Today’s gospel includes the Markan version of the parable of the mustard seed: 30 He said, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. 32 But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” I think it is one of those parables to which western Christians give “the holy nod.” That is an expression I apply to all the times we nod knowingly at the presentation of some matter of Scripture or faith, nodding our agreement, when inwardly we are thinking, “What? Oh well, Jesus said it, I believe it and it must be good.”
How many of us have ever seen a mustard plant or mustard seeds? How small are the seeds? How large is “large” when the seeds mature? Are they California redwood giant large? Maybe Flowering Dogwood is a better comparison – tall enough with limbs fanning out to give shelter and shade. Maybe more tall than wide like the Sabal Palm? Stands out in a crowd with a good bit of shelter in the branches, but not so much shade on the ground. Of course, the Gospel does not say they are a tree, rather it is described as a plant. But rather than speculate, we can satisfy our curiosity with some internet research. Did you know that mustard plant and mustard seeds each have their own Wikipedia pages? Plus, you can do an image search and find pictures of actual mustard plants. I suspect that you will find the mustard seeds are small to really small. When I traveled to Israel, our guide showed us one variety of mustard seeds that looked like super small black dots in his hand. It was firsthand evidence of them being “smallest of all the seeds on the earth.” But the mustard plants…not so much…they fell way short of being “largest of plants.”
Most of the mustard plants were, at most, about waist high. True they were commercial fields so perhaps the variety was chosen to optimize harvest and make harvesting easy. We were shown one wild mustard plant that was perhaps twice as tall as a person. It was more bush than tree and so “large branches” were not an option. When I searched images via the internet, even entering “mustard tree,” the search returned some very large trees. I suspect none of them were mustard trees.
Granted the seeds are super small, but if the plant is not terribly grand, how is it that “birds of the sky can dwell in its shade?” It all makes me wonder if there are birds that nest or rest on the ground. It all makes me wonder how many times I have “holy nodded” at this parable. How about you?
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? We can always “holy nod” at the parable with “all that is important is that all the birds, that is, all the people are welcomed to dwell in the kingdom.” Or perhaps we can take some time to muse, ponder, mull over, consider, or ruminate about what Jesus might be saying in his particular parable by using the mustard seed.