Three of the Gospels, Mark, Luke and Matthew, record Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to a mustard plant:
31 He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; 32 and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32 NASV)
Because of the reference to the size of the plant, it appears that Jesus was talking about the Black Mustard that can grow upwards to 10′ tall (and even higher under ideal conditions) from the smallest of seeds (1 mm in size) used for crops and herbs.
Similar to today, the ancients valued the ground-up mustard seed as a seasoning (condiment) for meat and for its oil. The leaves are also edible and used in stews and salads.
But what was Jesus referring too when He compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard plant?
It seems Jesus was emphasizing how quickly this annual plant can grow reaching several feet tall in a matter of a few weeks. The Kingdom of God would similarly explode from Jesus’ small group of 12 disciples.
But there is another subtle feature of the plant that Jesus may have been referring too. The mustard seed is also very invasive and many countries and states classify it as a weed because of its weed-like ability to spread.
A typical mustard plant produces thousands of seeds that sprout earlier than seeds of other plants giving it a significant advantage in early competition for water and nutrients. It also needs less precipitation than most other plants for its seed to start germinating.
The mustard plant also produces seeds earlier than most plants. By the time other plants are entering their flowering stage, the mustard is already dropping mature seeds.
Rains also causes the mustard seeds outer coat to become sticky allowing it to cling to birds and animals resulting in wide distribution.
Along with this, mustard seeds have the ability to lie dormant for years and after times of drought, the mustard plant is usually the first to recover and can quickly dominate the ground when the rains return.
Because of these characteristics the mustard seed was unstoppable in ancient Palestine and even today with our modern technology the mustard seed is proving difficult to control.
Pliny the elder who wrote Natural History in 78 AD referred to the plants benefits and its weed-like qualities when he said:
“[the mustard] is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
Despite its food benefits, Jewish pharisees did not think highly of the mustard plant. The Talmud, an ancient Jewish commentary of the Old Testament, prohibited planting mustard in a Jewish garden because it would quickly take over.
They based this on their interpretation of Deuteronomy 22 that prohibited mixture — such as mixing different forms of cloth. They applied this principle to the mustard plant because it would quickly spread through the garden mixing with other plants making the garden unclean.
When Jesus gave this brief parable about the Mustard plant, He was undoubtedly alluding to a passage in Ezekiel comparing Israel to a massive, majestic cedar tree where the birds of the air nested and found shelter in its shade:
22 Thus says the Lord God, “I will also take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and set it out; I will pluck from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one and I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the high mountain of Israel I will plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar. And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches. (Ezekiel 17: 22-23 NASV)
Of course, this was a favorite passage of the pharisees as they talked about Israel. When Jesus took that story and adapted it to the mustard plant it would have certainly provoked a number of smiles in the crowd as Jesus riled the pharisees yet again.
But the mustard seed analogy spoke of the Kingdom of God spreading around the world. It would be unrelenting, unstoppable and eventually fill the earth.
Many believe the mustard seed arrived in America either purposefully introduced by the Spaniards or inadvertently mixed with other crop seeds being brought to the new world for planting.