Of Mustard and Men
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 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?
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.