Parable of the Mustard Seed, by Father Basil William Maturin

black mustard seedsHe proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'” – Matthew 13:31-32

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In the Parables of The Sower and The Wheat and Tares, our Lord laid special stress upon the hindrances, both natural and supernatural, to the growth of His Kingdom. This is the prominent idea in both these Parables, rather than the growth of the seed.

From these Parables the disciples might have gathered that of the seed which they should sow three parts would perish without producing fruit, owing to certain hindrances in the soil itself, and that besides these there were further hindrances which would beset even that portion which had taken root in the good soil – the tares planted by the enemy.

Lest, therefore, they should get discouraged at the prospect of so many difficulties, our Lord gives two other Parables to show how His Kingdom should survive these losses and surmount these difficulties, until, small as its first beginnings appear, it should, like a great tree, fill the earth with its branches, like transforming leaven diffuse its potent influence through the world.

It has been suggested that our Lord chose the Mustard seed, not with reference to any greatness which it attains in the end, for, after all, it is but a shrub, but with reference to the proportion between the smallness of the seed and the greatness of the plant which unfolds from it He draws special attention to the comparative greatness of the tree as springing from so small a seed.

The Kingdom which He came to found must have seemed small indeed to those who had heard this Parable, and who watched its first growth; and the difficulties that beset its growth could scarcely be exaggerated. But we have been allowed to see the seed grown into the mighty tree in whose branches the fowls of the air come and lodge.

Has the Parable, then, nothing to teach to us who live in the days when the seed has already grown into the tree? Is the lesson of the Parable only for those who lived when the seed was planted, or when it was struggling to show the first manifests of its life, or for those who now, in heathen lands, are passing through those first experiences afresh? Assuredly not. It has its teaching for every age and for every individual.

For, notwithstanding the spread and the triumph of the Church, each of us has his own personal experience of the smallness and the precariousness of its beginnings. That Kingdom which has spread ‘from sea to sea, and from the flood unto the world’s end,’ whose life and growth we can trace in history, begins anew, as it were, in each separate Christian soul. Whatever we may see or read in its outer history in the world, of its greatness, and strength, and vitality, when we turn within and study its growth in ourselves, we feel its smallness, we perceive the danger that beset its early life, we understand experimentally the meaning of the Parable. Then we see in miniature what those who lived in the first ages of the Church’s life saw on a larger scale in the outer world: the powers of the Kingdom of Heaven, like a seed, like a spark of life, struggling to live amidst forces that seemed determined to destroy it

What a difference there is between reading about a thing, or even watching and studying something which takes place under our eyes, and experiencing the same thing in our own personal life. We see others suffer, and have our theories as to the purpose and meaning of suffering, and we imagine that we have put our theories to the test of facts, but the first throb of pain which we have to endure ourselves often leads us to change or to modify all our theories; what a difference there is between feeling it and merely knowing about it, or watching with the most sympathetic interest the sufferings of others. We know about sin, we see it all around us, and study its terrible effects; but what is all we see or study compared with the experience gained by the first grievous fall? So we see the Church of Christ spread throughout the world, we read the history of Her growth and struggles, we live again, by the keenness of our sympathy, in those days of persecution, when, at times, it looked as if She must be stamped out and destroyed, we follow Her destinies with the deepest interest First hidden away from man’s sight and spreading out Her roots beneath the soil, then growing like a tender and delicate plant, then all the elements apparently arrayed against Her in the outburst of the storms of persecution. How can She preserve Her life under the biting frost of hatred and scorn? How can She grow amidst such tempests? Again we see Her for a moment victorious and then crashed almost to death by the triumph of human passion. Again we watch Her straggling for life, beset on all sides by various forms of heresy; unsanctified reason and worldliness arraying themselves against Her. It is the history of a life, tender, fluctuating, uncertain; so delicate that to all appearance it must sink under the first rough blow, and yet with a marvellous vitality that nothing can really destroy. Her history from first to last is the history of one age-long straggle with forces and powers that were to all appearance infinitely stronger than She was, and yet that in some way, mysterious and unaccountable, helped to make Her growth more firm and compact by every new endeavour to destroy Her. And we are able to see Her now with Her roots sunk deep into die soil of human life, and having won for Herself a position from which she cannot be dislodged. Truly the history of this kingdom is well described in the words of our Lord: ‘It 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.’

And then we turn within and watch the workings of the life of this same Kingdom in ourselves. There we feel and learn by experience what we have seen in the history of the Church; for it is the very same life and no other which is straggling to live within us, and to transform us, which has transformed the world.

How different a thing it is to experience the workings of that life, and to feel its movements within ourselves, from the mere study of its history. As we get to understand ourselves and God’s dealings with us by His grace, a new light is thrown on that old history. We know and feel it all. We are conscious of the delicate and uncertain throb of a strange life which is not our own, but which is in us and which strives to live amidst strong powers that are in possession and have no mind to surrender, but array themselves with the instinct of self-preservation against that which they feel must rule them if they do not destroy it: the human will, so uncertain, so utterly unreliable, feeling its kinship with this new comer yet afraid of it; the heart, stirred by its presence, drawn to it, and then shrinking from it; the passions, arrayed in deadly hatred, determined to destroy it; the pride of reason, rebelling against its demands. It is but a seed, the faintest spark of life, akin to, yet different from, the life in which it finds itself It seems so easy to destroy, and yet what power it has of living and turning every antagonism to its advantage.

Yes, we feel it all, we understand by personal experience, with a vividness and appreciation that no study could produce, the strange history of the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth. Its fortunes in history are but an aggregation of its fortunes in the individual soul. We understand its difficulties, its weakness and its strength. The kind of opposition which it met in the world is the same as that which it has to meet in the individual soul, aggravated and intensified. For the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth is but the life of grace struggling to live in and to transform the lives of men, and the forces that sought to destroy it are the forces of pride, anger, worldliness, sensuality, sloth – the same which are striving to destroy it in ourselves. This Parable, therefore, does not apply merely to the first planting of the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth; it has also its personal application. However old the history of the foundation of Christendom may be, each individual reads that history in some of its main features in his own soul, and learns for himself the full meaning of our Lord’s words: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field.’

But again, while the imagery of this and the two former Parables is to a large extent the same, in this our attention is concentrated upon the growing seed. There is nothing told us about it but its growth. No consideration of any hindrances draws off our attention, as in the two former. The soil is good. There is no enemy sowing tares. We are to watch how, under the best of circumstances, the seed of Divine grace will grow.

It grows then by its own law – place the seed in the earth and it knows the law of its own growth. It grows, as our Lord says, ‘We knoweth not how.’ (Mark 4:27) It grows in its own way. We can but leave it to grow. We may put obstacles in the way of its growth, or we may remove every hindrance and give it room and nourishment, but we cannot make it grow in any other than its own way. We may get impatient at the slowness of the growth of grace and the transformation of our own characters, but we cannot force it; it will work in its own way, hot by any method that we may plan for it

It is often a great trial to us that, when we lay down certain rules by which great reforms are to be effected, and by which we expect to grow quickly in prayer, and old habits are to give way promptly to new resolutions, and the love of God is to grow sensibly stronger in a given time, the results which we had anticipated do not follow; our plans won’t work; the love of God and the power of prayer do not come as we expected, and we get disheartened and perplexed. But we forget that all these things can only be the results of the growth of a life within us, and we cannot develop that life at the speed that our will would regulate; it grows by its own law. In times of exceptional earnestness we are surprised that we have not effected more fundamental changes, but that when these times pass off we find ourselves so much the same as we were before; the growth is scarcely perceptible. Yes, for ‘So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the earth and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how; for the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.’ (Mark 4:26,27) It is part of the discipline of the life of grace that we are obliged to learn to be patient; patient with it and patient with ourselves. Quickness of growth does not depend merely upon the ardour of our desires. The growth of grace is the unfolding of an organic life, and we have to wait upon the law of its growth. The farmer ploughs, harrows, fertilises the soil, then, when all is ready, he puts in the seed, and then he has to wait; impatience will do no good; Nature works her own way, and if the farmer has studied her ways he is not impatient, but he understands all the tokens and the stages of the unfolding life. It is true, much depends upon his work; indeed, the first Parable shows that in one sense everything depends upon it, but when he has done his part he must leave the seed to itself; it understands what must follow – he does not, it is out of his sight beneath the soil; it grows, ‘he knows not how.’

But while all this has to a certain extent a discouraging aspect, yet surely it is encouraging too; grace will work if only we give it a chance. Grace will triumph if only we do our part in removing the obstacles and surrendering ourselves to its operation. The seed of grace has been planted, we are not conscious of much result; the work is at first altogether hidden from our sight, but at last it begins, the faintest movements, scarcely perceptible, but it is the working of an organic life which must move steadily forward to its end. If it lives it must grow, and it will grow in its own way, not ours. How wholly unlike, how contrary to our fitful and impulsive ways, taking plenty of time, seeming at first to die, then knitting itself into the soil, throwing out tender fibres, spinning its wondrous web, till at last above the soil the blade is seen – just the faintest token of growth – the merest indication of life. But that is enough; that is the regular way: ‘first the blade, then the ear.’ Those who see but that slender thread of green know that the life is working, and they await the development with confidence. And those who see but the feeblest token of the growth of the heavenly seed may take heart and have courage – all is well – only be patient and trust, and the blade will develop into its perfect growth.

If we had, so to speak, to manipulate the seed ourselves, and to arrange the plan and method of its growth; if it grew by no law, but each had to conduct the whole process; if, in other words, the growth of grace were not that of an organic life, then indeed we might despair, and the best intentioned by their blunders or ignorance might destroy it But it is not so; we yield ourselves to its action, we remove all that can hinder its workings, and we let it work and grow, and as it grows it reveals its own beauty to our eyes. We feel its action, we see its fruits, we know that it is transforming, enriching us. We wonder that a thing so small in itself can unfold such powers. We have been, as it were, but lookers on, watching the marvellous growth that endows us with gifts which by nature we had not.

Yes, truly, if the slowness of its processes is trying to our patience, the result is worth waiting for. It is so different from anything we could have planned for ourselves, it so far transcends all our hopes and dreams, we can but say, ‘This hath God done.’

But once more, the seed is the germ of a life which descends from a higher kingdom into a lower one to lift it up. There is no life in the mineral kingdom – all is still, silent, motionless. There are other kingdoms all around it and touching upon it endowed with gifts vast and wonderful compared with what it possesses, but it has not the power to enter into, nor the faculties that would enable it to know of these glorious worlds. Can it ever rise and enter into a kingdom higher than itself, and acquire gifts which it has not? Yes, but it cannot rise by itself or push its own way up. A visitor from the kingdom above it must come down into it, take into and wrap around itself the elements of that lower world, and lift it across the barrier into its own kingdom. So the seed takes up the dead earth, imparting to it wonderful gifts of form and colour and perfume, penetrating all with its own life, moulding and shaping it, and forming combinations and results otherwise impossible. It lifts those elements that it finds in a lower world into its own, and the earth enters into the life of the plant and passes into another kingdom. The earth cannot of itself be nothing but earth, but when it yields itself to the power of the seed it becomes a new creature. It can do nothing of itself, nor does it understand anything of the process of its transformation; the secret of that knowledge is in the seed; it can but yield itself to the power of that life which has come down into it to raise it.

It is the same with the seed of grace. It comes a visitor from the Kingdom of Heaven into the lower kingdom of human nature to lift it up into that world whence it has come. Man cannot raise himself beyond the limits of his own nature; he knows neither the way nor the end. He is conscious that there is a higher world, but he knows nothing of it and he is bound to the earth. The seed of the Divine life comes from that higher world into his nature, clothes itself with it, and raises it across the barriers. Man, like the earth, must surrender himself to the operations of this new force, this life which has entered into his nature; the more complete the surrender the more perfect will be the transformation.

Everything that we see in the flower is of the mineral world, yet the flower itself is no product of that world, but all is penetrated with, formed by, the life of the seed – the form, colour, everything, is the result of the action of that life; it moulds the leaf, tints the petal, endows it with all its charm and beauty; and though its roots are in the earth, it lives in another world and breathes another atmosphere. It has but to let go of this life through which it has risen, and it sinks at once into the shapeless, motionless mass of inert matter from which it was taken.

So it is with man transformed by grace. All that we see is man’s nature, his acts, his words, but the whole form and tone of the character is penetrated with a life that is not his – the life of grace. The man is changed, transformed, lifted out of the lower kingdom of the world into the Kingdom of Heaven; like the tree, he rests upon the earth, but lives in another world. The Christian character is the perfect blending of the two lives – the life of nature and the life of grace; but the formative principle, the dominating force that constructs out of the earthlines of our nature the fair combinations which blend to form the Christian virtues, this is the work of the seed of grace. So ‘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.’