A Mustard Seed Church

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Reflections for Sunday, June 9 from Fr. George Berendt, PIME

Several years ago I cut out and saved a wonderful potato recipe I found in a magazine. One of the ingredients is yellow or brown mustard seeds. Before this I never cooked with mustard seeds and this dish convinced me that I had been missing a wonderful taste sensation for far too long. The mustard seeds contributed a delightful, aromatic flavor to the potato dish and made my taste buds sing alleluia. Why didn’t I hear about this ingredient before?

In all three of the synoptic Gospels Jesus uses the image of a mustard seed to instruct His listeners about the kingdom of God. I advise you to read the three short references to the praises of the ‘divine mustard seed’ in Luke 13: 18-19, Matthew 13: 31-33, and Mark 4: 30-32. Each one is a little different.

Matthew and Mark tell us that the mustard seed in the smallest of seeds but Luke doesn’t. Now, I’m not a botanist, but I know that there are smaller seeds in our world. A poppy seed is smaller and the seed of an English aster (that I attempted to grow once and failed) is even smaller than a poppy seed. The mustard seeds I have in my pantry are pretty hefty compared to other seeds in God’s earthly garden.

I don’t know how many seeds and plants Jesus was familiar with in His world but for sure in Jesus’ world the mustard seed would be seen as small. As we all know, Jesus used examples of nature and life to speak to His people about the mysteries of the divine. The smallness of the mustard seed worked well when He told a parable attempting to enlighten His audience about the coming of the kingdom of God; a kingdom Jesus was inaugurating.

Using this seed as an example Jesus told those who gathered around Him what happens when something so small takes root. The clue to understanding the parable of the mustard seed is that the parable is a contrast story between “smallness and greatness.”  Before we continue, let me share with you something I read about the mustard seed in a book written by Fr. Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. on the Eucharist (Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel).

If I understood the facts of the mustard seed in his book it takes about 2200 to 2500 mustard seeds to weigh one ounce. When planted, a mustard seed produces a plant that is taller than Shaquille O’Neal (7 ft 1 in) while a mustard plant can grow to 12 or 13 feet. It attracts birds that gather in its branches and they eat and scatter the seeds.

The ancient author Pliny the Elder wrote in his book Natural History that the plant is like a weed. It’s very invasive and it takes over the land and is difficult to eradicate. However, the leaves of the mustard plant are used in recipes to perk up dishes. Now what was Jesus’ point in this parable?

Like all of Jesus’ parables the reader or the listener can interpret them in various ways. I have several points from Jesus’  “mustard seed” parable that go like this.

First, Jesus is the original sower of the mustard seed. The seed is His word scattered in Israel. At first, His initial preaching seems so insignificant. Israel already has a temple, priesthood, a collection of sacred writings, a developed worship life and many religious institutions. On this field that already exists Jesus scattered the seeds of His word; seeds of a new Gospel, if you will, that gradually put down roots in an already old, religious soil. At first it seems so small and insignificant. That it could even sprout at all seems a miracle. Nevertheless, the seed of His word is scattered, puts down roots, begins to sprout in this old soil, and finds a fertile ground in the hearts of some of His listeners. Eventually, the mustard seed of Jesus’ preaching begin to bloom.

The parable of the mustard seed isn’t always a tale of success. Often the seed dies where it was scatted. Not all of His first listeners proved fertile fields. Like us who plant seeds in our gardens, not all the seed we plant take root and flourish. Some wither and die.

Two thousand years ago some of Jesus’ audience found the “mustard seed” that Jesus cast their way a bit much (as we can read in John 6:67) Many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life.” Even some of Jesus’ earliest followers found Jesus to be too much for them and walked away.

The early Church as we know began as a small group of frightened and terrified men and women:  everyday people who had to stand out from the people around them once they let the seed of God’s Word take root in their hearts. The seed of God’s Word took deep root in them and grew, and grew and grew.

It’s a miracle that the Church could even survive in the hostile and unsympathetic environment it first took root in 2000 years ago. The Acts of the Apostles is an amazing story of how this small seed survived, endured, and grew in soil that at first seemed very unresponsive and ill-disposed to give it growth. Persecution, mockery, and harassment were the sterile soil and bitter waters that the first believers had to thrive in. Nevertheless the “divine mustard seed” took deep root in their hearts and gradually began to grow and spread.

Second, two millennium ago a handful of people was the soil that the words of Jesus first took root in. At the same time as they began to bloom, persecution, rejection by their families, martyrdom, harassment by the religious establishment, and expulsion from their villages couldn’t eradicate the “mustard seed church” that was slowly but surely penetrating the soil of Israel and the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder likened the mustard to an invasive weed and that was what the first believers were becoming. This “divine weed” was becoming a permanent growth in the world that just wouldn’t go away. Not even the best Round Up Weed Killer could get rid of it. It’s like what Gamaliel said to the Sanhedrin: “So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 6:38-40).

Gamaliel hit the mark in his warning to his fellow co-religionists in Jerusalem. God’s seed will take root whether we like it or not and there is nothing anyone can do to prevent its progress. And so as it began to grow 2000 years ago, it also attracted other birds that came to roost in its branches and eat the seeds they found there. Seeds they found tasty and nourishing.

This is why the Catholic Church is a missionary church. We, who have had our fill from the mustard plant that is Jesus, take other seeds and scatter them far and wide in our world. The Word of God has to be invasive and plant itself in the soils of Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The mustard plant is a desert plant and its roots drill deep down into the soil. The Word of God wants to drill deep down into the soil of the hearts of all men and women giving us a firm foundation in our spiritual lives. And, like the birds of this air, we need to find a safe sanctuary to find rest and security and the spiritual nourishment we need to live in a world that is often perilous to our spiritual life.

Two millennia ago the first believers saw how appealing this mustard tree was and they came to find rest and nourishment. They filled up on the wisdom of the mustard seed and then flew off to the four corners of the earth fulfilling Jesus’ final wish for those who followed Him: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. “ (Mt. 28:19).

Now it’s our turn. We are the modern day members of this “mustard seed church.” We, who have found rest and nourishment in it and had our fill, must now fly off drop the mustard seeds of God’s Word and make disciples of all nations. We have deep roots in some places and in those that we don’t, we fly off to plant, water, and tend until it grows tall and majestic,  giving to this new soil a flavor, a zest, a relish that has been missing. All missionaries are “mustard seed” sowers.

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