Post Author: Rev. Miriam Samuelson-Roberts
This is the seventh in a series of commentaries based on the Revised Common Lectionary texts in Year A that focus on plants. You can follow the series by clicking on the "Consider the Plants" tag at the bottom of this piece.
Prayer of the Day
God of all growth, you nurture the seeds of our love and joy and make us co-workers in your kingdom. Give us strength to open and grow in your abundant love, that we might contribute to a world where all are fed, sheltered, and nurtured. In the name of Jesus, who brings us abundant life. Amen.
Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Here we go—another story about seeds! On the heels of the Parable of the Sower two weeks ago and the Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat last week, we get the Parable of the Mustard Seed this week. This parable is quite short—just two verses—in the gospel of Matthew and is not much different from its telling in the other two synoptic gospels.
A few years ago, when my spouse and I began introducing our daughter to the process of planting seeds in our vegetable garden, her grandmother sent her a book called A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long. It’s a sweet, rhythmic children’s book with beautiful watercolor illustrations, and teaches kids about all the sizes, colors, and other characteristics that define the seeds of different plants.
Part of the sweetness of this book is that this scientific knowledge comes through gentle, accessible language. “A seed is sleepy,” the book begins, “It lies there tucked in its flower, or its cone, or beneath the soil. Snug. Still.” It goes on to describe seeds as “secretive”—not revealing themselves too quickly, waiting until the right season or year to become a plant—and then “inventive,” “clever,” and “ancient,” among other things.
In our gospel reading this Sunday, the mustard seed does seem to have some of these same characteristics. It is passive in the story, yes, as it is sown by someone in a field. But it grows, amazingly, into a large shrub and then a tree, so abundant that the birds come and nest in its branches. If we were to give descriptive, anthropomorphic words to this little mustard seed, they might be things like: sturdy; abundant; capable of much more than one would think; deeply rooted; tenacious; unafraid to take the space it needs, knowing that growing large will help the entire ecosystem.
Mustard seeds still exist today, of course, and we know them most prominently in western culture through the vinegar-infused condiment of the same name. I saw a fascinating flow chart a few years ago explaining that most of the plants we know as cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, kale, radishes, and many more—were all cultivated from a single plant, the mustard plant, through human selection. Broccoli and cauliflower were selected for buds; kale and collard greens for leaves; radishes for roots. And one look at the seeds for all of these plants makes that clear—they are all tiny, about 2 or 3 millimeters, and round and compact. Many gifts, one seed.
The reason we describe these mustard-descended vegetables as cruciferous is because their four-petaled flowers are arranged in a cruciform, or cross-like shape. And while reading a foreshadowing of the cross into this parable is probably quite a stretch, it is a beautiful little turn of language that can inform how we think about this seed-to-tree metaphor for the kingdom of God.
Participation in the kingdom of God does ask us to lean into vulnerable, cross-shaped ways of being that follow Jesus, whose strength comes not through military might but through death and self-emptying. In the first complementary (as opposed to semi-continuous) reading for this Sunday from 1 Kings, King Solomon describes himself to God as a “servant king,” who sees himself as “only a little child” in need of guidance from God. And in the second complementary reading from the letter to the Romans, the Spirit meets us not in our strength, but in our weakness, and intercedes for us there not with battle cries but with sighs too deep for words in solidarity with our pain. There is something to be said about the kingdom of God needing our cross-shaped lives—lives that are willing to see strength in vulnerability and compassion—to grow and flourish.
Attention to vulnerability, gentle tending, care for soil and ecosystem and seeing the unique needs of each seed—these are the things that make plants grow. Seeds are indeed intrepid, hardy, opening when the timing is right, and able to be broken open to bring forth newness and life, just as we each are. And the one who tends us is there, steadily tending the soil, giving us what we need, so that we might grow together as part of a healthy, whole ecosystem that provides shelter and care for all who need it.
You Are the Seed, United Methodist Hymnal #583
Text: Cesareo Gabaraín
Tune: Id y Enseñad
The Word of God is Source and Seed, Evangelical Lutheran Worship #506
Text: Delores Dufner, OSB, b. 1939
Tune: Gaudeamus Pariter
Rev. Miriam Samuelson-Roberts is lead pastor at Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, MN, and lives in Minneapolis with her husband, two children, and dog. Growing a vegetable garden each summer is one of her favorite things to do.
Image by: Miriam Samuelson-Roberts
Used with permission