But the gospel always has more going on than shows on the surface. And the mission of God in the world is constantly at work, even when we have trouble seeing that it’s there. And the truth Jesus wants us to know is that God’s Reign is already happening, and God’s Reign is going to keep on happening, nothing can stop it from happening; and if we will open our minds and hearts and hands for it, it will happen in us too, and it will keep on happening among us until it happens at all times and in all places and for all people. Even though it looks tiny to us at the time, let it get started, and it will get everywhere.

So what ordinary weed of God’s Reign is growing in you? What tiny bit of justice and peace and love, what inconsequential sprout of right-relationships of mutual well-being with giving and receiving in freedom and generosity, is working its way into you right now? And if you are willing to let that put down roots and grow, how can you see that getting everywhere? That is God’s Reign for you – for now.

Jesus said, “The Reign of God is like a mustard seed…” and none of us knows exactly what’s going to come next. Amen.