The parable of the mustard seed

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In the gospel reading, Jesus uses two parables to explain the kingdom of God.  Now the term, kingdom of God, does not refer to an otherworldly heaven but to the rule and reign of God on earth, a reign that has been inaugurated by the coming of Christ and will be consummated in the future.  Jesus uses two examples about seeds sprouting from the ground to explain the coming of the kingdom of God.  Let’s listen to the good news for us in the parables of seeds.


Mark 4:26-34

4:26 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,

4:27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

4:28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

4:29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."


4:30 He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?

4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;

4:32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

4:33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;

4:34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.




Essex County is in full bloom these days, isn’t it?  I’m sure many of you have been spending time in the garden of late, harvesting vegetables, pruning and trimming, cutting the lawn, a most definitely weeding.  Between the crab grass and the clover and the wild strawberry, our gardening and lawn care attempts can seem like a losing battle.


The mustard bush is actually one of those wild plants people pull up and cut back.  Wild mustard is an unwelcome addition to the garden, because it was almost impossible to get ride of it.   Pliny the Elder, a Roman aristocrat, lived at the time of Jesus and wrote a book of natural history.  He wrote about mustard seeds.  He said: “Mustard, with it’s pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health.  It grows entirely wild…once it has been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.” 

Mustard is a wild, fast-growing plant that takes root quickly.  And Jesus uses this shrub to make a point about the kingdom of God.

In our scripture reading today Jesus uses two stories or parables to describe the kingdom of God.  We have to keep in mind that the kingdom of God is the world as we know it, renewed and transformed.  It is the world as God would have it: a place of justice and peace.

This new, surprising world order is breaking forth—and in his life and death, through his teachings and resurrection, Jesus reveals it to us.  In the parables we hear today, Jesus is saying: listen up, I’m going to tell you something about the way in which God works in the world.


It’s like a gardener who scatters seeds and then just goes to sleep.  He goes about his daily business and the seeds sprout all on their own, he doesn’t even know how.    


The gardener puts the seeds in the ground and then doesn’t worry about it because he can’t control it.  They sprout all on their own.


It may surprise you to know that by these standards by father is a very good gardener.  He is very good at planting seeds and then just letting them grow.  Every spring he turns over his vegetable garden beds with fresh compost.  He goes online and orders heirloom seeds for tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers.  He carefully measures and plants and labels and waters.  But then as spring turns into summer he kind of loses interest in his plants.  He never harvests anything because the truth is he actually doesn’t like to eat his vegetables!  He’s great at sowing seeds and then not worrying about them.


In life, however, giving up control does not come so easy.  We want to control the outcome.  When we plant seeds of faith, when we invest time or money, care and concern, we want to ensure success. The trouble is we can plant seeds but we can’t force them to grow. As a church, we can make an investment in youth ministry and it may or may not result in a big youth group.  As individuals, we can give money to a person struggling with homelessness and they may or may not use it for food or shelter.  We can reach out to a family member who has gone astray or a friend suffering from addiction, and they may or may not welcome our help. We can plant seeds but we can’t force them to grow.


When I was an intern in Nova Scotia I participated in a prison ministry.  And I met a chaplain by the name of Rod.  Rod had volunteered as a prison chaplain for over 20 years.  He came every week and led chapel services and prayer groups and Bible studies.  When I met Rod I was so impressed by his faithful service and I asked him about the success stories he’d seen over the years.  Rod told me that for the most part he’d seen the same guys come back and back again through the prison system.  Wow, I said, that must be really discouraging.  Rod turned to me and said quietly, “You know sometimes the sower doesn’t get to reap the harvest.”

Rod knew that he couldn’t control the outcome.  He couldn’t make better life choices for those young men, but he could keep planting seeds of hope in their lives, trusting they would take root in God’s time.


As people of faith, we are called to plant seeds and then trust in God. 


It’s by the grace of God some seeds take root and blossom in ways we couldn’t have even imagined.  Jesus said that’s how God works.  Kind of like a mustard seed.  The smallest of all seeds grows into a big shrub large enough for birds to make nests in.  By the power of God, even the smallest person, the smallest gesture of love, can take root and grow.  That’s how the kingdom of God works.


I’m reminded of Lois Thurgood, a long-time member of this congregation.  She was a high school teacher and is a person of great energy and humour.  She’ll tell you that at her retirement and years and years afterwards she would run into former students who remembered something she had said to them in high school, a word of challenge or encouragement, an act of kindness, that had stayed with them all these years.  Something she had said or done that Lois couldn’t even remember, her students remembered and they told her how it had shaped their lives.  Shaped who they became.  Lois said those conversations were always humbling.  She had been planting seeds of care and hope.  She never imagined the ways in which they had taken root. 


And the thing is we can all think of people like that in our own lives.  People who offered a prayer, a card, a hot meal, a word of guidance or encouragement when we needed it most.  A person whose simple act of love, touched our hearts and shaped our lives.  I can think of people in this congregation who have done that for me… inspired me by their faith, shaped my life’s direction, showed me glimpses of the kingdom of God.


Even the smallest seed, planted in the Spirit of Christ, can grow into something large and lasting.  Have an impact we can’t imagine.  We are called to keep planting seeds, trusting in God.  We are called to keep offering signs of love and hope in the world, because that’s how God’s kingdom takes root.  It’s more powerful and more surprising than we can imagine.  It’s as simple and as miraculous as scattering seeds and watching them grow.  Amen. 


Reverend Catherine Elsdon