The Parable of the Mustard Seed

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the author’s community

The world at the time of the text

Geography of the text

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today/challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Matthew.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

A Parable

The text is a parable, a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson that uses similes, metaphors or vivid imagery to tease the mind into working out what is being said. While the elemements – talking about fish and nets to fisheds and sees and sowings to farmers – mig have been familiar to the first audience, parables have someting bizarre or mysterious about them. In many cases this unfamiliar happening or strange concept would have been more affronting to the orginal audience than they are to us today.

Common features of parables include repetition, contrast, reversal of expectations, the frequent use of three characters or incidents, and a climax built around the last character in the series. This parable has a contrast (the smallness of the seed and the size of the shrub) and a reversal of expectations (that the shrub will support the nests of the birds of the air).

Parables often invite their audience to reflect on their behaviour by illustrating a moral or spiritual lesson. “Each reader will hear a distinct message and may find the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time… reducing parables to a single meaning destroys their aesthetic as well as ethical potential” (Levine, 2014, p 1). 

Matthew 13

In the chapters prior to this, Matthew has focused on those how doubt Jesus and attack him. These stories serve to invite questions as to why people respond so differently to the invitation to be a part of God’s kingdom.  

Matthew 13 contains eight parables and two explanations of parables; it is the third teaching discourse in the gospel of Matthew and is sometimes referred to as the Parabolic Discourse. The parables in the chapter are commonly called: The Parable of the Sower (Matt 13: 3-9),  The Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13: 24-30), The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matt 13:31-32), The Parable of the Leaven (Matt 13:33), The Parable of the Discovered Treasure (Matt 13: 44), The Parable of the Pearl (Matt 13:45-46), The Parable of the Dragnet (Matt 13:47-50), The Parable of the Scribe (Matt 13: 51-52). 

The two explanations of the parables are for The Parable of the Sower Explained (Matt 13: 18-23) and Jesus Explains the Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:36-43). It must be noted that, in their original telling, these parables would not have told with the explanation; these have been added at a later date. 

In Matt 13: 10-17, the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables. Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 suggesting that he speaks in parables as a consequence of the incomprehension of his audience. Jesus pities his audience who need to turn that he might heal them but are blessed in that their eyes and ears are experiencing things that were denied the prophets and other righteous people. 

While Jesus is widely recognised as a prolific user of the parable, they were not uncommon in Judaism. Matthew’s audience, seeking confirmation of Jesus as the fulfilment of the promises made to Israel, would have recognised this form and it use to prompt thinking and thus to teach.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matt 13:31-32) and the Parable of the Leaven (Matt 13:33) which follows immediately after it, are a pair. Both parables are very brief; both parables contain an action: something that starts small and humble – the seed and the leaven* can result in something far larger, with more potential and possibility. This contrast implies a distinction between a present state of affairs and what might happen in the future. 

Characters & setting

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the Parable of the Mustard Seed while in a boat on the Sea of  Galilee* with the crowd sitting on the beach. This would have allowed Jesus to address a large crowd as sound amplifies across water. The parables that Jesus teaches in Matt 13 often make reference to seeds, weeds and sowing, fields and fishing, activities well known to the audience.

Jesus is speaking to the ‘crowd’ with the disciples asking questions and seeking deeper understandings. In Chapter 12, Jesus has faced opposition from those in power. The chapter finishes with Jesus defining his family, the disciples, ‘those who do the will of my father in heaven’ (Matt 12: 50). In Chapter 13, he is with his disciples and those who may be receptive of his teaching.

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Kingdom of Heaven

The writer of Matthew’s gospel prefers the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ to ‘kingdom of God’ which is used by Mark (4:30-32) and Luke (13:18-19) in their versions of the same parable and throughout their gospels. The kingdom of heaven is a state of affairs where God rules all creation in a life- giving way. Many people living at the time of Jesus, as today, lived in circumstances of oppression, poverty and illness, Jesus’ healing, teaching and proclamation of the ‘Good News’, announced the presence of the kingdom 

For people at the time of Jesus there was a widely held conviction that the world, including Israel, was no longer under the control of God but at the mercy of other forces including oppressive political structures. These other forces manifested themselves in illness, demonic possession and extreme poverty and hunger. John the Baptist proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was near (Matt 3:2) and Jesus proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (Matt 4:17) at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel would be indications of a reassertion of God’s rule and the presence of the Messiah.

Mustard seeds

Mustard seeds

There is much discussion around the use of a mustard seed in the parable. Whether the mustard seed is of the Black Mustard tree or the more common mustard plant, a shrub-like plant, is unclear. Confusion is amplified as the seed of the mustard plant is not terribly small. Moreover, the original audience of this story would have known that no-one would intentionally plant a mustard bush. In fact, the Jewish Mishnah* forbade the growing of mustard seeds in the garden because they were ‘useless, annoying weeds’. The herb was common; used as a cheap spice and for medicinal purposes. As a shrub mustard seeds grow 3-5 metres high, giving the appearance of a tree, however their structure was not one of trunk and branches. 

Trees

In the Hebrew Scriptures trees are often used as a symbol of a kingdom. In Ezekiel 17:22-24 there is the image of a cutting of cedar that God takes and plants and in which every kind of bird will live. In Daniel 4 King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream of a tree where the animals found shade, the birds of the air nested and all living things were fed. Daniel interprets this dream as King Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom that will be taken from him if he does not atone for his sins.

The mustard seed grows into a large shrub, which may have the height of a tree but is a herb and does not have strong branches. It’s ability to support the nests of the birds of the air would be doubtful in contrast to Ezekiel 17:22-24 where the tree grows from a cutting of cedar, which symbolises resilience and strength.

Birds of the Air

In the Hebrew Sctiprues the ‘birds of the air’ can be a reference to Gentiles/Non-Jews. However, earlier in the chapter (Matt 13:4) the writer of Matthew has the birds as eating the seeds that fall on the path, an indication of wrong-doing. In either interpretation, it appears that the kingdom of heaven is available to those who may not be considered ‘worthy’. 

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

The original audience of this text, the community of Matthew were facing many challenges to their personal faith and their existence as a faith community. They needed to know that this Jesus was the Messiah they had waited for. Was the parable telling them that this common weed could be a symbol of protection? Was it telling them to see differently? Was it telling them that the kingdom could take over the land, just as this weedy bush had? That it needed little tending? Were they the birds seeking refuge or were they the sowers and others would seek refuge in what they planted? In any event, this passage, and the accompanying one about leaven (Matt 13:33) remind us that from something very small, something astounding can grow. 

The phrase ‘from little things, big things grow’ is well known to people today. It is often used in association with projects of goodwill that have humble beginnings. Most famously it is the title of a protest song written by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody (1991) to further the cause of all Australians contributing to the reconciliation of all people in the country and to tell the story of Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji strike. Many of the best ideas and organisations begin with humble beginnings but grow to be something that benefits many. There is a correlation between the phrase ‘from little things, big things grow’ and what Jesus is expressing about the kingdom of heaven coming to fruition from something as small as a seed.

Church interpretation & usage

The spirituality of St Therese of Lisieux and subsequently St (Mother) Theresa of Calcutta who took her inspiration from St Therese, is based on not being able to do big things but only small things with great love. A simple act of kindness or thought of another person can make a significant difference, not just to that person but can have a ripple effect far beyond the original act. In this way, the kingdom of heaven where the world God desires is real and evident comes to fruition. This is a world where there is a place for everyone, not just the powerful or the people who are ‘just like us’ but all creation.