When I was a little girl, my father would affectionately call me kaduku, which means "mustard seed." Since most of my friends were called the more common food-inspired nicknames of honey and sugar, I never understood why I was compared to such a strange item. Years later, I described my bewilderment to a friend as we were preparing a curry dish—mustard seeds in hand. She chuckled and knew immediately why the name was appropriate. She said, "Look at these tiny seeds, so quiet and inconspicuous. Yet when we throw them into the oil, they will show us how loud and explosive they can really be."
I could not help but smile recently with that memory in mind while reading the parable of the mustard seed, another comparison that bursts of paradoxical imagery. Jesus says, "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 your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches" (Matthew 13:31-32).
The significance of this parable is illuminated when connecting it to Old Testament passages that describe little birds nesting in the branches of mighty trees. In a revelation to Ezekiel, the Lord described Assyria as "a cedar in Lebanon with beautiful branches and forest shade, and very high; and its top was among the clouds… all the birds of the heavens nested in its boughs, and under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth, and all great nations lived under its shade" (Ezekiel 31:3, 6). In Nebuchadnezzar's dream he too beheld "a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew large and became strong, and its height reached to the sky, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, and all living creatures fed themselves from it" (Daniel 4:10–12).
Since Jesus and his disciples were familiar with those mighty images, the deliberate irony in the parable of the mustard seed was clear. The kingdom of heaven would grow from tiny beginnings to a great tree that would ultimately provide shelter, protection, and benefit to the entire world. As New Testament scholar Craig Keener notes in his commentary on Matthew 13:31-32, "The parable is intended to accent both the qualities of growth and contrast. Like the mustard seed, the kingdom's humble beginnings and unpretentious character offer no visible indication of its future growth and glory, but just as there is continuity between the tiny mustard seed and the resulting 'tree,' so there is continuity from the seemingly inconsequential beginnings in Jesus' ministry and the future glory of God's consummating reign. Thus even though the beginnings of God's kingdom as manifested in Jesus may appear unimpressive, it is casually dismissed at one's own peril."
How marvelously the parable of the mustard seed highlights the past, present, and future magnificence of the kingdom in which God reigns. Though the presence of the King among us may at times feel threatened and slight, his is a kingdom with an explosive promise: it is not the one who plants or waters; it is God who makes things grow. Even now He is working to that end of future glory, calling us to see the great tree in the seedling, growing all things in his time—even those things with the tiniest of beginnings.
Alison Thomas is an itinerant speaker for youth at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.