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In this parable, the Lord Jesus teaches us not to despise the day of small beginnings (Zech. 4:10). We see a disproportionate result from the tiniest of garden seeds—an herbal plant that can grow to twice a man’s height. When this happens, it is not an instance of things going terribly wrong—the seed is the kingdom.
“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:31-32).
Summary of the Text
Jesus put forward a third parable in this series of seven, and this parable and the following one about the leaven are found in between the telling of the wheat and darnel and the interpretation of it. Jesus says here that the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed (v. 31). A man (unidentified) takes the seed and plants it in his field (v. 31). Mark’s version of this parable says that the seed was sown “in the earth” (Mark 4:30-32), and Luke’s version says that the man sowed the seed in “his garden” (Luke 13:18-19). The Lord says that the seed is the smallest of the seeds and yet results in a plant that is the greatest of all the herbs—treelike. The result of this phenomenal growth is that the birds of the air come and take up residence in the branches (v. 32).
Remember that Jesus gave us an answer key with the parable of the sower so that we would know how to handle all of them. But what use is an answer key if you don’t use it? The sower is clearly Jesus. And since the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, it is clear that the mustard plant is that same kingdom grown to a remarkable size, especially considering its insignificant beginning. The previous parable was meant to teach us not to be thrown by the presence of evil in the kingdom, and we see the same thing here. The birds of the air represented the devil in the first parable, and there is no reason to change anything here. The kingdom grows to a size that allows for evil to take up residence. But just as darnel is not wheat, so also birds are not mustard branches.
Reformations Come from Dead Reformers
Jesus teaches us here that in His kingdom the effects are disproportionate to the causes. The cause is a small seed, and the result is a large plant. Don’t think with simplistic carnal categories. The Lord Jesus elsewhere adds another detail, which is that seeds are not just small in comparison to the plant, they are also dead (John 12:24). There is a sharp contrast with regard to size, and also a sharp contrast with regard to death and resurrection.
Jesus set the pattern in the way He established the kingdom in His death and resurrection. He is the seed . . . and He is the resurrection and the life. He died, and the whole world is quickened as a result. But He did not just die —He also died and rose to set the pace for all who would come after Him. This is how it is done. Take up your cross daily, and come follow Him.
This is why the Reformation was the glorious event that it was. It was this because at the time it was nothing of the kind. Think of it this way—every society lionizes its dead troublemakers and its living conformists. Which prophets have memorials built in their honor? Why, the dead ones! At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers did not walk to their churches, or their meetings, or their homes, past great big statues of themselves. They were not there yet. At the time, they were being hunted. Prices were on their heads. Luther describes the Christian as a solitary bird, sitting on the rooftop and warbling his little song. Nothing great was ever accomplished by a reasonable man. Part of this unreasonableness is that he expects greatness to arise out of insignificance, out of his insignificance. “How do you know you will conquer the world? How will you manage to fill Jerusalem with your doctrine?” “That is easy—I know we can do it because we are nobody.” Faith is what overcomes the world, and faith can fit in a mustard seed.
Walking It Back
The number of commentators who do not want Jesus to have told this parable (and the next one, about the leaven) is quite striking. We are like the handlers of a political candidate who uttered some gaffe in front of the microphones, and our job is to go into the spin room in order to “fix it.”This parable of small beginnings and enormous results sounds a little bit too much like Constantine did a good thing. And we then set up shop to argue that Constantine did a terrible thing, and our argument in favor of this idea is that birds came and nested in the branches of the mustard plant. But . . . isn’t that what Jesus said would happen? How is this an argument for not planting the mustard seed in the first place?
When Things Go Wrong
In the world the Lord is talking about, when things go wrong, that means we are right on schedule. Someone has once wisely observed that the kingdom of God proceeds from triumph to triumph, with all of them cleverly disguised as disasters. Begin with the greatest of them—the crucifixion. Chesterton once put it this way: “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.”
Thinking Like Seed
Jesus is the Lord of history, and we are not. What is the job of the seed? It is to go in the ground and die, expecting great things to result from it. But if we are too busy to do that, if we are re-explaining the parables, or keeping children away from Jesus because He is a busy man, or otherwise making ourselves useful, we are being too busy to think like seed.