With this parable of the mustard seed Jesus is helping his audience grasp the mystery and grandeur of God’s Kingdom. And because the kingdom is a divine reality it can’t be fully defined or contained in human explanations. It can, however, be understood by using analogies, word pictures for our minds that help us to think and ponder and meditate at a deeper level.
For Jesus the thing of earth that is most suitable as an analogy to the kingdom is a tiny seed and Jesus emphasizes its smallness. For the Jewish audience hearing this for the very first time, this would have come as a surprise. For them a more predictable comparison would be a mighty army. They expected their messiah to be a great earthly ruler commanding a large battalion of soldiers.
But no, the kingdom is like a mustard seed, “The smallest of all seeds on earth” the most insignificant of seeds. But Jesus adds once sown, “It springs up and becomes the largest of plants.” And in mentioning the large branches that shelter many birds Jesus is reminding us of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel who writes of a lofty tree that symbolized an empire that gives protection to all people of different races and languages.
Early Christians saw in this parable of the mustard seed Jesus Christ himself. Jesus was the mustard seed. Christ crucified, a young man on a cross dying alone and mocked was the mustard seed. But from this despicable low beginning, through the power of the resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit a great Church was born that now reaches every continent with over a billion souls. This growth is not due to human methods but to God’s hidden power. Jesus speaks with utter assurance of the future success of the Kingdom urging his disciples, urging every one of us, to persevere with hope and patience.
Now this parable of the mustard seed is repeated over and over and over again in the history of the Church. We see it in the saints and their works and we see it in ourselves. We see the mustard seed in St. Francis, one lone man considered crazy and deranged at first who, as we know, went on to found and form a world-wide order of both men and women. We see the mustard seed again in Mother Theresa one lone sister going into the slums of Calcutta but emerging to form another world-wide order helping the poor in every major city of the world. And in a last example we see the mustard seed in St. Charles Lwanga a Ugandan whose feast we celebrated on June 3rd.
On June 3rd of this month just ten days ago 500,000 African Catholics came to the site of his martyrdom in Namugongo to celebrate his feast day. St. Charles was a page to King Mwanga back in the 1880s. King Mwanga was a violent ruler who demanded certain favors from the court pages and attendants. As the oldest page Charles tried to protect the younger ones from the king’s advances. This enraged the king he wanted nothing to do with Christianity. He expelled the missionaries and at one point locked his royal household staff within the gates of the palace saying, “Those who do not pray stand by me, those who do pray stand over there.” Those who prayed were martyred; Charles Lwanga was among this group. The Christians were taken on a 37 mile trek to the place of execution at Namugongo. Wrapped in reed mats the Christians were burned to death. Charles endured the flames without complaint and the very last words to come out of his mouth were a long drawn out sigh of “Oh God.” A century ago there were hardly any Catholics in Africa; today it is the fastest growing religion with over 400 million. The mustard seed grows.
Now we can see this mustard seed in us as well, both physically and spiritually. Back in 1991 John Cardinal O’Connor of New York founded the Sisters of Life. They are a religious community of nuns founded with the apostolate of protecting and enhancing the sacredness of all human life. Part of their religious habit is a medal of our Lady and on the back of the medal is the inscription, “Nothing again would be casual or small.” It is meant to be a reminder that all human life, no matter however seemingly small or insignificant in the eyes of others, is important. The great beauty of the human person, created in the image of God, begins with the joining of just two microscopic cells, smaller even than the mustard seed. And yet those two cells grow to be the people we see all around us. Through the love of God the seed grows.
We see this in our spiritual life as well. Holiness is a process. Sanctity doesn’t usually happen all at once. There is growth, usually imperceptible to us. But we persist in the sacrament of reconciliation, the Eucharist every Sunday, and prayer and good works every day. God is always at work within us bringing his plan to completion. Never give up on God he is nurturing that seed within our soul.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley