Jesus looked a lot like a mustard seed (a lesson on expecting more out of God)

How do you interpret the parable of the mustard seed? Does it mean "anything could happen" or "impressive but imaginable things could happen"? How high should we set our expectations? That's the question we end up with when we try to figure out the picture Jesus was painting with the parable. And I believe the story of Jesus calming the storm gives us the key to understanding the parable. (See Mark 4:30-41.)

The mustard seed was spoken of often as a symbol of things that are minute. Surely Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God starts from small and insignificant beginnings. There is a lesson here: God doesn't just choose the most impressive people to have the greatest impact in the kingdom of God. I find this to be a very comforting point. It's alienating and wearying to feel like we need to be superstars. 

So the kingdom starts small. Everyone agrees on that. Where scholars disagree -- and where the debate between "anything" and "impressive but imaginable" comes from -- is the question over what the mustard seed grows into. One picture is this: the seed grows into a mustard plant that is particularly large. The mustard plant was usually about four feet tall, but it was sometimes known to grow to a height of ten feet or more. When the plants got that size, birds loved to land in their branches and eat the seeds. But is a ten-foot-tall mustard plant what Jesus had in mind? For a mustard seed to grow into a large shrub would be "impressive." It would like saying that the kingdom of God is like a six-pound baby that grew into a seven-foot-tall man. Impressive, yes. But very much within the realm of normal possibilities.

The other picture is this: the seed grows into a great tree -- maybe the size of an oak tree. It's absurd, I know. It is so absurd that many scholars have argued that this picture surely couldn't have been what Jesus had in mind. 

Who is right? What should we expect out of God? Here is where another picture helps interpret the parable. It is the picture of Jesus calming the storm. Jesus tells the story of the mustard seed as his last parable in Mark 4. Then he and his disciples get into a boat and start across the lake. A great storm comes up, and the disciples fear for their lives. Jesus gets up and, with a word, calms the storm. The disciples sit in shock at what they have just witnessed.

Now let's picture this scene. Imagine a great sea and a great storm. On that sea and within that storm, a boat would be as small as a dot. And within that boat, a man would be as small as the smallest speck. If you could look at the whole sea and storm at once, you would have a hard time even seeing the man. And yet the speck of a man has authority over the great sea and storm. Can we really expect something like this out of God? Does he work on such absurd scales? I think that is what Jesus is trying to tell us.

When we are having trouble expecting God to do more than we can reasonably imagine, it might help to take in this picture of Jesus, who on the Sea of Galilee in a great storm, looked a lot like a mustard seed.


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