And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. —Mark 4:30-34
You may be tempted to read the parable of the mustard seed and try to figure it out. “Oh, the kingdom of God is very tiny, like a mustard seed…This means we only need a tiny bit of faith. Then it grows into the largest plant in the garden…This means God can do great things with my tiny faith. You see, simple!”
But keep reading the passage, for it goes on to say, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it” (33). Most were not able to hear what Jesus truly meant by the parables, including the disciples! “He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything” (34). Jesus spoke the word in parables only, he did not give interpretations. However, he explained in private to his disciples.
This brings me to the truth most people overlook: if his own disciples, who spent every moment of the day with him, did not even understand his parables, then what makes us think we will? They could see his body language, hear his tone, and feel his gravitas. They shared his cultural background, spoke his language, and understood the idioms and slang of their time. They slept with him, ate with him, and walked with him from town to town. They experienced his emotions, knew the color of his eyes, and met his mom and dad. Again, if the first disciples couldn’t understand his parables without an explanation, then neither can we! So be careful of trying to figure out his parables on your own, for they weren’t meant to be “solved” like math problems.
Nobody enters the kingdom of God with their intelligence. And just as you cannot think your way to heaven, neither can you act your way to heaven.
What was the purpose of the parables then? They were meant to confuse, blind, paralyze, and harden. They were meant to put the hearer in such a state of shock that he wouldn’t dare to move, out of fear, angst, and bewilderment. They were meant to leave us shaking our heads, muttering to ourselves, “Then who can be saved? Who can be saved?” The parables expose our idols and toxic confidence in ourselves and they keep us from being able to manipulate God, forcing him to accept us because of how we act, what we say, or what we believe.
The parables force us to go to Jesus and ask him to explain to us the meaning of his words. Let me say it again, the parables compel us to go humbly to Jesus for help.
The parable of the mustard seed offends us, for no matter what good we do, we are bested by a minuscule seed dropped in the dirt. It doesn’t need our help. It starts smaller than we are, yet grows larger than we’ll ever dare to dream. Its purpose is not flashy, but is satisfied with being a resting place for birds. While our cravings are legion, the seed only needs dirt, light, and water. Every day, it stretches out its limbs and praises its Creator, doing what it was planted here to do, both bound to the earth and as free as the birds in the air who shelter in it.
Jesus sought to offend all those who trusted in themselves and the “size” of their spirituality, so he used the mustard seed to accomplish his ministry of offense. Those who trusted in themselves would point their fingers at others and arrogantly say, “Look at him, he is completely hopeless. Look at her enormous sin and her minuscule faith. Look at those corrupt people, who know very little about God.” Yet the tiny mustard seed grows into the largest plant in the garden. In this way, the parable of the mustard seed is a celebration of hopelessness.
The effect of the parables is to do to us what God did to Abraham. God gave Abraham astounding promises; God would give Abraham many children and much land. Yet, by the time Abraham and his wife were a hundred years old, they were childless nomads. God had to reduce their hopes and dreams down to the size of a mustard seed. That’s God’s typical method when dealing out his promises to us. Before fulfilling the promise, he must empty us of natural strength, opportunity, and realistic parameters.
This prepares the way for grace.
Likewise, the parables are to get us to say, “That’s completely unrealistic…there’s no way that’s happening!” When we’ve been reduced down to practically nothing, then God begins to cause growth, for he doesn’t want us to rely on ourselves, but him alone.
If you can see a way forward in your trial right now, then you’re not small enough yet. God may very well wait until circumstances are even more desperate. We don’t grow by being rich in spirit, but by being poor in spirit. True growth begins in the ground. And it doesn’t end until your limbs reach the heavens.
The parables aren’t meant to be figured out, but they are meant to get you to put your trust in Jesus.
- Have you ever felt as small as a grain of mustard seed in the face of your enormous circumstances? Talk to a friend about it or write about it.
- How can this parable guide your prayer life?
- How can this parable help you to understand true humility? True pride?