Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Mighty Mustard Seed

Mustard Seeds in Hand
Jesus told the people another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches." (1)

Today’s Gospel reading contains the parable of the mustard seed.

I have in front of me a little package of mustard seed from the Holy Land that Madeline, brought back  in 1992. Its seeds are indeed like grains of fine sand.  If you examine a pot of Dijon Mustard from your fridge, you will see among its contents “mustard seeds.” They are very small but still visible in the yellowish paste. 

Mustard Seed
But which kind of tree and seed is Jesus talking about? Experts think  that Jesus was talking about was the black mustard (sinapis nigra L) because it was cultivated in gardens in New Testament times for its seed oil as well as for culinary purposes.

Others however think that Jesus was referring to the white mustard (sinapis alba L) Like the black mustard, it also grows to a height of about 15 feet. A different plant (salvadora persica L) which grows to about 10 ft. near the Dead Sea has also been suggested, but it is not found in Galilee where Christ spoke of this parable. The seeds of this plant are also fairly large in comparison.

Drop of Blood
Whichever mustard seed is intended, the mustard seed is still in the eastern world, "a proverb for smallness." For example, the Jews talked of a drop of blood as small as a mustard seed, or if they were discussing some tiny breach of the ceremonial law, they would speak of a sin as small as a mustard seed. Jesus used the phrase in this way when he spoke of faith as a grain of mustard seed. Like faith, the seed of a mustard plant can produce a great tree.

Mustard Tree
Jesus said, “when it has grown, it is the greatest of trees.” (2)
Thomson in “The Land and the Book” writes, "I have seen this plant on the rich plain of Akkar as tall as a horse and his rider." In another place he says, “A mustard tree was more than twelve feet high." (3) In this parable, there is no exaggeration at all. The mustard tree grows quite large. The greatest of movements often have a small beginning.  

William Wilberforce
The great Christian reformer William Wilberforce was responsible for the freeing of slaves. The idea came to him after he read an exposure of the slave trade by a certain Thomas Clarkson. He was at the time a close friend of William Pitt, then Prime Minister of Great Britain. One day, Wilberforce was sitting with him and George Grenville in Pitt's garden at Holwood. It was a scene of beauty, with the Vale of Keston opening out before them, but Wilberforce's thoughts were elsewhere. Suddenly Pitt turned to him. "Wilberforce," he said, "why don't you give a notice of a motion on the slave-trade?"  An idea was sown in his mind, and that idea through "The Slavery Abolition Act" of 1833 (which took 26 years to accomplish) as an Act of Parliament, changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. 

Small things do sometimes have great outcomes. I remember one day waiting in the municipal building in Norwood, Ontario to receive an N1H1 flu shot. As it happens, a man came and sat beside me and we started chatting. He asked me what I did for a living and I explained that I was an Anglican Minister. He said that he was a retired real estate agent who had owned a company in Peterborough, but he was interested in what I believed.

N1H1 Flu
Later, he wrote me a letter, "Reverend Ron, I was the fellow sitting next to you in the H1N1 clinic in Norwood. God was with us that day too! Thank You Lord! I am enjoying your website. May God continue to bless you and your work (and your lovely helper who He sent you)."  A chance meeting became an opportunity to share my Christian Faith with someone else. A small seemingly insignificant event brought blessing in the hands of God.

The Kingdom of Heaven starts from the smallest beginnings, but no one knows where it will end or how large it will become. One of the great stories of the Christian Church is that of Telemachus. He was a Christian hermit in the Early Church who lived in the desert, but the small inner voice of God told him that he must go to Rome. He went. Rome was nominally Christian, but even in "Christian Rome" the gladiatorial games went on, in which men fought with each other, and crowds roared with the lust for blood. 

Telemachus found his way to the games. Eighty thousand people were there to spectate. He was horrified. “Were these gladiators slaughtering each other not also children of God?” He leapt from his seat, right into the arena, and stood between the gladiators. He was tossed aside. He came back. The crowd were angry, they began to throw stones. Still he struggled back between the gladiators. 

The prefect's command rang out and a sword flashed in the sunlight, and Telemachus was dead. Suddenly there was a hush as the crowd realized what had happened. A holy man lay dead. Something occurred that day in Rome, for there were never again any gladiatorial games. By his death on the 1st January  404 AD, one man had let loose something that cleansed an empire. By an edict of the Emperor Honorius, there was never again gladiator fights held in Rome. Someone must begin a reformation. It need not begin in a nation. It may begin in a home or a workplace. Once it begins, no one knows where it will end.

Mustard Tree
The mustard tree was of great importance to the birds in Israel. Mustard bushes and trees were often surrounded by a cloud of birds, for the birds loved the little black seeds of the tree, and settled on the tree to eat them. In the Old Testament, one of the commonest pictures of a great empire is the picture of a great tree, with the subject nations depicted as birds finding rest and shelter within its branches. The Kingdom of Heaven may begin very small, but in the end many nations will be gathered within it. It is a fact of history that the greatest things must always have the smallest beginnings. As the tiny seeds provide food for the birds, so faith gives the disciple of Jesus the strength for the work that he has given us to do.

Mustard Tree
Jesus said, "and the mustard seed becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches" The parable of the mustard seed is one of the most personal parables Jesus ever spoke. Sometimes his disciples must have despaired. Their little band was so small and the world was so large to them. How could they ever change it? Yet in Jesus, an invincible force entered the world. 

A wise man once said, "Jesus is easily the dominant figure in history.... A historian without any theological bias would find that he simply cannot portray the progression of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth." (4)
Jesus is saying that there must be no discouragement, that his disciples must serve and witness each in his or her place in his or her own way, and that each one must be the small beginning from which the Kingdom grows until the kingdoms of the earth finally become the Kingdom of God.

Mustard Plants
There is one other interesting thing about the mustard seed. Unlike many seeds, it is so small that it contains in itself very little nourishment. It needs to be planted near the surface in rich fertile soil if it is to flourish. As soon as the tiny shoot emerges, it must obtain immediate food and strength from another source. It is totally reliant not on itself but on outside resources.

In this parable, Jesus is saying to his disciples and to his followers today, that he will provide the resources for the Kingdom of Heaven to happen in our lives. Of that we can be sure.

That's what I think anyway,

Rev Ron

(1) Matthew 13:31-33 (N.I.V) (2) Dr. William Barclay, "Barclay's Daily Study Bible (N.T.)" (3) Matthew 13.32 (N.I.V.) (3) Thomson in “The Land and the Book” (4) H. G. Wets

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