Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The mustard seed


Three of the Evangelists: Matthew (13:31-32), Mark (4:30-32) and Luke (13:18-19) report the parable of the mustard seed. Here is how the Evangelist Matthew tells it:

"The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof" (Matthew 13:31-32).

The Jews of that time had a saying: "Small as a mustard seed" In this parable, Christ compares the Kingdom of Heaven not to the small mustard seed, but to its growth into a big, bushy tree whose branches can shelter flocks of birds. The birds stand for the people of God who find shelter and salvation in the Church. At first, the mustard seed appears dead and small - the least of all seeds. But it symbolizes the mystery of resurrection after death.

Jesus Christ told the mustard seed parable just after the closely linked parables of the sower and the tares. The sower parable says that three parts of all the seed perish, and only the fourth part comes up to get saved. The parable of the tares shows how danger threatens even this one-fourth part. These parables could have disheartened the disciples; so few people find salvation.

The Lord offers encouragement, however, in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven (spoken of further on). This mustard seed, least of all seeds, comes up as the greatest herb, and grows into a tree sheltering birds in its branches. This success of delivery is possible for Christian preachers too. Although His disciples were powerless in political terms, the divine power in them enabled them to spread the Gospel throughout the world.

The Blessed Jerome writes: "The preaching of the Gospel is the least of all teachings. In the very beginning it seems improbable: It preaches man and God, a God Who dies, and the scandal of the Cross. Compare this teaching with the tenets of the philosophers, with their books and brilliant oratory, with the composition of their speeches, and thou shalt see how the seed of the Gospel is the least of all these seeds. But this [the teaching of the philosophers,V.P.], while penetrating deeply at first, does not give life; on the contrary it grows weak and becomes exhausted, and dries up like grass. But the Good Tidings, while seemingly small, upon being sown in the soul of the believer or in the whole world, take root like a powerful tree."

In such hot countries as Judaea, the mustard tree attains great height and girth, unlike mustard plants that are mere shrubs. A horseman can ride under Judaean mustard branches; large furnaces can burn its wood; and flocks of birds can sit on its branches, which do not break even under the weight of a man.

Many proverbs also mention the seed of the mustard tree as medicinal. Christ Himself is the mustard seed as well as the Sower. Like a seed, He contained the whole Church. And from Him it spread throughout the world. Christ is the one, eternal Head of the Church; without Him there would be no Church. Christ is the Sower as well, who willingly gave Himself over to death and through this death gave life to His Church - to all who believe in Him. He Himself said of Himself: "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24).

Indeed, Christ was the little seed in the eyes of men. He was born in obscure Judaea, for 30 years he lived in obscure Nazareth, in despised Galilee, in the home of a carpenter. His teaching attracted a few disciples from simple fishermen and publicans. Finally, having given Himself into the hands of enemies, he died a shameful death on the cross. But He was resurrected, ascended to the Father, and spread His Church throughout the world like a great tree. In Him comes to pass the ancient prophecy of Ezekiel:

"I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon in high and prominent mountain: in the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell" (Ezekiel 17:22-23).

As from a mustard seed, His disciples spread His Holy Church throughout the world. The same conversion takes place in the soul of the man who responds to the teaching of the Gospel. In the beginning, the grace of God acts imperceptibly with the man's own efforts to convert his soul, to perfect it, and to make it a "temple of God." Clement of Alexandria writes: "It stings the soul with benefit for us." That is, at first the commandments of Christ seem bitter and unpleasant for our heart, attached to sin, but when we decide to fulfill them, they become healing and saving, for they renew and transfigure our hearts.

The Venerable Isaiah writes: "It is fitting for us to imitate the properties of this seed. When Scripture calls it the very least of all seeds, then by this it shows that we must love humble mindedness, considering ourselves lower than everyone, and have meekness and long suffering. Its ruddy color means modesty and chastity, so that we would not allow in our flesh anything depraved. Its sharpness signifies hatred for the passions and the vanities of the world. And that its sharpness is not otherwise revealed than when it is crushed and grated - by this it demonstrates that virtue does not bring any kind of benefit, if in cultivating it we do not bear labors and afflictions. So then, in accordance with the image of this seed let us examine ourselves: Are we like it in humbleness of heart, meekness of soul, fervency of love?"

The mustard seed also produces warmth just as Word of God warms the heart. Luke and Cleopas, the two disciples of Christ, experienced in themselves such a grace-filled warmth on the way to Emmaus, when they said with amazement: "Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us by the way" (Luke 24:32). Mustard induces a craving for food, while the Word of God arouses hunger for the Heavenly Bread, thirst for salvation and for justification in Christ the Savior. The Lord speaks tells about this saving effect of His teaching again in the parable of the leaven.

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