BACKGROUND NOTES & OTHER NEAT INFO
PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED
Is one of the Kingdom parables. Jesus told these stories to illustrate how God’s world, as governed by God’s
priorities, may be different from the everyday world around them.
WHAT’S A PARABLE?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary a parable is “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral
attitude or a religious principle.” Jesus often used parables to talk about a world where God’s love was the singular
WHAT DOES THIS PARABLE MEAN?
Mainly it means that from small seeds, big useful things can grow. Or don’t be misled – big things come in small
DO MUSTARD PLANTS REALLY GROW BIG ENOUGH FOR BIRDS TO NEST IN THEM?
A bit of searching turns up the answer that the mustard plants Jesus most likely referred to were black mustard plants. While
these grow tall (Google image search show their lacey yellow tops standing a few feet over the heads of human gardeners in
one photo), they aren’t trees substantial enough to support nests. For what it’s worth, here’s an interesting
thread from the site of a Biblical garden in Vermont, response “from Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Preserve in
Helen Frenkley writes: ...let me share the information I gleaned from Nogah Hareuveni regarding the mustard seed quandary.
is a story in the Babylonian Talmud (Ktubot 111b) that goes as follows: “Rabbi Yosef told of an event in a place called
Shikhin. A man inherited three branches of a mustard plant from his father. One of them split open revealing nine kavim of
mustard [seeds], and with its wood [lumber] he built the roof of the potter’s shed.”
The kav is a
biblical measure, which, according to the renowned biblical archaeologist, Professor William Albright, is equal to 1.22 liters.
Therefore 9 kavim equal just under 11 liters – almost three gallons! - of mustard seeds.
prose or poetic license, it is of interest that both the Talmud and the New Testament refer to the lowly mustard plant as
something that will grow to great size, whether for birds to perch on, for building material, or as a source of truly fantastic
yields. At Neot Kedumim, we see mustard plants grow to a height that allow small birds to perch on the stalk, but we've not
used the dried stalks for thatch, or harvested measurable yields of mustard seeds.”
The mustard tree with birds and their nests in it does present a great image, tho!
ONE OF SEVERAL KINGDOM SAYINGS.
The parable of the mustard seed is one of several pithy metaphors that Jesus gives for the kingdom of God.
(Oh I know we’re not supposed to use “kingdom” any more. Not politically correct, oppressive to some people.
I’ve begun an essay on this. Click here to see it. More to follow…!)
What this means is that Jesus was very creative about finding ways to illustrate what a world centred on God and God’s
love could be like.
Other parables follow in sequence in this chapter of Matthew. They include the pinch of yeast, pearl of great price, nets
full of fish. Run together, these parables or sayings form a wonderful image poem of the realm of God.
CONSIDER THE SOURCE.
These short sayings appear in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is distinct from other gospel writers by his clear roots in
and respect for Judaism. The writer commonly thought of as Matthew wrote fairly specifically to the needs of this community
of believers. This community held different beliefs than traditional Jewish spiritual powers that be. That means that while
urging the community to hold tight to its core belief, Matthew also pushed for the group to share the message of God’s
love with others. To branch out, as it were!
FOOD FOR THOUGHT ON THE LANGUAGE OF PARABLES
Canadian writer and scholar Northrop Frye has written much on the type of language that the Bible shares with literature.
It is the language of poetry and of metaphor. Frye, citing the Apostle Paul, calls it the “language of the love.”
On this topic, here are Frye’s closing lines from his section of the book, Biblical and Classical Myths: The Mythological
Framework of Western Culture (Toronto, U of T Press, 2004) [While he has written more eloquently on this topic elsewhere,
the text for this book was taken from undergraduate lectures in the ‘70s aimed at students with little or no knowledge
of the bible. So it’s in a comparatively easy to understand form.]:
“What I think [the Word of God] divides are the two elements of reality as they are exhibited in the New Testament,
the elements that we call heaven and hell, the kingdom of life, the kingdom of death. It is that which is divided, and divided
by eternal separation. That means that the language of the Bible has to be a language which somehow bypasses argument and
refutation. Again, it is very like the language of poetry, because as Yeats says, you can refute Hegel but not the Song of
Sixpence. You can’t refute poetic statement because it is not a particular statement. It is not subject to verification.
So that is why, I think, the Bible presents what it has to say within a narrative and within a body of concrete images which
present a world for you to grasp, visualize and understand. The end that it leads you to is in seeing what it means rather
than in accepting and rejecting it, because by accepting it you have already defined the possibility of rejecting it.
So the bible uses the language of symbolism and imagery because the language of symbolism and imagery, which bypasses argument
and aggressiveness and at the same time clearly defines the difference between life and death, between freedom and slavery,
between happiness and misery, is in short the language of love, and to St. Paul, that is likely to last longer than most other
forms of human communication.
That’s it. Thank you for your attention.”
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. What is a parable?
2. Where does this parable come from?
3. What is meant by the kingdom of God?
4. In what way do you think God's kingdom is like the mustard seed or plant?
5. Why did Jesus choose a mustard plant. Why didn't he pick something more elegant like a climbing rose bush?
6. If you were to describe a world of God's love to someone using a picture from your everyday life, what would you choose?
IN REAL TIME WITH THE CHILDREN IN YOUR WORKSHOPS COVER THESE TWO POINTS:
1. REVIEW THE STORY WITH THE CHILDREN. HAVE THEM SUMMARIZE TO DEMONSTRATE TO ALL HOW MUCH MORE THEY REMEMBER FROM PAST WEEKS.
2. EXPLAIN HOW YOUR ACTIVITY CONNECTS TO THE STORY.
Arts 1 -- mustard tree.
Activity -- make a model tree and put folded paper fan prayer bird in the branches as a way of sharing God's love.
Materials: recycled yogurt containers, bamboo skewers, brown and green pipe cleaners, plasticine blobs, coloured paper scraps,
pens, thread, stapler.
Wind 1 or 2 brown pipe cleaners around skewer. Wrap pipe cleaners around skewer to form limbs or branches of a tree. Trim
the p.cleaners to different lengths if you wish for graduated shape. Stick plasticine or clay blob in bottom of yogurt containers.
Stick skewer ino blob to stand up.
On 2.5 x 2.5 inch paper squares, write the name of someone you keep in your prayers. Fold square like a paper fan and staple
in centre. You can either poke the fan/birds into the branches. Or tie thread around middles and hang like ornaments off
branches. Make many prayer birds for your mustard tree.
*It would be nice to find or make a twig tree to represent your mustard plant. Or you could make it out of glued craft sticks.
Or you could make it out of a large pine cone, and just stick the birds into the branches.
**For base, small clay pots would be nicer. To make your yogurt pots nicer, you could wrap them in const. paper or paint.
***If you want to really drive the message home, throw some mustard seeds in the bottom of the base first. The kids will
know their 'tree' grew from these small seeds.
Arts 2 -- seed mosaic.
Activity: make a picture of a mustard tree using various seeds.
Materials: Green const. paper, pencils, white glue, old garden pack seeds, or from spices row at groc store, like celery seed,
cloves, caraway seeds, etc. Or ever bird seed.
Have the kids sketch their tree first in pencil. Then spread white glue around design. Sprinkle various seed to suit design
to fill in.
Will reinforce the idea that great things come from all kinds of small seeds.
Consider cutting out small bird shapes to glue on, multi colours. Have the kids write on the birds names of people they keep
in their prayers.
Kitchen 1 -- mustard greens salad
Parts of the mustard plant have all kind of nutritional and medicinal uses. One is to use the greens in a salad. You don't
have to use real mustard greens. Mustard comes from the same family as arugula lettuce and broccoli. So use various greens
to make a salad. Top with mild honey mustard salad dressing. Reserve to side in case some kids don't like the dressing. Here's
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups honey
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup Dijon-style prepared mustard
In a large jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the vegetable oil, honey, lemon juice and mustard. Cover and shake until
thoroughly combined. Refrigerate until chilled and shake before serving.
Kitchen 2 -- honey mustard sauce for chicken fingers
1 cup prepared mustard
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon salt
Don't forget the chicken fingers!
Kitchen 3 -- bird's nest cookies.
This will help kids remember the plant that grew so large it sheltered birds and their nests in its branches!
Activity -- make bird's nest cookies.
Ingredients -- brown and white chocolate chips, broken pretzels
Melt chips in microwave. Try 2 minutes, power level 7. Stir in broken pretzels til all are coated and chocolate is absorbed.
Spoon out onto cookie sheets. Sprinkle tops with something like coconut to look more twiggy. Indent tops with spoon if you
wish. Cool at room temp or quicker in frig.
Garden -- make an herb garden planter.
Lots of herb have small seeds. Garlic mustard grows wild, and isn't much worth planting (tho a plant imported to NA from Europe
for flavouring offered by its leaves.)
Activity: Plant other herbs and watch how big they become compared to the seeds.
Materials: Medium sized potting container, ie planter, ice cream pail, coffee can..., soil, seeds, craft sticks, const. paper,
Have the children fill their planters to 3/4 with soil. (Less soil can be used if you put an inverted pot in the bottom and
some gravel for drainage.) Have the kids choose from seeds like basil, oregano, chives, thyme, sage, lemon balm. Get them
to make and decorate plant sticks to show where they planting each seed in their planter. Sticks can have construction paper
tops glued to them to extend activity.
Poetry -- write new verses to go with this parable.
Activity: write verses to expand parable.
Material: paper, pens, markers for illustrating, if you wish.
First brainstorm ideas with the kids. They will need help with the idea that the seed is love or a kind gesture, and that
one kind gesture creates more acts of kindness. Maybe they will spell out in their poems an example of a kind act.
They can create just one verse. Try a simple verse style with abab end rhymes.
They could create extra verses, perhaps adding an idea generated in the discussion questions about coming up with an image
from their everyday lives that describes a world of God's love.
Maybe their verses could even be turned into a song. Use a nursery rhyme tune, like Jack and Jill or Hey diddle diddle.
Computer -- Galilee Flyer or Cal and Marty.
For this one you may have to spend a moment acquainting the kids with the other kingdom sayings.
Galilee Flyers has a section on the kingdom parables.
Cal and Marty would work for scripture memory, but it would be nice to have more text to work with. Especially for older classes,
expand to include other kingdom sayings.