"And He said, How shall we liken the kingdom of God? or in what parable shall we set it forth? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown upon the earth, though it be less than all the seeds that are upon the earth, yet when it is sown, groweth up, and becometh greater than all the herbs, and putteth out great branches; so that the birds of the heaven can lodge under the shadow thereof. And with many such parables spake He the word unto them, as they were able to hear it: and without a parable spake He not unto them: but privately to His own disciples He expounded all things." MARK 4:30-34 (R.V.)
ST. Mark has recorded one other parable of this great cycle. Jesus now invites the disciples to let their own minds play upon the subject. Each is to ask himself a question: How shall we liken the kingdom of God? or in what parable shall we set it forth?
A gentle pause, time for them to form some splendid and ambitious image in their minds, and then we can suppose with what surprise they heard His own answer, "It is like a grain of mustard seed." And truly some Christians of a late day might be astonished also, if they could call up a fair image of their own conceptions of the kingdom of God, and compare it with this figure, employed by Jesus.
But here one must observe a peculiarity in our Savior's use of images. His illustrations of His first coming, and of His work of grace, which are many, are all of the homeliest kind. He is a shepherd who seeks one sheep. He is not an eagle that fluttereth over her young and beareth them on her pinions, but a hen who gathereth her chickens under her wings. Never once does He rise into that high and poetic strain with which His followers have loved to sing of the Star of Bethlehem, and which Isaiah lavished beforehand upon the birth of the Prince of Peace. There is no language more intensely concentrated and glowing than He has employed to describe the judgment of the hypocrites who rejected Him, of Jerusalem, and of the world at last. But when He speaks of His first coming and its effects, it is not of that sunrise to which all kings and nations shall hasten, but of a little grain of mustard seed, which is to become "greater than all the herbs," and put forth great branches, "so that the birds of the heaven can lodge under the shadow of them." When one thinks of such an image for such an event, of the founding of the kingdom of God, and its advance to universal supremacy, represented by the small seed of a shrub which grows to the height of a tree, and even harbors birds, he is conscious almost of incongruity. But when one reconsiders it, he is filled with awe and reverence. For this exactly expresses the way of thinking natural to One who has stooped immeasurably down to the task which all others feel to be so lofty. There is a poem of Shelley, which expresses the relative greatness of three spirits by the less and less value which they set on the splendors of the material heavens. To the first they are a palace-roof of golden lights, to the second but the mind's first chamber, to the last only drops which Nature's mighty heart drives through thinnest veins. Now that which was to Isaiah the exalting of every valley and the bringing low of every mountain, and to Daniel the overthrow of a mighty image whose aspect was terrible, by a stone cut out without hands, was to Jesus but the sowing of a grain of mustard seed. Could any other have spoken thus of the founding of the kingdom of God? An enthusiast over-values his work, he can think of nothing else; and he expects immediate revolutions. Jesus was keenly aware that His work in itself was very small, no more than the sowing of a seed, and even of the least, popularly speaking, among all seeds. Clearly He did not overrate the apparent effect of His work on earth. And indeed, what germ of religious teaching could be less promising than the doctrine of the cross, held by a few peasants in a despised province of a nation already subjugated and soon to be overwhelmed?
The image expresses more than the feeble beginning and victorious issue of His work, more than even the gradual and logical process by which this final triumph should be attained. All this we found in the preceding parable. But here the emphasis is laid on the development of Christ's influence in unexpected spheres. Unlike other herbs, the mustard in Eastern climates does grow into a tree, shoot out great branches from the main stem, and give shelter to the birds of the air. So has the Christian faith developed ever new collateral agencies, charitable, educations, and social: so have architecture, music, literature, flourished under its shade, and there is not one truly human interest which would not be deprived of its best shelter if the rod of Jesse were hewn down. Nay, we may urge that the Church itself has become the most potent force in directions not its own: it broke the chains of the Negro; it asserts the rights of woman and of the poor; its noble literature is finding a response in the breast of a hundred degraded races; the herb has become a tree.
And so in the life of individuals, if the seed be allowed its due scope and place to grow, it give shelter and blessing to whatsoever things are honest and lovely, not only if there be any virtue, bur also if there be any praise.
Well is it with the nation, and well with the soul, when the faith of Jesus is not rigidly restricted to a prescribed sphere, when the leaves which are for the healing of the nations cast their shadow broad and cool over all the spaces in which all its birds of song are nestling.
A remarkable assertion is added. Although the parabolic mode of teaching was adopted in judgment, yet its severe effect was confined within the narrowest limits. His many parable were spoken "as they were able to hear," but only to His own disciples privately was all their meaning expounded.