Jesus uses the parable of the mustard seed to describe the Kingdom of God in the Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy. The image is readily accessible to anyone who has a garden which they start from seed. The seeds planted are very small. In the case of the mustard seed, it is very small.
Common plants that people might think of today would be parsley or basil seeds. They are so tiny that it is hard to handle one at a time, so many gardeners will just scatter them when planting. After time and care the plant will grow quite large; in the case of the mustard plant, very large.
The point of the parable is that something so small, almost unperceivable, can grow to something great and large. Parables are designed to invite the listener or reader to ponder the meaning and implications of the images used. Usually no one interpretation can exhaust the meaning or the images presented. We might consider three aspects of the parable when meditating on it and its message.
First, Jesus associates the image with the Kingdom of God, which can be associated with the church. Membership in the church starts small then grows into a large and visible reality. The disciples and followers of Christ become more and more numerous as the Gospel is spread by the apostles and early disciples.
The communion established in Christ grows and develops as more and more people come to faith. The church provides spiritual and in many cases temporal care for her members and non-members. In this case she is like the mustard seed that provides shelter for the “birds of the sky.”
Second, viewing the Kingdom of God from the perspective of God’s understanding of life and the life of love sees the kingdom realized in the lives of its members. This is the life of faith. Responding in faith to Jesus will be the source of tremendous growth in the individual’s life. Particularly with regard to the life of love – charity, mercy and compassion.
The “seed” of faith may be small at the beginning but it has great potential to grow large and strong. The care and concern of the individual for one’s neighbor becomes the “fruit” of the tree. Over time this can become bountiful and plenty.
Third, in this parable Jesus does not mention any planters or gardeners. Contrast this with the Parable of the Sower. In that parable someone particular is identified as the one planting — “the sower.” In this case no one is identified as planting.
Having no image of a human being doing the planting leaves one to identify God as the one who provides the seed and causes the growth. This particular understanding would be the same as that in the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel.
The reading recalls an oracle of Ezekiel who speaks for God. “I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain … It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar.”
In this case God is the one who is acting. Similar to the mustard plant of which Jesus speaks, the “cedar” will become a home to “birds of every kind.” The next part of the passage describes the domain of God. The authority and rule of God is complete and extensive as the prophet says: “And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the Lord, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom.”
Thus, God is the source of life. He is the one who provides the seed, plants it and sees to its growth.
St. Paul, in the passage from the Second Letter to the Corinthians, which serves as the second reading for Sunday’s liturgy, provides an insight into our “faith” being treated as an acknowledgement and response to God and his kingdom.
In this passage Paul speaks of our lives in terms of the now and then, the present and future, living in this world with our eyes set on heaven. He speaks of living with courage while in this world, recognizing that in this world there will be a struggle. There is something more to come.
In other passages and letters Paul is clear that God is with us now through the presence of the Spirit. Yet our experience of God’s love will not be full until we are fully in his presence. This is expressed in scriptures in many ways; perhaps the most clear is “seeing him face to face.” So Paul says, “we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.”
Faith directs us toward God so that “we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. Therefore we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away.” This is our response in faith to God: living a life that is pleasing to him.
In another part of the Gospel Jesus says: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). God is the one who makes all things possible.
The parable of the mustard seed invites us to consider this in regards to our faith. Recognizing life as a gift from God fills us with the desire to please him. Having this disposition or attitude will allow the seed of faith planted in our heart and in the life of the church to grow and prosper, not from our hands but by the divine activity working in and among us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.