“Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less [G3398] than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater [G3187] than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it” (Mark 4:30-32 KJV).
Most people who have read this parable and concluded that the size (amount) of the mustard seed represents the amount of faith a Christian must have to please God (Jehovah). Some have taken the mustard seed under the microscope and argued about whether it really is the smallest of seeds. Secular critics of Biblical literature have used this parable to attempt to demonstrate that Yeshua was in error because the mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world. This kind of skeptical criticism overlooks and, as a result, misses the point and the lesson in the parable.
The plant referred to in this parable (which is paralleled in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke) is generally considered to be the black mustard, a large annual plant up to ten to twelve feet tall with a stout central stem and strong branches. It bears yellow flowers producing minute seeds. In actuality the seed is so small that when it is incorporated into jewelry, the makers encase it in a glass globe the size of a marble, which serves to magnify the seed so it may be easily seen. According to rabbinical sources, Jews did not grow this plant in gardens, and this is consistent with Matthew’s description of it being sown in a field. Luke tells the parable with the plant in a garden instead, presumably recasting the story for an audience outside Israel. Yeshua was not comparing the mustard seed to all other seeds in the world, but to seeds that a local farmer might have sown in his field. It is absolutely true that the black mustard seed was the smallest seed ever sown by a first-century farmer in that part of the world. The black mustard seed was a small seed, well known to the audience and the very soul of a proverbial expression with which they would already be familiar. Though there are smaller seeds in the world (epiphytic orchids), is there a better illustration or would it grow into so large a plant in the Israel of Yeshua’s day? Even if there is a larger garden plant, would it be known to the audience of the parable?
Many Christians immediate reaction to this parable is a blend of relief and shame. It is reassuring to know that even a minute amount of faith is so powerful. On the other hand, this parable makes Christians ponder exactly how much faith they actually have. What if your faith isn’t even the size of a mustard seed? How much is a epiphytic orchid’s sized amount of faith worth? What if you need an electron microscope to see your faith? These comparisons of quantity and size can actually lead to discouragement for many people. Many Christians also feel chastened by this parable. I don’t believe Yeshua intended for this parable to be a chastisement. I believe Yeshua is actually encouraging us that no matter how meager our faith may initially appear, that tiny little speck is the beginning of our path to completeness and joy. God takes us where we are, loves us as we are, and makes us His own.
The mustard seed, one of the world’s smallest of seeds produces a large tree. Likewise, it is the same with the Kingdom of God. A small seed when planted in good soil produces amazing growth, both in individuals and in the Kingdom of God taken as a whole. What can mustard seeds teach us about the Kingdom of God? The tiny mustard seed literally grew to be a tree which attracted numerous birds because they loved the little black mustard seed it produced. God’s kingdom works in a similar fashion. It starts from the smallest beginnings in the hearts of men and women who are receptive to God’s word. It works unseen and causes a transformation from within. Just as a seed has no power to change itself until it is planted in the ground, we cannot truly change our lives until God gives us the power of His Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh).
This parable isn’t necessarily a size comparison between our faith and a mustard seed. It is the characteristic of the mustard seed that matters. In Israel, the mustard seed is an incredibly invasive plant that can grow quite large (unlike other parts of the world) and its characteristics include growing in the worst soil conditions and being able to lift obstructions like large concrete blocks and entire roadways out of the way because of its strength. Therefore, this parable was meant as encouragement telling us to have the characteristic of the mustard seed (pushing through even in difficult times and poor growing conditions), not that we had to have faith the size (amount) of a mustard seed.
The olive seed was sown and was transformed into a tree. The tree grew and produced out branches. The tree attracted birds because they loved the seeds that the tree produced and the tree provided shelter to the birds. The Bible tells us that Christians (Gentiles) are the branches and that the root (tree) is a representative of the Jewish people (Romans 11). The seeds (fruit) of the olive tree represents Salvation that was provided to all of mankind through the Gospels and the text of the Old Testament (Tanakh) and the New Testament. The doctrine of free will teaches that it is up to us to accept the fruit as nourishment. The birds and branches of the parable represents nations and gentiles. Once the birds have eaten the fruit of the olive tree and taken shelter from the olive tree, they become part of the olive tree. Christians are now also included and considered to be the heirs to the promise and the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).
The parable isn’t meant to discourage anyone and it is not a chastisement. The parable is meant to encourage Christians so that their faith will grow. We aren’t supposed to compare the size of our mustard seed or to count how many mustard seeds one might have. We are supposed to work tirelessly until we enter the Kingdom of God, even in difficult times or under persecution or threat of persecution.