For such a brief passage, the parable of the mustard seed works well on many levels. Let’s start with the obvious. Appearances are deceiving. Great things can have very humble origins. Mustard is a weed. It grows in the wild from a tiny seed. While other weeds spring from the ground and spread prodigiously, the tiny mustard seed inconspicuously comes to life sending out a single root to probe the earth for nourishment. But while the others are gone in a single season, the slow, steady progress of the mustard seed’s offshoots continues on for generations.
Why did Jesus spend part of his precious time with us teaching a botany lesson? Because it is the perfect analogy for his mission to build and to spread the kingdom of God. He is explaining God’s own grassroots approach to transforming the world. The Messiah did not come storming out of the clouds surrounded by legions of angels to meet and greet the world’s movers and shakers. To all appearances his origins are as humble as the mustard seed. He’s an itinerant carpenter who has gathered an unimpressive following… fishermen and laborers; wives, widows and single women; the poor, the afflicted, the sinners; even a tax collector and a prostitute. Where the cynical would see a band of losers led by a charlatan, the faithful were beginning to understand that they were on the ground-floor of greatness. They had nothing but the Word. They were probably poorer today than they were yesterday. And they’re likely to be even poorer tomorrow. But they understood and they related when Jesus told them: …the kingdom of God …is like a mustard seed.
The lesson is as fresh today as it was twenty centuries ago. These are tough times to be a Christian. We can easily get lost in the weeds. When a prominent Christian stumbles, it is front-page news… while the daily sacrifice of millions goes unnoticed. The massacre of martyrs in the Middle East is a sensational one-day story… while the slow motion martyrdom of the faithful by worldwide intolerance is business as usual. What distinguishes both the mustard seed and the Church is our resilience… our ability to take the worst of what the world throws at us… our ability to survive and to thrive in good times and bad. The smart money says mustard seeds don’t stand a chance; might makes right; keep your head down; play it safe. But Jesus doesn’t play it safe. And neither should we. Like the mustard seed, we are called to greatness.
But clearly, we are much more than mustard seeds. While we can be buffeted by wind and weather, our roots are not in earthly soil. As Teilhard de Chardin explains: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” The bodies we inhabit are husks we give back to God at the harvest along with the fruits of his love. Our growth is marked by the rich rings of successive seasons spent praising God and serving neighbour.
In Christ every one of us has the growth potential of a mustard seed. God wants us to grow. He expects us to grow. But growth is not inevitable. We must work at it every day… seeking God’s will in all things. Even when we continuously labor to grow, few of us advance from one virtuous triumph to the next. As sinners our lives are a series of two steps forward, one step back. What distinguishes the mustard seed from the dandelion and the other seasonal weeds is a predisposition to keep growing despite temporary setbacks in all climes and conditions. What gives us this same predisposition is a certainty that we are God’s own seed. He knows us and loves us in our sins. He is with us in all seasons. We shelter in his mercy.
God does not measure our growth by how many points we put on some celestial score board. God’s measure of growth is love. Are we totally committed to loving God and neighbor? Do we make our every encounter an opportunity to witness his love? Are we guided by his word? Do we live in an ongoing dialog of prayer… speaking and listening to the divine presence in our lives? If we live to return God’s love, he will surely bring the growth and the greatness… not the single season kind, but the eternal kind… blooming in God’s perennial garden, watered by the saving blood of Christ.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.
Image: By Rainer Zenz (English: Own work Deutsch: Originalbilder) via Wikimedia Commons