The stories Jesus told are inescapably weighted with ethos and revelation. Theologians have expounded chapters on the intricacies of even the simplest of his parables—agreeing and disagreeing along the way. Yet even so, and no doubt contributing to their appeal, the parables of Jesus are also simple enough to compel a child to listen:
“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a man cast in his garden; it grew and became a tree and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”(1)
Though the theological and methodological approaches to this parable may be varied, perhaps in varying degrees each contends a similar truth: The kingdom of God holds much to be discovered, discussed, and held in wonder.
German theologian Joachim Jeremias argues that Jesus is not describing the kingdom as the mustard seed itself, but as the vision of the seed brought to fruition.(2) In other words, the kingdom of God is not the tiny seed, but the giant shrub into which it grows, and in whose boughs the birds make their nests. Jesus is looking for the audience to compare the kingdom of God to the final stage of the process from seedling to tree, and hence internalize the vision of a great and protective kingdom. Writes Jeremias, “The tree which shelters the birds is a common metaphor for a mighty kingdom which protects its vassals.”(2) For this influential scholar, the parable of the mustard seed depicts the sharp contrast between the kingdom of God in its fledging beginnings and the mighty kingdom that is breaking-in beyond all asking or perceiving. The kingdom of God is in the process of realization, and this is both an essential component for understanding the parable of the mustard seed, and every word Jesus ever said.
Others contend that the nature of metaphor itself is such that it leaves Jesus’s descriptions of the kingdom largely unarticulated, requiring hearers to draw out the conclusions based on what they know of him, the character of God, and the intricacies of life. The kingdom of God as it is compared to a grain of mustard planted in a garden sets up a point of contrast that is “creative of meaning,” to use the words of another theologian, and unending in dialogue: How is a kingdom like a tiny, planted seed? Who is the man who planted it? How is the realm of God like a tree with branches providing shelter? The conclusions are many—and transforming. Like all of his parables, the comparison of “kingdom” and “seed” sets hearers up for surprise. It is a metaphorical narrative that calls for participation, and leads hearers to a point of decision: Will you continue to see signs of the kingdom as futile and diminutive or will you open your eyes to the possibility of a great and hidden reality? For many scholars, this parable describes the advent of a radical world in its tiny beginnings. It subverts our well-ordered vision of what is, and leaves in its place a system of signs that point us to the person of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. We are invited into a conversation about the kingdom of God and its surprising and transcendent presence in our everyday situations.
Still other renderings of the kingdom and the mustard seed weigh in on the social context and cultural conventions of the first century world of the parables. As a Jewish rabbi speaking parabolically of the kingdom of God within a Jewish and Hellenistic context, Jesus would have conceivably elicited reactions quite different than ours today. William Herzog’s description of Mediterranean life as daily affected by insufficient and limited resources might illumine reactions of the audience to the great promise of the kingdom Jesus describes. If everything surrounding first century peasant life seemed in short supply, the description of the kingdom of heaven as a negligible grain of mustard growing into a great tree would undoubtedly be received in earnest wonder. The kingdom of God as the greatest of all shrubs reverses the imagery of status and social-standing by turning the smallest of all seeds into something of momentous proportions. The promise of shelter in the shade of the branches of God’s great reach would also have been a subversion of order to those who were slaves to the land beneath those branches.
In each of these approaches to Jesus’s unlikely comparison, we find truths and wonders worth gleaning as if from a great and fruitful tree. The parable of the mustard seed depicts the inconspicuous ministry of Jesus and the sometimes hidden signs of his significance as holding a potential far beyond metaphor or imagination, culture or history. The kingdom of God is not in the future only, nor is it only at hand in a history we cannot reach; it is here even now, reaching out with branches that bid all to come and dwell. As with all of Jesus’s stories, which “leap out of their historical situation and confront us as if they had not yet spoken their final word,” this parable of the kingdom will continue to surprise us if we will continue to inquire.(3) The great reality of the kingdom has been planted within the life and words of the human Christ, always ready to break forth the fullness of meaning, gradually or suddenly, or sometimes both.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) This parable is told in Luke 13:18-19, Mark 4:30-32, and Matthew 13:31-32.
(2) Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1972), 102.
(3) David Gowler quoting Richard Pevear in What Are They Saying about the Parables? (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 2.