Of Mustard and Men

Of Mustard and Men

Matthew 13:31-32

James C. Denison

Why are you paying $4 for gas? Blame Deng Xiaoping and a speech he gave in December of 1978. I just finished Fareed Zakaria’s eye-opening new book, The Post-American World. He tells the story: at a gathering of the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the General Secretary urged that the regime focus on economic development and modernization.

The result? The Chinese economy has doubled every eight years for three decades. In 1978, China made 200 air conditioners; in 2005, it made 48 million.

The 20 fastest-growing cities in the world are all in China. They have the world’s largest air terminal; by 2010, Starbucks will have more cafes in China than in America. China is the world’s largest country, the fastest-growing major economy, the largest manufacturer, the second-largest consumer, the largest saver, and the second-largest military spender. Their economic rise has been the fastest in history.

Along with India and other new superpowers, they are consuming oil at unprecedented levels and driving up the price around the globe. And it all started with a speech.

From tiny seeds come giant trees. That’s the point of this week’s parable, especially relevant for every one of us on this Father’s Day. It is my privilege to show you why.

The parable

The best-known of all Jesus’ short parables begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field” (v. 31). There were two kinds of mustard seeds in Jesus’ day; Sinapis nigra was the garden variety, producing a shrub, while Salvadora persica produced the mustard tree.

Both were “the smallest of all your seeds.” There’s been much discussion of that statement over the years.

The cypress tree or wild orchid actually produce smaller seeds. But Jesus was talking about “garden plants.” “Seed” in the New Testament always refers to agricultural plants, those grown for food.

And the mustard seed is by far the smallest of these, so much so that it served as a proverb in the day. The rabbis could speak of a drop of blood or a transgression against the law as being the size of a mustard seed. Roman writers used the same proverb.

Jesus’ point was made by contrast: “yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” The mustard seed could grow into a ten-foot-tall plant in a single season, and could reach heights of 15 feet around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus might have been pointing to just such a tree when he said these words.

Then “the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” Birds love the tiny black seeds produced by the mustard tree, and flock to it from all over. They “perch” or dwell there, living in the tree for a period of time. The point is clear: no one would look at a tiny mustard seed and imagine that it would produce such a tall and vibrant tree, filled with birds from all over Galilee.

So it is with the Kingdom of God, all across the word of God.

A lonely, ridiculed man building a boat saves the human race. A childless Bedouin named Abram becomes the father of three faiths. A renegade shepherd faces down the most powerful man on earth and brings his band of slaves to freedom and destiny. Another shepherd boy kills the mightiest warrior in the land and leads his people to their greatest days of glory. His son, the product of an adulterous relationship, becomes the wisest man in human history. All grew from mustard seeds to men of eternal renown.

Then the day would come when a baby was born in a cow stall and placed in a feed trough. He grew up in a town so insignificant it is mentioned not a single time in the Old Testament and was the butt of jokes in the New Testament. None of his disciples came from the leadership of the nation. They grew to 120 by the time of Pentecost, a small church by any standards today. Mustard seeds, all, but the birds of the air flock in their branches today, more than two billion strong.

Who would have seen this itinerant Galilean carpenter teaching his band of peasant followers and imagined that we would be studying his words in Dallas, Texas 20 centuries later? That this mustard-seed movement would one day topple the mighty Roman Empire and spread the Kingdom of God to the four corners of the earth? That it would become the largest, most significant spiritual movement in human history?

We enter the Kingdom when we make God our King. We extend the Kingdom when we help others make God their King. When we do this, when we plant the seed of the gospel, it will grow. We are not responsible for growing, but for planting. The seed contains within itself all it needs to become a tall tree. But only when it is planted. That’s our job. Are you doing yours?

Life lessons

What does Jesus’ parable say to us on this Father’s Day? Jesus’ point is simple: influencing souls for the King bears a harvest all out of proportion to its cost. What we do to serve God and to help other people serve God lives long after we are done, and produces far more than we could produce.

Some of you are not fathers or mothers, but there are other souls you can influence. Family members, colleagues, friends, neighbors, clients, patients. Every word you speak for God, every note of encouragement, every act of compassion, every stand for the King you take–all of it plants seeds you may not be able to see and may never watch grow. But they are growing nonetheless.

Some of you have been given the inestimable privilege of fatherhood. Your culture defines your success in a variety of ways. You are a good father to the degree that you provide for your family’s financial and material needs; to the degree that you spend time with your children; to the degree that they succeed in academics, sports, and popularity. We’re all grateful for fathers willing to love and serve their children in these ways.

But this parable tells us that planting and nurturing the seed of the gospel in the souls of your children is the most significant, eternal thing you can do as a father. Scripture is clear: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children. Instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

“Exasperate” means to discourage or provoke. Said positively, this command is, “Parents, encourage your children.” How? “Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” How do we do this?

Model the Christian life for them. No child will think more of his Heavenly Father than he does of his earthly parents. We cannot lead our children farther than we are willing to travel. Show them Christ consistently by your words and actions. Be the same person when you talk on the phone as when you hang up; the same person in the car driving to church as you are at church. Show them Jesus.

Teach the Christian life to them. Tragically, gone is the day in most homes when parents pray with their children daily and teach God’s word to them. It’s never too late to begin. And it’s never been more urgent. Make time every day to pray together. Keep a prayer list so you can watch God answer your prayers. Spend time studying the Bible together every day. Worship God together with your faith family every week. You would not think of going a day without feeding your children physically. Take the same responsibility for feeding them spiritually.

Your church has your school-age children one percent of their time, their school 16 percent of their time. You have them 83 percent of their time. And the first responsibility for their souls.

It is never too soon to begin. Prayers for your unborn children will be answered in years to come. Words spoken when they are babies will be felt long before they are understood. Every action for the King will be planted in their eternal souls.

And it is never too late to begin. No matter your age or that of your children, the gospel does its work wherever it is planted. You may never have prayed with your kids–if you pray with them today, they’ll never forget your humility and courage. You may never have read Scripture with them or discussed the things of God with them–if you start now, they’ll remember your commitment for the rest of their lives. And God will honor it forever.

You may not see much result of your spiritual planting. But seeds do not grow so as we can witness their progress. It takes time for seeds to become trees. Yours may just be starting from the ground, or beginning to bear their first leaves, or growing to your waist in height. But the seed is doing its work, always.

So never give up. Godly fathers, be encouraged. As you pray for your children and model the faith for them and seek to help them follow Jesus, your seeds will never be lost. Fathers who want to be godly, be encouraged. Everything you do to help your children make God their King, you do forever.


Is the seed of the gospel planted in your soul today? Have you come to that most significant of all decisions, asking Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Lord? Is that seed growing in your soul this morning? Are you watering it, feeding it, tending it, sheltering it, nourishing it? If so, it is growing and nothing on earth can stop it. Nothing on earth is more important than its growth and harvest. Nothing.

I know that our culture does not agree.

I am evaluated in the same ways as you. If the church grows, if my sermons are appreciated, if my work is valued, so am I. We are what we do and how well we do it. Most men I know are performers like me–seeing ourselves as others see us, measuring success by what we do and have.

We know that all of this will one day be gone and that the spiritual is eternal. We’ve heard the poem, “Only one life–will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” But it’s hard to value the mustard seed of the gospel above the forest of oaks and redwoods which surround us and clamor for our attention and judge our lives and work. It’s hard to measure success by our children’s souls more than their achievements.

Let me ask you to agree with the Lord of the universe that the best gift you can give your children or anyone you influence is to help them follow Jesus. Let me encourage you to know that they will be grateful long after you are done and gone.

I experienced the truth of that claim this week in a very personal way. On Thursday morning, as I was working on this message, I received an email with the news that Julian Unger was on his deathbed in Houston.

Mr. Unger was a successful businessman in Houston, with a gift for automotive mechanics as well. He heard about a new idea called “bus ministry,” just becoming popular in those days. Churches were buying buses and using them to bring neighborhood kids to Sunday school and worship.

His church had just been through a rough time and didn’t have the money to do such a thing, so Mr. Unger bought an old school bus, repaired it with his own money and time, and used it to begin a bus ministry in our community. He led the effort to knock on doors and find children willing to ride that bus to church.

In August of 1973 he knocked on my door. My brother and I rode his bus to his church, where we heard the gospel of his Savior and soon trusted his Christ as our Lord. When I heard that Mr. Unger was near death, I had to go.

Janet and I drove down to Houston on Friday so I could thank him for the fact that I would be in heaven because of him and the seed he planted in my soul. When I arrived, I learned that I was not alone, that Mr. Unger had “kids” all over the world who came to Christ because of his bus ministry and mission work.

I suspect there may be a special place in heaven reserved for “Mr. Unger’s kids,” and I will be only too honored to be among them.

Who will be in heaven because of you?