30th July 2017 5.00 p.m. Nijmegen
Sermon: Parable of the Mustard Seed Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Rev Dr Jos M. Strengholt
Our Lord Jesus was a carpenter. He knew how to make doors, and windows, and benches. I suspect, however, that Jesus as a young man worked more in the fields of his family than in the carpentry workshop. If you see how until not so long ago farming was organized in the villages of Palestine, it is most likely that even a carpenter would often also work on his little plot of land.
The Bible never mentions that Jesus and his family had their own land, but it seems likely to me, and this is confirmed by the fact that Jesus so often uses stories and examples from agriculture for proclaiming the Gospel. He understood farming.
I do not understand farming. I have my bad experiences with gardening.
For 14 years we had a nice house with a garden in Cairo. My dream for our backyard was to have grass. I AN July 2017 1
had it nicely planned. But six times we have sown new grass, and one time we brought turf, these pieces of instant grass. Seven times the grass yellowed and died, in spite of all our efforts to keep it green and alive. I should have been wiser; grass could not grow because of the large mango trees that took away all sun. For growing grass, and many other plants, sunshine is needed. I solved my problem in the end; we had our whole backyard paved with tiles.
I like us to think about the parable of the mustard seed this afternoon; In the days of Jesus, the mustard seed was the smallest seed known in Israel, and if you planted it in the ground, a large bush would grow up fast. The shrub could grow as high as 2 or 3 meters in one season, and it would be about as wide. You planted a tiny seed in the ground and soon you would have a large massive bush!
In Jesus’ time, mustard was not known as something that could be used in the kitchen. Mustard was known for its healing powers.
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The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, in his series of books called Natural History (77 AD), writes that
Mustard . . . with its spicy taste and burning effect is extremely beneficial for the health.
The seeds were crushed, made into a paste, and applied to parts of the body that were hurting. Even in our days, this is still done. I understand that this paste of mustard, when applied to the skin has such burning effect that it helps people forget their actual problem.
Jesus tells us the story of the mustard see to teach about the Kingdom of God. What is Gods Kingdom really like?
Throughout church history this parable of Jesus has been looked at from different angles. I like to share some explanations of this parable.
1 Christ is the seed and the tree
A first approach is to see in that mustard seed, and in the bush, Jesus Christ himself.
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Let me quote St Ambrose, bishop of Milan in Italy in the 4th century. Ambrose wrote in one of his Bible commentaries that the seed in this parable must be compared to Jesus Christ himself. He said,
He is a grain when taken, a tree when He revives; a grain when buried in the earth, a tree when He rises up to heaven.
This idea is good, as Jesus said of himself: ‘I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds’. John 12:24
Christ is only a little seed in the eyes of men. He was born in insignificant Judea; He lived in obscure Nazareth, in despised Galilee. He then taught for two or three years in neighboring villages, and occasionally in Jerusalem; He made a few converts, mainly among the poor and unlearned; and then falling into the hands of his enemies, died the shameful death, nailed to a cross. A small seed indeed. But we know, He rose, and ascended to the Father, and that small seed that died, proved to be the mighty AN July 2017 4
Lord, ruler of heaven and earth, seated at the right hand of God the Father, He will come back one day to judge the living and the dead.
Seen in this light, this parable encourages the disciples of Jesus to not be deeply depressed when they would see the moment when the seed was planted, when Christ would die. Because a new day would dawn, the day of resurrection and new life.
It also teaches us: even if things look bad, and not much hope is left – do not despair. God grows big trees from miserably small beginnings. This is true in our personal life, but also for our church. What is small can grow out to be something very very meaningful.
2 The Gospel message is the seed
Another church father, Saint Jerome, lived at the same time as Bishop Ambrose. He traveled widely, and he also visited Egypt a few times to visit our monasteries. According to him, the mustard seed points to the message about Christ. That is a second way of understanding the parable. St Jerime wrote,
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The preaching of the Gospel is the least of all teachings. In the first place, it seems improbable: It preaches […] a God Who dies, and the scandal of the Cross. Compare this teaching with what the philosophers say, with their books and brilliant oratory, with the composition of their speeches and you will see how the seed of the Gospel is the least of all these seeds.
The Gospel does not look like much. It seems insignificant. But if someone actually believes, see what happens! Trust Christ and invite him into your life and it is the most transforming, the most revolutionary thing that can occur to you.
For 20 centuries, the Gospel of Christ has been proclaimed and it has succeeded to attract more and more and more people to Jesus Christ, and they have been satisfied with that. Because Jesus Christ is at it center of the message.
It is great to look at the worldwide Church and enjoy its growth almost in every continent. There are more Christians on earth than ever before, and percentage
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wise the church is larger than ever before. The message is believed!
We must never forget that the Church is rooted in a dying Lord, and the Church is best and strongest, when we are aware that we totally depend on that initial seed and on that DNA that runs in our veins, Jesus Christ. Victory is not by strength or by power but by dying to this world with Christ. It is not about ruling but about serving.
We may expect growth and blessings as that is what God has promised us. But all growth and progress in our lives is thanks to the Lord who died for us as the small seed. Our lives are also at their best, when we continue to be aware of Jesus Christ – our Lord – at the core of our existence. And if he is at the heart of our life, we die with him to this world, to our own ambitions, even to our desire for victory.
3 Another Angle
Let me also share a very different approach to this parable. I already quoted Pliny the Elder about the AN July 2017 7
medicinal powers of the mustard seed. He said more, and this is very important for understanding this parable:
Mustard […] grows entirely wild. [And…] when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls sprouts at once.
If you have a mustard shrub in your garden, the seeds fall everywhere and grow fast. You realize what we call this? Weed. The mustard plant is dangerous for your garden. If you plant it, you will suffer for it.
The Jews in Jesus’ days were aware of this problem with the mustard shrub. They created rules for the details of life. In the Jewish Tosephta, a collection of traditions, the Jews were told:
Mustard seed […] may not be planted in a garden.
The people who listened to Jesus were not surprised that he said that the seed grew as large as a tree and that the birds enjoyed it. That was normal. They were, however, alerted by his statement about planting the AN July 2017 8
seed in a garden. You don’t do that in your garden! Are you crazy?
Gardens in those days were not for pleasure, but for growing vegetables, urgently needed for food and for staying alive. The small plot, the field, or the garden, was full of lettuce, some beans, watermelons and more. To keep those free of weed was of utmost importance. Your life depended on the food! Not only would the big shrub throw its seeds all over your garden, so that you got mustard seed everywhere.
But secondly, it also created shadow so the other vegetables would not grow. You could say good buy to your veggies!
And thirdly, the birds would come and enjoy the shrub and nest in it. Well – who wants lots of birds in his vegetable garden! Birds create big damage, as they will eat all seeds that you carefully plant.
The point is not just that the mustard plant starts as a small seed and grows into a big shrub, it is that the AN July 2017 9
shrub takes over where it is not wanted, and it gets out of control. And that, said Jesus, is what the Kingdom is like: It is unstoppable, uncontrollable, unpredictable. It is growing in all directions, and even when it is temporarily suppressed, its branches will shoot up again at all places. In spite of all resistance against it, in spite of many efforts of governments to destroy it, in spite of evil rulers, in spite of other religions that want to replace it, the Christian message has from its beginning attracted more and more people to Christ. It has grown into a phenomenal tree –called the church. unstoppable, uncontrollable, unpredictable. The message of Jesus Christ has shown itself to be as powerful as Christ himself. Many have tried to suppress it and many have tried to destroy it. But Christ and his church have grown to be a mighty plant in the garden of this world. The Kingdom of God is growing and growing. The message of Christ has spread ‘like a weed’. It is unstoppable, as our strong Jesus Christ is at its heart. What a story of 20 centuries. All over the world people meet and celebrate His death and resurrection. AN July 2017 10
But this must not make us triumphalistic; all growth, all progress, all blessings that we enjoy, are ultimately based on a Lord who died on the cross for us. So the warning in this parable is also personal: Be careful. If you think you can handle or manage the Kingdom of God, you are mistaken. If you think you can be a follower of Christ while at the same time arranging the garden of your life, as you like it, forget it.
Being a follower of Jesus Christ will have unforeseen consequences, as He is in control, and you are not. He may shake your life and put it upside down. He is that unstoppable seed. His message is unstoppable. His Kingdom is unstoppable.
Jesus Christ and His message have been planted in your life. The little seed, seemingly despicable as it died in the ground, has us in its grip. It grows, and sprouts, and the carefully planned and carefull planted
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gardens of our lives are completely changed by Jesus Christ. That is why we are here. He works in us. And his presence in our thoughts and in our hearts leads to growth and change in our lives. And we, together, are all part of His Kingdom that cannot be stopped. No powers in this world can cancel His rule. In your life and in this world, He is victorious, against all odds. Against all regimes, all religions, all sin, all problems. Our God reigns. Bishop Ambrose advises us:
Therefore do sow Christ in your garden . . . sow the Lord Jesus.
It only needs faith in him as small as a mustard seed and we give him a bridgehead for changing our life. But be warned – He is unstoppable and unpredictable. We will not understand it all, and for sure, we cannot handle Him and what he does in our life. We cannot.
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Things that seemed important become unimportant. We find strength and victory in being servants. Our fear is changed in confidence. We no longer fear those who rule but we pray for them.
So let us plant this Lord in the garden of our life, and see what He does! It certainly means growth and eternal life for us, to be part of His Kingdom that has no end.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
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