Parable of the Mustard Seed

Luke 13:18-19 (Amy-Jill Levine’s Translation)

“To what is like the kingdom of God, and to what should I make it like? It is like a mustard seed, which taking, a man casts in his garden, and it grew, and became a tree, and the birds of the heaven dwelled in its branches.”

Many people understandably confuse this parable with Jesus’ more famous teaching concerning mustard seeds. That statement was delivered when his disciples were having a great deal of trouble casting a demon out of a little boy and the boy’s father was in such distress about their failure to help his son that he brought the boy directly to Jesus and said, “Your disciples can’t do a thing, Jesus! Would you please have mercy on my son and do something?”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples that it was because of their little faith that they were ineffectual at the healing effort – that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could move mountains and nothing would be impossible for them (Matt. 17:20). Luke’s version of that statement is a little grandiose, saying, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Lk. 17:6).

This teaching on mustard seed faith is something like we saw this week when the energy giant, Kinder Morgan, halted its $3 billion pipeline project through Massachusetts, in great part because of the opposition they faced from Massachusetts residents who protested and politically mobilized against the pipeline.1

Faith the size of mustard seeds moving mountains is something like 17-year-old Destiny Watford becoming concerned that her economically poor and already polluted Baltimore community, Curtis Bay, was soon to become the site of a garbage incinerator that would burn 4,000 tons of trash every day in her neighborhood and emit up to 1,240 pounds of lead and mercury every year. So she mobilized her high school and her community to halt the construction of the incinerator indefinitely.2 Mustard seeds – small, faithful acts of little, ordinary people who believed they could do something significant
for their neighbors and their world – going up against giants of energy and industry and moving mountains of garbage out of poor neighborhoods for the health and wellbeing of their families and their vulnerable neighbors.

What the disciples themselves were unable to do the residents of Massachusetts and a 17-year-old named Destiny did – casting out the demons of corporate greed and environmental destruction and helping to cure the earth of its human-caused ills, brining health and healing to all its inhabitants.

Faith the size of a mustard seed moving mountains and, at times, just mulberry trees – is an inspiring and heartening teaching. It’s no wonder this is what folks typically think about when they think of Jesus and mustard seeds!

But as inspiring as it is, that is not this parable. In fact, it has nothing to do with this parable at all.

You might think, “How many lessons can one man teach with the metaphor of a mustard seed.” But like any good storyteller, Jesus drew upon the lived experience of his audience in metaphorical ways to teach theological lessons that can’t be communicated in any other way but metaphor. And the metaphors he reused weren’t always metaphors for the same thing. In the story we typically think about, the mustard seed is a metaphor for faith, but not in this little parable. Here, the mustard seed is a metaphor for that topic of central concern to Jesus throughout his teaching and storytelling: the Kingdom of God.

Many people interpret this parable in the same way they do the other mustard seed teaching: something very small morphing into something great. From mustard seed faith moving mountains to a mustard seed kingdom becoming an enormous tree. What starts out small with the teachings and witness of Jesus, soon grows into th enormous, worldwide movement of the Christian church. But, as Amy-Jill Levine points out, “There is no challenge in hearing that from small beginnings come great things: there is no provocation in the point that Jesus’s message grew over time.”3

One way to recover its provocative potential is to deindividualize its message. In other words, this parable is not about you. It’s not about your faith or your activity or your potential to grow and do great things. The other mustard seed teaching may very well be about you and your faith and all of the great potential you, as faithful disciples, hold to change the world you’re living in and positively affect the lives of others in healing and restorative ways, but not this one. Let’s unAmericanize this metaphor for a moment and see it as something not about us as independent, autonomous individuals.

This is a parable about the Kingdom of God:

Some of you have mentioned to me how you intentionally replace the patriarchal term Kingdom with the more relationally oriented term Kin-dom. And I do this as well in many liturgical contexts. It’s a helpful way of shifting the emphasis of this metaphor from rule and reign from on high to the cultivating of relationship between humanity and God and among the human community and even between humanity and the earth. But there are occasions when that augmentation of Kin-dom doesn’t quite get at what’s going on when Jesus uses the term Kingdom.

Talk of the “kingdom” is getting at something about God’s Divine sovereignty, or, in other words, what the world would be like if God were in control of things and we were not. Talk about the kingdom is always talk about a dream, a vision, a provocation of something coming.

But here’s the question we’ve got to ask when we hear Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God: why even use a metaphor to speak of the kingdom when Jesus’ audience had as a tangible example the clearest case of sovereign rule known in the ancient world: the Roman Empire. Why not just amplify what folks already knew about powerful kingdoms in order to talk about God’s sovereign rule?

“The Roman Empire has 400,000 men in their army? Well, the Kingdom of God has a million!”

“The Romans vanquish their enemies through months of bloody battle. Well, the armies of God’s Kingdom vaporize their enemies in an instant.”

Jesus could have easily explained the Kingdom of God by putting the kingdom everyone already knew on steroids and insisting that this was the type of Kingdom that was coming and a lot of people would have loved it. Plenty of rebellious messiah figures had done this very thing in First Century Israel.

So I think we can miss the subversive, even queer, provocation in his metaphors of the Kingdom if we always replace the word “Kingdom” with “Kin-dom” when reading these parables. Because here’s something like how it might have gone with Jesus’ original audience:

“Let me tell y’all about the Kingdom,” Jesus says (because in my mind, Jesus speaks like a character on The Andy Griffith Show and you can’t stop me from thinking it). And everyone’s minds get in gear, “Oh yes, kingdom, we know all about kingdoms: armies and emperors and wealth and bloody wars and power over our enemies. Tell us about God’s Kingdom, Jesus. Tell it! We’re ready!”

“Well...the Kingdom of God is like a woman. And the woman takes some leaven and hides it in a ton of dough and bakes it into huge loaves of bread!”

“Oh yeah? Tell us more, Jesus...and about God’s coming kingdom this time. You know, with the armies and empire and bloody wars and crushing our enemies to dust. Tell that one Jesus...about the kingdom.”

“And the Kingdom of God is like...a man who finds a really pretty pearl – best pearl you’ve ever seen! And he sells all his stuff and buys it!”

“Oh, you don’t say, Jesus. Well, we’ve even never seen a pearl before, but we hear they’re real nice. But the kingdom, Jesus...what about the kingdom – rule and reign and armies and power and wealth and all that. Say something about it, Jesus! We’re ready!”

“Well...the Kingdom of God is like...a mustard seed. Have you ever seen one of those? They’re so tiny!”

“Oh, Jesus,” (eyes roll, and they murmur to one another), “he’s talking about mustard seeds now.”

“And somebody threw a whole bunch of those little seeds out into the garden and the seed grew, and became a tree, and...birds lived in its branches!”

You see what I mean? How he used a term everybody thought they knew very well and used metaphor to twist and turn it beyond commonplace recognition.

They all knew what kingdoms were – real ones – with armies and emperors and wealth and bloody wars and power over their enemies. Yet, Jesus chose over and over again to use these metaphors from nature to talk to folks about the Kingdom of God – yeast and pearls and mustard seeds.

For all of the planning and precision and persistence it takes to build a kingdom of rule and reign and power and wealth and armies and empire and bloody wars and crushing our enemies to dust, in the Kingdom of God – a dream, a vision, a provocation of something coming into the world – planning and precision and persistence are trumped by surprise and simplicity and sheer possibility.

Levine says, “The challenge of the parable can be much homier: don't’ ask ‘when’ the kingdom comes or ‘where’ it is. The when is in its own good time—as long as it
takes for seed to sprout and dough to rise. The where is that it is already present, inchoate, in the world.”4 And on this Earth Sunday, in a season of parables of the Kingdom full of earthy images from nature, surrounded by serious threats to our ability
to survive as a species on this planet, we need a dream, a vision, a provocation of something coming into the world.

I kind of wonder what metaphor Jesus might use today to talk about what the world would be like if God were in control of things and we were not. We don’t really have many “kingdoms” anymore. Perhaps he would speak in the language of national governments. The Country of God is like... The Nation State of God is like...

Or maybe, with multinational corporations becoming some of the most powerful influences on the face of the earth – swaying even the activity of sovereign nations – perhaps Jesus would have drawn upon that imagery and twisted it and turned it and queered it.

And he would gather folks around him and say, “Let me tell y’all about the multinational corporation of God.”

And folks would say, “Oh yeah, we know about corporations: greed and stepping on the little people and sacrificing the good of communities to boost the economic bottom line and hoarding resources and destroying the earth for resources to sell to the highest bidder. We know about corporations, Jesus. Tell us about the hostile takeover God’s multinational corporation is going to bring about Jesus. We’re ready! Tell it!”

And Jesus would say, “The multinational corporation of God is like a woman who hid some leaven in a ton of dough and made huge loaves of bread, so much that she couldn’t eat it all herself and she fed the whole village.”

And they’d say, “Yeah, Jesus. But what about trade agreements and lobbying congress and all that corporate stuff? Tell us about when God’s multinational is going to rise to the top of the stock market! Let’s hear that one, Jesus.”

And he’d say, “Well...the multinational corporation of God is like a merchant who was searching for pearls to sell and upon finding one that was so strikingly beautiful, the merchant sold everything and just kept that one beautiful prize of nature and got out of the merchandizing business altogether.”

And they’d say, “Ok, but what about the hostile takeover Jesus? When’s it coming?”

And he’d say, “Oh, well, God’s multinational corporation is like a mustard seed.”

And they’d say, “Oh, Jesus,” (eyes roll, and they murmur to one another), “he’s talking about mustard seeds now.”

And he’d say, “God’s multinational corporation is like a mustard seed in that it’s small and hidden and inchoate and mostly exists in unactualized potential – like this tiny seed cast about in a garden that, when it’s full grown, makes a home for all the birds in the world to live in its branches.”

If Jesus were talking about it today, he might say, “What the world would be like if God were in control of things and multinational corporations were not is like a bunch of little people going up against a giant of industry and stopping a $3 billion project that would have indelibly damaged the earth. Or, it’s like a teenager saving her poor community from being poisoned by a corporation that wants to burn garbage in their backyard. Or, it’s like a bunch of church folk in West Roxbury standing on a protest line in front of giant bulldozers, trying to protect the earth and their neighbors from the ravages of corporate greed.”

And we’d say, “Well, it’s not like any multinational corporation we’ve ever heard of. But, damned if it doesn’t sound like just what we’ve been dreaming of.”

1 Jon Chesto, “Kinder Morgan shelves $3 billion pipeline project,” Boston Globe (April 20, 2016), online: pipeline-project/iEafnAP2P41o0B9tmM0lEI/story.html?s_campaign=8315

2 Darryl Fears, “This Baltimore 20-year-old just won a huge international award for taking out a giant trash incinerator,” The Washington Post (April 18, 2016), online: just-won-a-huge-international-award-for-taking-out-a-giant-trash-incinerator/

3 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 171.

4 Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 182.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • April 23, 2016