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The gospel of Matthew is believed to have been written for Jewish believers in and followers of Jesus who most likely lived in and around modern-day Syria. Today’s parable story is told by Jesus in the three synoptic gospels. Recorded here in Matthew 13:31-32, and also in Mark 4:30-34; Luke 13:18-21, the story is clearly one that was key to of how Jesus explained the kingdom of Heaven: the community of God’s-Making in our world.
Parables are stories that point to a deeper truth. They are larger than a mere symbol or one-to-one metaphor. They’re compared to a nut. To get the fruit of the nut you have to first break open the shell, which can be hard to do with your bare hands. It takes effort, attention, and intention. Parables are not merely stories that we have to “get.” Parables are also stories that “get” us, or open us up as we wrestle with them so that we might become “woke” to God’s presence, purpose and person.
Some things to know about today’s parable include these historical pieces that are often lost to us in our modern culture.
DOES SIZE MATTER? While we know today that the mustard seed isn’t the smallest that exists (that award goes to certain epiphytic orchids in the tropical rainforest. Some seeds are only 1/300th of an inch (85 micrometers) long, which is below the resolving power of the unaided human eye.) In the ancient world, it was believed that mustard was the very smallest that existed.
MUSTARD, A TREE? Mustard doesn’t grow to become the size of a tree, but it can be a fierce shrub. We’re accustomed to Redwood Trees, but in a land like ancient Israel, such a shrub could be approached as a tree by both humans and animals.
MUSTARD IT’S LIKE A WEED IN VINEYARD? In the Ancient World, mustard was considered the worst of weeds to have pop in your garden. It was a fierce subversive grower and hard to get rid of. Once it appeared it would often take over. Mustard was used not just on food, but also as a healing agent, like we use Vick’s Vapor Rub today. So it was a symbol of subversiveness, power and therapeutic healing.
BIRDS? In the prophets: Ezekial, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, fowl often are a metaphor for human thoughts and intellectual activity. Some see birds used as a metaphor for the intellectual church, those that find faith through “faith” (not biology) such as the Gentiles who chose faith rather than being born of children of Israel.
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation
• Could the person take the shrub like a tree and push it all back down inside the seed?
• What could the tree really be?
If you have ever come close to this kind of tree? Where? How?