The Parable of the Mustard Seed


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj
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He [Jesus] proposed another parable to them.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field.

It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’

– MATTHEW 13:31-32

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The people whom Jesus addressed during his lifetime were mainly rural folk who would have had enough knowledge of plants to understand the substance and nuances of Jesus’ teachings that involved plants.

Jesus taught profound spiritual truths to simple folk through parables, using relevant and familiar examples from daily life. The mustard plant, mentioned in the three Canonical gospels and in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas is one of these cases.

The term “Mustard” is used to describe several plant species in the genera Brassica and Sinapis whose small mustard seeds are used as a spice. The mustard seeds are ground and mixed  with water, vinegar or other liquids, to prepare the condiment known as mustard paste or prepared mustard. The seeds are also pressed to make mustard oil. The edible leaves can be eaten as mustard greens.

According to Theophrastus and Pliny, mustard was grown in gardens and did not need any cultivating, as it sprouts all by itself.

Some suggest that Salvadora persica (Arak, Galenia asiatica, Meswak, Peelu, Pīlu, Salvadora indica,or toothbrush tree) is a species  of Salvadora, also known as “mustard tree,” is the mustard referred to in the Bible. The Arabs called this plant chardal and the Hebrew equivalent is also chardalSalvadora persica is popularly used as a chewing stick throughout the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the wider Muslim world. It is often mentioned that Prophet Muhammad recommended its use. He is cited in various Hadith extolling the twig’s virtues. However, this plant,  Salvadora persica, cannot be the mustard mentioned in the canonical gospels because it is a shrub unlike any other member of the mustard family; it is never cultivated; found only in deserts; and the fruits are large.

So, the most probable contenders are plants of the Brassicaceae, a medium-sized and economically important family of flowering plants (Angiosperms), that are informally known as the mustards, mustard flowers, the crucifers or the cabbage family. Varieties that we normally come across are black mustard (Brassica nigra), Mild white mustard (Sinapis hirta), the white mustard (Sinapis arvensis or Sinapis alba), and Indian mustard (Brassica juncea). All these plants have small seeds.

So the logical conclusion arrived by many experts is that the parable points to Brassica nigra.

The seeds of both black and white mustard are similar in size – about 1.0 to 3.0 mm (1/8 inch) making them the smallest seed that can be planted in the ground. This clearly indicates that Jesus was comparing the mustard seed to other seeds that were commonly grown. Though there might have been numerous other plants with smaller seeds familiar to his listeners, there were only a few plants which grew large and rapidly in one season as a mustard, characterized by rapid germination of the seed. Mustard sowed one day would germinate and begin sprouting the next day.

From a botanical point of view, a grown black mustard would still be a herb. Trees in most parts of the Holy Land do not attain a large stature. The black mustard plant itself can grow from two to eight feet tall and could be considered a shrub. Wild mustard plants that grow over ten feet tall have been noticed near the Jordan River.

It has also been noticed that the stem of mustard plants becomes dry and wood-like, which gives it the look of a tree.

Black mustard is an exceptionally large mustard plant. But is it strong enough for birds to perch on them?

The answer can be found in Mark 4:32,

But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.

Almost all the versions of the gospel say that it becomes the largest of (garden) plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade. They do not say that the birds can make nests in the branches; but say:

    • can dwell in its shade
    • “dwell in its branches”
    • can make nests in its shade
    • can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE
    • will be able to perch in its shade
    • may lodge under the shadow of it
    • so that under its shade the fowls of the heaven are able to rest

and so on.

To summarize, the features of the mustard plant emphasized by Jesus in the Parable of the Mustard Seed are the small size of the mustard seed, the large size of the mustard plant in relation to the seed, and the rapid growth of the plant from germination onwards.

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