Parables Wk#2

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Good Morning & Welcome to New Hope

31Here is another illustration Jesus used: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field.
32It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.”
Jesus often used parables in his teaching for a number of reasons. Teachers commonly use the technique of moving from the known to the unknown. When introducing a new concept or idea, a teacher will often relate the concept to something their students already understand. This is exactly what Jesus is doing in this parable. According to commentator Alfred Plummer, the Jews of Jesus’ day used the phrase “as small as a mustard seed” to refer to anything small and almost unnoticeable.2 Jesus used this phrase to give the Jews a starting point for his parable. They were familiar with the size of the mustard seed since many of them were farmers and had planted it themselves. Jesus built upon that knowledge to explain the kingdom of God. The mustard seed was an analogy, something taking the known to the unknown. Building an idea about the spiritual realm on a known physical concept made it easier for his audience to understand. The parable was never meant to be an exposition on botanical size. ~ Answers in Genesis
Please note that Jesus was not comparing the mustard seed to all other seeds in the world, but to seeds that a local, Palestinian farmer might have “sowed in his field,” i.e., a key qualifying phrase in verse 31. And it’s absolutely true that the black mustard seed (Brassica nigra = Sinapis nigra) was the smallest seed ever sown by a first-century farmer in that part of the world.
It’s also true, as many modern-day encyclopedias will tell you, that the black mustard seed in Israel will typically grow to heights of 3.7 meters, or 12 (twelve) feet—plenty large enough to hold a bird nest.
It’s important to remember that the Bible often uses everyday terminology in order to communicate simple truth. Even today, we might refer to a “sunset” when, technically, scientifically, we know that the sun never actually “sets,” i.e., it’s the Earth that revolves.
When people come to visit us here in north central Maine, we might take them on a drive, passing a good number of lakes and ponds, to Moosehead Lake, which I will describe to them as being “the largest lake of all.” Of course, our guests will usually realize that I’m speaking locally, not globally. They don’t often question my credibility. ~ Christian
The context of makes it quite clear that Jesus was addressing a local lay audience, not an international conference of botanists. It seems that no reasonable person would therefore insist for very long that this text provides a viable basis for questioning either Jesus or the Bible, when it comes to getting the facts straight—scientifically, historically, or technically.
First, in order to interpret the Bible literally we must pay special attention to what is known as form or genre. Put another way, to interpret the Bible literally we must first consider the form of literature we are interpreting. As a legal brief differs in form from fantasy literature, so, too, a parable concerning a mustard seed would likely differ in form and function from a technical discussion on horticulture. Furthermore, when Jesus asks, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?” (, emphasis added) we should immediately be alerted to the fact that Jesus is about to use an extended simile (parable) to teach his disciples a principle about the kingdom. Indeed, Jesus says as much when he continues, “or what parable should we use to describe it” (v. 30, emphasis added). As with metaphors, the danger is to interpret extended similes in a strictly wooden literal sense. The kingdom of God is obviously not like a mustard seed in every way. Nor does Jesus intend to make his parable “walk on all fours.” A kingdom does not look like a mustard seed, nor is a mustard seed the smallest seed in the kingdom. Rather the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed in the sense that it begins small and becomes large (cf. ). ~ Hank Hanegraaff
“The mustard plant of Palestine was very different from the mustard plant which we know in this country. To be strictly accurate, the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds; the seed of the cypress tree, for instance, is still smaller; but in the middle east it was proverbial for smallness. For example, the Jews talked of a drop of blood as small as a mustard seed; or, if they were talking of some tiny breach of the ceremonial law, they would speak of a defilement as small as a mustard seed; and Jesus himself used the phrase in this way when he spoke of faith as a grain of mustard seed ().
In Palestine, this little grain of mustard seed did grow into something very like a tree. W. M. Thomson in The Land and the Book writes: ‘I have seen this plant on the rich plain of Akkar as tall as the horse and his rider.’ He says: ‘With the help of my guide, I uprooted a veritable mustard-tree which was more than twelve feet high.’ In this parable, there is no exaggeration at all. Further, it was a common sight to see such mustard bushes or trees surrounded with a cloud of birds, for the birds love the little black seeds of the tree, and settle on the tree to eat them.
Jesus said that his kingdom was like the mustard seed and its growth into a tree. The point is crystal clear. The kingdom of heaven starts from the smallest beginnings, but no one knows where it will end. In middle eastern language and in the Old Testament itself, one of the commonest pictures of a great empire is the picture of a great tree, with the subject nations depicted as birds finding rest and shelter within its branches (). This parable tells us that the kingdom of heaven begins very small but that in the end many nations will be gathered within it.
It is the fact of history that the greatest things must always begin with the smallest beginnings.
(1) An idea which may well change civilization begins with one person. In the British Empire, it was William Wilberforce who was responsible for the freeing of the slaves. The idea of that liberation came to him when he read an exposure of the slave trade by Thomas Clarkson. He was a close friend of William Pitt, the then Prime Minister, and one day he was sitting with him and George Grenville in Pitt’s garden at Holwood. It was a scene of beauty, with the Vale of Keston opening out before them; but the thoughts of Wilberforce were not on that but on the blots of the world. Suddenly Pitt turned to him: ‘Wilberforce,’ he said, ‘why don’t you give a notice of a motion on the slave trade?’ An idea was sown in the mind of one man, and that idea changed life for hundreds of thousands of people. An idea must find an individual willing to be possessed by it; but when it finds such a person an unstoppable tide begins to flow.
(2) A witness must begin with a single person. There is a story about a group of young people from many nations who were discussing how the Christian gospel might be spread. They talked of propaganda, of literature, of all the ways of disseminating the gospel in the twentieth century. Then the girl from Africa spoke. ‘When we want to take Christianity to one of our villages,’ she said, ‘we don’t send them books. We take a Christian family and send them to live in the village, and they make the village Christian by living there.’ In a group or society, or school or factory, or shop or office, again and again it is the witness of one individual which brings in Christianity. The one man or woman set on fire for Christ is the person who lights that fire in others.
(3) A reformation begins with one person. One of the great stories of the Christian Church is the story of Telemachus. He was a hermit of the desert, but something told him—the call of God—that he must go to Rome. He went. Rome was nominally Christian, but even in Christian Rome the gladiatorial games went on, in which men fought with each other, and crowds roared with the lust for blood. Telemachus found his way to the games, where people were there to spectate. He was horrified. Were these men slaughtering each other not also children of God? He leaped from his seat, right into the arena, and stood between the gladiators. He was tossed aside. He came back. The crowd were angry; they began to stone him. Still he struggled back between the gladiators. The prefect’s command rang out; a sword flashed in the sunlight, and Telemachus was dead. Suddenly there was a hush; suddenly the crowd realized what had happened; a holy man lay dead. Something happened that day to Rome, for there were never again any gladiatorial games. By his death, one man had let loose something that cleansed an empire. Someone must begin a reformation; it need not begin in a nation; it may begin in a home or a place of work. If once that individual has started it, no one knows where it will end.
(4) But this was one of the most personal parables Jesus ever spoke. Sometimes his disciples must have despaired. Their little band was so small and the world was so wide. How could they ever win and change it? Yet, with Jesus, an invincible force entered the world. Hugh Martin quotes the writer H. G. Wells as saying: ‘His is easily the dominant figure in history … A historian without any theological bias whatever should find that he simply cannot portray the progress of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth.’ In this parable, Jesus is saying to his disciples, and to his followers today, that there must be no discouragement, that they must serve and witness in their own situations, that each one must be the small beginning from which the kingdom grows until the kingdoms of the earth finally become the kingdom of God.” ~ Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 88–91). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 88–91). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
Little is lots in the Kingdom
It only takes one
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