The Parable of the Mustard Seed – Mark 4 :30-34

Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly it was absolutely central in his message. But he never succinctly defines what it is, but it’s clear it’s about a new way of living. A way of finding life. The Kingdom of God is like mustard seed we hear today. It doesn’t help us much does it…. Jesus loves to talk in pictures and stories!

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The mustard seed parable like so many of the parables has all sorts of meanings. It makes you want to say to Jesus, ‘just tell us straight’. But the point of parables is that you have to wrestle and question and work things out in your own context.

We need to get some sort of picture of mustards seeds and how they grow. The sort of mustard plant Jesus was talking about is obscure because he doesn’t use botanical names but I suspect it was the black mustard seed brassica nigra. That’s right it’s a brassica! In fact brassicas are known commonly as mustard plants. Your cabbage, cauilis, and broccoli are all mustard plants. A reason some people don’t like these plants is that they all contain a compound phenylthiocarbamide or PTC which is either bitter or tasteless to people depending on your taste buds. The good news is that brassicas and mustard plants are good for us. They have health providing properties, but I don’t think Jesus was thinking of that when he shared this parable.

The Roman author Pliny the Elder who was born in 23CE was a curious fellow. He was actually a little too curious because he died when he went to explore the erupting Mt Vesuvius in 79CE. But before this tragic end he wrote an encyclopaedic Natural History in which he tells us about the mustard plant. He tells us that with its pungent taste and fiery effect it was actually extremely good for your health. But he goes on, “It grows entirely wild, though it grows better when transplanted. But on the other hand when it has been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it as the seed when it falls germinates at once”.
It other words it grows like a whole host of weeds in my garden. It keeps popping up all over the place. The seeds s[rout in a few days and it grows easily, it grows all over the place, and it grows without our input. It happens! God is a power at work in our communities, in all sorts of places, inside and outside the fences, quietly nurturing life. God is at work as a power called life in all sorts of places including your life and mine, in our community, everywhere. Open your eyes. Like weeds popping up there are little bits of the kingdom of God happening all over the place if we have eyes to see them.
We aren’t sprouting the seeds, it’s just happening. There’s something else at work in our world and in our lives. But like mustard bushes they will grow better if we nurture and water the plants.

Jesus goes on to talk about the birds resting or nesting in the shade. The mustard plant was a shrub growing maybe just over a metre high, or maybe a couple of metres with nurturing. It’s not a great tree. But in Israel large trees are rare, any sort of significant vegetation is rare. The mustard shrub growing to over a metre was just a bushy shrub that would grow just about anywhere. In Israel it’s hot for much of the year and shade wherever you can find it is vital for life. I’ve walked out in the sun and unless you find shade life can be precarious. The common mustard shrub growing everywhere and anywhere offered life. There is I might say just a little bit of pesky humour in the parable because farmers not only didn’t want the mustard plants mixing with their crops, they didn’t want the birds either because they would raid their harvest. So not everyone welcomed the mustard plants like the birds who found in it shade and rest. They were a weed for some and a place of shade and life for others. Such is the Kingdom of God.

And for us – well we don’t literally have black mustard plants all over our gardens and community. I’m thinking cabbage trees. Attractive to birds, they seem to pop up everywhere in our garden, and everyone just loves the leaves when they fall. Cut them off at their base and they just pop right on up again because they have a long tap root. They are a tree that just happens.

The Kingdom of God is like a cabbage tree… and yes there are plenty of people who don’t like cabbage trees because they are messy. But the point…the kingdom of God is happening all around us. There are places where life is flourishing, where people find shade and food… places where God is alive. Many of these places are surprising, beyond the fences of church.

The Kingdom of God is alive in our midst. Surprising seeds of love, or life in which the power of God is present. Seeds we can nurture and water and help grow into bigger plants. Seeds that bring shade and refreshment, and life.

So I wonder where you might find a mustard plant in your journey this week? God is at work in your life, in our midst, and in the life of our wider community and world. Like a weed the kingdom is taking root and growing. Keep your eyes open, have your word of encouragement and watering can ready.

17 June 2018