Mustard Seed

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A single mustard seed resting on the tip of a finger.

Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Big things have small beginnings.

We may think we need to have Warren Buffet’s checkbook, some fancy letters after our name, and the Purdue marching band on retainer in order to make a major impression on the world. 

But Jesus says that God’s reign goes forward because of the smallest happenings.

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?  It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

The mustard plant of Jesus’ time was not the same modest North American herb so highly valued by the people who fill up all those yellow bottles at French’s.  The Palestinian mustard plant grows up to 12 feet in height.  It attracts a variety of birds, which enjoy snacking on its tiny yellow and black seeds.

Those seeds are certainly not, technically, the smallest of all seeds.   Even people in Jesus’ time were aware that the cypress seed was smaller, and those grew into something massively larger than a mustard plant. 

But the smallness of the mustard seed had become a kind of ancient proverb.  Today we might say, “As strong as an ox,” “as hungry as a bear,” or “as disillusioned as a Detroit Lions fan.”  Cleary there are animals that are stronger and hungrier, but the proverb gets its point across.  The Lions statement is a bit closer to objective truth.

What Jesus is saying is that the grandest thing in the universe – people beginning to live as if God’s reign matters more than anything else – starts with little steps, little decisions, and little acts of kindness to which you’d hardly pay attention.

And that requires patience.  We must choose to give God time and space to work. 

In a world that values speed, efficiency, and who can send the most complex text message by using the fewest letters, we will have to listen to other people in a different way.  We will need to give up our demand that conversations resolve quickly or “get to the point.”  It takes time for hearts and minds to be transformed, and for God’s grace to work its way into our imaginations.

Don Young, a church leader in Kansas, recalls the time that he and his wife sat down with their daughter, who was just old enough to understand the value of money.  They explained the dynamic of saving – that when her piggybank was full, she could take her money out and deposit it in a bank, where it might draw interest.  She seemed to understand and couldn’t wait to open a savings account of her very own.

Together they drove to the bank in their small town.  The president of the bank himself waited on Young’s daughter.

She handed over her small savings, and he gave her a receipt and thanked her for her business.  Then she stood there as if she were waiting for something.  “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” the bank president asked.  “Yes,” she answered.  “I want my interest!”

We all want our interest.  And we’d love to have it now

But mustard seeds need time to grow. 

If we wait, the small beginnings of our trust in God will one day lead to very big things.