Several years ago I received an email from a young Australian girl who asked why I used the name “Mustard Seeds” for my articles. When I got over my surprise that anyone was following “Mustard Seeds” in faraway Australia, and a pre-teen girl at that, I sent her a brief reply. Perhaps the fact that Mustard Seeds had spread so far is indicative of the parable from which the name is taken.
“Another parable put He forth unto them, saying, 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.” (Matt. 13:31-32)
The seed of the mustard plant (Sinapis nigra or Brassica nigra) averages about .05 inch in size. The mustard plant generally attains the height of 3 to 6 feet. However, due to the growing conditions in the Near East, it is not unusual for the plant to grow into a large tree-like bush at 10 to 15 feet in height and just as wide. It is often considered to be a weed because it can spread so widely and quickly with its tiny seeds. The common usage of “as small as a mustard seed” is evidenced again when Jesus said, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed…nothing shall be impossible unto you” (Matt. 17:20).
The lesson of the parable is easy to read. The seed is a living entity. When rightly planted it absorbs and assimilates nutrition from the soil and atmosphere, grows, and in time is capable of affording lodging and food to the birds. From a single grain, a whole field may be covered.
To the mind of the teachers of Jesus’ time the kingdom was to be great and glorious from its beginning; it was to be ushered in by blare of trumpets and tramp of armies, with King Messiah at the head; yet this new Teacher spoke of it as having so small a beginning as to be comparable to a mustard seed. Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger certainly did not fit the image of the expected Messiah held by the Jews at the time. But despite persecution and unbelievable odds, Christianity quickly spread throughout the known world.
During the great depression a Mr. Miller had a roadside stand in Idaho where he sold farm-fresh produce as the season made it available. Food and money were extremely scarce, so barter and trade were often used. Among frequent visitors to the stand were three ragged but clean little boys who used to eye the produce with hungry, longing looks. The typical conversation between Mr. Miller and one of the boys went something like this:
“Hello, Barry, how are you today?”
“H’lo, Mr. Miller. Fine, thank ya. Jus’ admirin’ them peas—sure look good.”
“They are good, Barry, Anything I can help you with?”
“No, sir, jus’ admirin’ them peas.”
“Would you like to take some home?”
“No, sir, got nuthin’ to pay for ‘em with.”
“Well, what have you to trade with me for some of those peas?”
“All I got’s my prize aggie—best marble around here.”
At that, Mr. Miller would examine the marble carefully and say, “This marble’s a dandy all right. Only thing is, this one is blue. I sort of go for red. Do you have red one like this at home?”
“Not ‘zackly,” the little boy would say, “but almost.”
“Tell you what,” Mr. Miller would answer. “Take this sack of peas home with you and next trip this way let me look at that red marble.”
This bartering process went on with all three boys. When they came back with their marbles—as they always would—Mr. Miller would change his mind, deciding he really didn’t like red after all. He would then send them home with a bag of produce for a green marble or perhaps an orange one.
Years passed and the three ragged boys grew up to make their own way in the world. Then word came to each of them that Mr. Miller had died. All three came great distances to greet Mrs. Miller at the mortuary and offer whatever words of comfort they could find. They told her how much they had appreciated the things Jim Miller had “traded” them. Now, at last, when Jim could not change his mind about color or size, they had come to pay their debt.
Then one by one, each man stopped briefly at the casket and placed his own warm hand over the cold, pale hand in the casket, and left the mortuary awkwardly wiping his eyes. With loving gentleness Mrs. Miller lifted the lifeless fingers of her husband to reveal three magnificent, shiny, red marbles lying there. “We’ve never had a great deal of the wealth of this world,” she confided, “but right now Jim would consider himself the richest man in Idaho.” (Retold from W.E. Petersen’s “Three Little Marbles,” Ensign Magazine, October 1975.)
Now, isn’t that a little thing to remember your whole life—a few bags of peas or tomatoes given to a hungry boy? But that’s the way of it. Little things, like grains of mustard seed, rule the world—they always have and they always will.