Like the “seed” of a mustard “tree”: a question

While rehearsing my sermon early Sunday morning–titled “Five Cent Coupon,” on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52–I started to go back to the scripture and re-think some of my research on the subject of the parable of the mustard seed.  The NRSV translation of the key part of the lection is this:

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

I really struggled with writing the sermon this week, perhaps because last week’s sermon (“You Put Your Weeds In There”) was on the parable of the seeds and weeds, where the weeds are burned.  But this week is a celebration of the weed, specifically the mustard weed.

A key issue here is that mustard doesn’t grow into grow into trees, it’s a weed.  So in this parabolic fantasy realm, what does it mean beyond its obvious statement about proliferation?

I decided to mention in a very gentle way as a side comment during the sermon that mustard oil, made from mustard seeds, is known to be a male sexual stimulant.  Could it be that this is what is going on in this scripture?  Is this what the “tree” is all about?  This sort of adianoeta isn’t too far away from the sexual imagery in the Song of Solomon.  What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Like the “seed” of a mustard “tree”: a question

  1. How about social/political location? Here is John Dominic Crossan (in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography</i [1994], pp. 65f.):

    "The point … is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three, four, or even more feet in height. It is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas, where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like. Like a pungent shrub with dangerous take-over properties. Something you would want only in small and carefully controlled doses — if you could control it. It is a startling metaphor, but it would be interpreted quite differently by those, on the one hand, concerned about their fields, their crops, and their harvests, and by those, on the other, for whom fields, crops, and harvests were always the property of others."

  2. This was actually the concluding point of the sermon, it’s like Tillich’s notion of a theology of offense. I also mentioned that mustard weeds are used today in organic farming as a kind of “green manure,” but mustard would have been seen as a weed, even if it has a purpose, in a garden, and the birds coming into the garden may or may not be welcome.

    But it seems to me that there must be more to this metaphor. The social/political interpretation is just fine, and legitimate, but it doesn’t really explain to me why the Gospel authors or Jesus would talk about a tree that doesn’t really exist. Couldn’t the same point be made with many other plants?

  3. I don’t object to the attempt to find some kind of meaning in it, but it does seem to me that human error is the most convincing answer for why the text is as it stands.

  4. What if the parable presents a double surprise? First, that the kingdom is like a weed but secondly, even if you get that the kingdom begins as the seed of the weed you may be surprised at just how big it grows: not just four feet but 40! If a four foot mustard is an offense how about 40 feet?

  5. That sounds reasonable, that the parable might be more about the element of surprise, but that doesn’t change the question about sexual images here. Also: if it’s a textual error, then it’s neither of these, and the focus is on the seed.

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