When I was a girl, I had a bracelet with a mustard seed in it. The mustard seed was enclosed within a clear ball, like a marble. The seed itself was tiny, a visual reminder of Jesus’ mention of the mustard seed. Indeed, the mustard seed has become symbolic of faith. Yesterday was LWML Sunday, and the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League is known, among other things, for their “Mustard Seed” devotionals. Many times we think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 17:20, where He says, “‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’” Oftentimes the implied question is this: do you have that kind of faith? But there’s another mustard seed reference in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the parable of the mustard seed, which has a completely different nuance. Instead of likening one’s faith to a mustard seed, this time Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, a far broader scope that places the action solely upon Him.

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
Matthew 13:31-32

I don’t know about you, but I’m not terribly familiar with a mustard plant. I have mustard seeds in my pantry thanks to a spice collection I bought some time ago, so I know how small the seeds are (1-2 mm), but that’s about where my knowledge ends. A bit of background info is helpful to understand Jesus’ parable here.

  • Mustard seeds need no cultivating and are characterized by rapid germination. A mustard seed planted one day could start growing the very next day.
  • Few plants grow so large in one season as a mustard. A mustard plant is still an herb, but its stem would grow dry and wood-like, making it look like a tree. Holy Land trees generally don’t grow very tall, so the mustard plant would likely only reach a height of 5-10 feet.

These facts help us keep in mind the focus of this parable. By choosing a mustard seed, which grows a lot in a little amount of time and needs no cultivation, Jesus is showing us that He makes the kingdom of heaven grow. From a seemingly small beginning—one man and His 12 followers—Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the world, even despite persecution and man’s attempts to stop the growth.

This growth continues still today. Look in your own life. What seemingly small beginnings have been planted? What about your family? My parents, for example, had a seemingly small beginning: two people getting married. But they had three children and raised us in the faith. Each of us married fellow Christians and had kids of our own, who are also being raised in the faith. In the span of two generations, they’ve grown from two people to nineteen (and possibly counting). In another generation, that number will multiply even more, perhaps doubling or tripling (or more!) the number in a single generation.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that we have to do great things to make an impact in the kingdom of heaven, but this parable shows us otherwise. We can’t make seeds grow. Yes, we can provide ideal conditions for our garden plants: good soil, appropriate sunlight, and water. But we can’t make a seed grow. In the same way, we can’t make the kingdom of God grow. We can provide ideal conditions for that faith to grow: devotions, Bible study, regular worship, bringing up children in the faith, and sharing our faith with others. But the results aren’t up to us; they’re up to God. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “ I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”

So yes, share your faith, by all means. Nurture the seed that has been planted. And rest assured that God, in His own mysterious way, will make the seed grow and flourish. Maybe even into a mustard tree.