Matthew 13:31-33, 17:14-20, Luke 17:5-6
Planting Seeds: Mustard Seed
Today, as we wrap up our sermon series on Planting Seeds, we’re finishing up by turning our attention to the Mustard Seed. In his teaching, Jesus returns to the image of the mustard seed several times. It reads as a favorite metaphor of his. Using the image of the size of mustard seed in a proverb or parable like this seems to be original to Jesus. And Jesus talking about mustard seeds is the first time mustard appears at all in the scriptures. (1) Something about mustard apparently appeals to Jesus, and so today we’re digging into the times Jesus shares a lesson focused on the small seed.
First, we read a parable from Matthew where mustard seed takes center stage. This parable appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with slight variations. For our reading from Matthew, we’re back in chapter 13, where this parable comes in a string of parables, following two we’ve already explored: the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The parable of the mustard seed is very brief. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 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.” That’s it. That’s the whole thing. Now, the mustard seed isn’t really the smallest seed - although that seems to be just a matter of translation, and mustard seeds don’t really grow into the largest shrub, and definitely isn’t a tree. But the seed is very small, certainly, and it does grow into something many, many, many times larger than the original seed - as most plants do. Big enough to support bird nests? Iffy. Jesus seems to be exaggerating to make his point. The very small grows into something very large. Remember, the parables tell us something about the kingdom of God, about God’s reign on earth, about how things are when they’re operating as God would have them be, now and in eternity. So God’s reign is like something that starts very small, and grows into something very large that provides a good benefit. Is that it? It seems too simple, doesn’t it?
Let’s look at the other texts. Our next reading comes a little later in Matthew. It happens just after the Transfiguration. That’s that strange event where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain, and Jesus is transfigured - his glory is revealed, he’s dazzling and radiant in white, he’s joined by Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the law and the prophets, and the three disciples hear God’s voice, declaring that Jesus is God’s child, urging the disciples to listen to Jesus. So, these disciples have just had a very clear affirmation of who Jesus is: child of God, creator of the universe. Now, though, a man approaches Jesus, seeking healing for his epileptic son. Apparently, he’d brought his son to Jesus’ disciples first, but they couldn’t heal him. Jesus heals the boy, but not before expressing his frustration with his disciples. “You faithless and perverse generation,” he laments. “How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?” Oof. Later, the disciples ask Jesus: “Why couldn’t we heal this boy?” and Jesus does not mince words in his answer: “Because of your little faith,” he says. “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Does this mean the disciples don’t have even as much faith as a mustard seed? They certainly don’t seem to be moving mountains, and I’ll confess: I haven’t moved any either! Jesus says with even a small amount of faith, mustard-seed-sized faith, nothing will be impossible for us. But I don’t feel like I can do anything - do you? Does that mean I don’t have faith? That the disciples didn’t? Is Jesus just exaggerating again about what faith can do? Or just speaking out of frustration?
Our third text is similar in content but different in context. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus again talks about what mustard-seed-sized faith makes possible: “‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you could say to this mulberry tree,“Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.” He says this because the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. They need more, they’re sure, to do the work of Jesus. What prompts their request? The last thing Jesus says to them before this scene is this: “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.” No wonder the disciples were asking for more faith! If following Jesus, being a disciple means forgiving like that, who has enough faith to be up to the task? Here, Jesus seems to say the disciples don’t need an increase of faith. What they have already gives them enough to cause a tree to uproot itself and be planted in the sea. What an image! Again, I wonder: Is Jesus saying they do have that much faith already? Or that they don’t even have mustard-seed-sized faith? Because again, if Jesus isn’t exaggerating, I can only think I can barely convince my cat to move out of my spot on the couch, much less command a tree to move to the sea. Do we have faith? How much? Is it enough?
I think our best bet is to turn back to the parable. What is God’s reign like? God’s reign is like something that starts very small, and grows into something very large that provides a good benefit. We asked if that was too simple to be the meaning of the parable, but I think we might sometimes confuse simple and easy. Jesus says it’s simple to sum up all the law and the prophets - love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. The commandments are simple. Are they easy? No! We spend our lives trying to live them out. But the meaning isn’t a puzzle for us to decode. So, God’s reign is like something that starts very small, and grows into something very large that provides a good benefit. Is that too simple? I don’t think it is supposed to be complicated. But it can still be challenging, pushing us as we seek to grow as disciples.
Pastor John Murray puts it like this: “The insignificant is overwhelmingly significant [in the kingdom of God.]” (2) I love how he puts that. In God’s way of things, God’s reign, what the world, what culture, what the powerful, what we have declared insignificant turns out to be overwhelmingly significant. We see this again and again in the scriptures. In the Hebrew scriptures, we read about a widow during a famine who has only enough food left for one more meal for her and her son. But they welcome the prophet Elijah into their home, and the food lasts and lasts and lasts. We see God choose the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David, who Jesse didn’t even think to include, when Samuel came looking to anoint the next King. That same David uses a small stone to defeat giant Goliath. We’re studying the teachings of Jesus, a small town boy born in what should have been obscurity, and yet, he changes the world. Jesus takes up a little bit of bread and fish, offered by a child, and turns it into a meal for thousands. The insignificant is overwhelmingly significant in the kingdom of God. What’s more, we can remember that God’s focus in the law we learn in the Hebrew scriptures, and demonstrated in the teachings and actions of Jesus - God’s focus is on special care for the most vulnerable - the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the foreigner. Those whom society would declare insignificant - in God’s reign, in God’s eyes, in God’s heart - they’re overwhelmingly significant. Maybe “the most vulnerable” in our society today isn’t exactly the same list, but pretty close, don’t you think? In God’s eyes, those who find themselves continually pushed to the margins, excluded, discarded, overlooked? Those who are repeatedly told they’ll amount to nothing? That they’re worth nothing? That they have nothing of value to contribute? In the kin-dom of God, they are overwhelmingly significant. And so we, God’s people, live more fully in the reign of God when we put at the center of our lives the same things, the same concerns, the same people God does. How are we putting those at the margins at the center of our lives?
The small mustard seed doesn’t just become the shrub or bush or tree or anything grander than a single seed, though, if it doesn’t get planted. For a mustard seed or any seed to become a plant, a bush, a tree, it has to be “utterly transformed.” (2) Scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes, ““What we see now is potential, but that potential needs to be actualized ... the seed has to be planted. Even small actions ... have the potential to produce great things.” (3) We also know this: We can’t plant a seed today and expect to find birds building nests in the tree tomorrow. (2) Something very small, insignificant, growing into something large, overwhelmingly significant - it’s very possible. But the seed must be planted, transformed, and given time to grow and develop.
What gardening I can do these days is a little limited, not only by my impending move but also by my very shady yard at the parsonage. But I’ve been having fun this season growing some things inside. I’ve got celery and green onions I started from scraps, and my giant Christmas cactus along with a couple babies cacti I started from pieces that broke off the main plant, and a few other house plants. My mom got me some cosmos this year for my birthday, a flower I loved growing as a child. They came in one of those little kits you can get that contain seeds, soil, and a little pot all packaged together. And that made me remember that I had a similarly packaged set of tomato seeds she’d given me last year that I never planted. I wasn’t sure how long the seeds would be viable. Seeds can expire if they’re not stored properly, and I can’t say my tomato seeds were stored in any special way. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. At first, I didn’t think anything was going to come up. The cosmos were already a couple inches tall, and still nothing from my tomato seeds. But eventually, a few tiny seedlings began to emerge. I forget how much growth happens beneath the soil with some seeds before the first sign of life emerges on this side of things. My long-forgotten tomato seeds might yet bear fruit. But they needed to be planted, and they need to develop and grow, and need more than our fleeting investment if we want to eventually eat some delicious tomatoes.
When Jesus is so frustrated with his disciples who can’t heal despite Jesus himself giving them the authority to do so, I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell them their faith amounts to nothing. I think he’s frustrated because he knows that even a little faith can have an overwhelming impact, but the disciples haven’t actualized or activated what they have. Their mustard seed of faith perhaps hadn’t yet been planted, and yet the disciples were still wondering why they had no plants growing in the spiritual garden. Can our little bits of faith - when planted, when activated, when nurtured, when given time to form roots - can our little seeds of faith grow into something that can move mountains and plant things in the sea? Maybe Jesus is exaggerating to get our attention. But Jesus tells us again and again that with God, nothing is impossible. Maybe Jesus means it. What’s a small act of faith you’ve seen that has had big results? What’s something that seemed insignificant that has had an overwhelming impact on your relationship with God? Or on your ability to share the good news?
I think about the little country church I attended in Westernville with my family until I was in 6th grade. I don’t think my Sunday School teachers, helping me memorize Bible verses, realized they were giving me a foundation, and nurturing a curiosity about God that would one day lead me to seminary and pastoring a church. But they were faithful with the seeds God gave them, planting them with the conviction they’d grow. This week, we celebrated that 150 years ago, the cornerstone of this building - well, the other side of this building - was laid. I’m guessing even with the visions and hopes for the future the congregation had in 1870, they weren’t envisioning all the generations of people that would be shaped by the ministry of First UMC. But those folks were faithful to the call of God, trusting that what they built would be a tool for sharing the gospel. Do you have faith? Jesus thinks you might! Jesus thinks that even our mustard-seed-sized-faith, seemingly insignificant, becomes overwhelmingly significant when we offer it God to transform, to grow. Simple? Yes. Challenging? Definitely. Impossible? Not with God. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 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.” Amen.
Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, 170.
Murray, John, “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” Eastern Mennonite University, Feb 20 215. https://emu.edu/now/podcast/category/chapel/parables/. Phrases reordered for clarity.