This Father's Day sermon is based on the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Mark 4: 26-34.
There’s an old saying, “Tell me and I’ll forgot, show me and I’ll remember, let me try it and I’ll understand.” Today’s reading from Mark says that Jesus “explained everything in private to his disciples.” Well, when it comes to the parable of the mustard seed, I think the disciples forgot.
I say this for a few reasons. First, a few verses before the parable of the mustard seed is the parable of the sower. After the parable of the sower, the Gospel of Mark also says that Jesus explained the meaning to his disciples, and then it goes on to tell us what that meaning is. But after the parable of the mustard seed, the Gospel of Mark just assures us that the disciples know what it means, and tries to move on without ever bothering to fill us in!
But that wouldn’t be so strange if the parable of the mustard seed didn’t change over time. Here’s some quick background on the Bible. Scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four gospel to be written. Because of their similarities, scholars also think that the authors Matthew and Luke read Mark and added additional information from other sources. I mention this because Matthew and Luke also have a version of the parable of the mustard seed; but their version is different. Whereas Mark’s version says that the mustard seed “becomes the greatest of all shrubs,” Matthew and Luke say that it “becomes a tree.” Catch the difference? Mark: “great shrub;” Matthew and Luke: “tree.” You can understand the change; Jesus said this is what the kingdom of God is like. It’s kind of embarrassing if the kingdom of God turns out to be a shrub. How much more majestic if the kingdom of God is a mighty tree like the cedar in today’s Ezekiel reading?
But here’s the thing, mustard plants aren’t the most majestic. There are two types of plants that go by the name mustard and grow around Israel. The first is called white mustard, and the tallest it gets is about 4.5 feet, though most plants end up around 3 feet tall.
There’s another type of mustard, called black mustard. Even though the scientific name of white mustard is the same word used in the original language of the bible to describe the plant in today’s parable, a lot of biblical commentators want to say that Jesus was talking about black mustard because it gets to be a bit bigger. Black mustard grows anywhere from 2 feet, to 8ft. But even at 8ft, if you look up pictures of it, it’s more of an overgrown weed than a tree, and botany books describe it as lanky—not that there’s anything wrong with being lanky! But it doesn’t really conjure up the image of a giant shade tree in which flocks of birds could make their nests.
The kingdom of God as a lanky weed? The original parable doesn’t seem to make sense. So if the disciples forgot Jesus’ explanation, I wouldn’t blame them for pretending to know the answer and hoping no one asked for asked for details. I grew up in a household where there was a high value set on knowing the answers to things. I know what that’s like.
My dad is a college professor, so knowing things is important to him. He’s the type of guy, who when he goes on a hike, it’s not enough to look and the mountains and smell the flowers; oh no, he’ll pull out a handbook and identify all the rock formations and the types of plants. And because his specialty is Spanish renaissance literature, he learned to speak five languages and read two so that he can figure out the meaning behind obscure 16th century novels.
But when I was a kid, I thought he didn’t know anything. This was even before I was a teenager, and I thought all adults didn’t know anything. No, as a kid I thought my dad was particularly clueless. You see, when I was growing up, I’d ask him a question, like “Dad, why is the water higher on the beach now than it used to be?” And instead of answering something about the moon and tides, my dad would say, “I don’t know. When we finish here at the beach we can go to the library and find out.” Then we’d go to the library and we’d find a book together on the ocean and read all about it. And afterwards my dad would act all excited that he had learned something new. And as a result, I would think to myself, “Well, gosh, here I am, not even ten years old, and I’m figuring out all these things my dad doesn’t even know. I can figure out anything!” As a result, I become fearless about asking questions and grew to love learning.
But as I got older, and I started watching my dad spend time with my nieces and nephews, I would see them ask him the same questions that I did. And amazingly, my dad still didn’t know the answer! Wouldn’t you know it, he still needed to go with them to library and do research together so he could figure it out! “Tell me and I’ll forgot, show me and I’ll remember, let me do it and I’ll understand.”
My father did a wonderful thing. Instead of making himself seem all big and impressive with his knowledge, my dad made himself small so that I could grow. And though he would let me rise up of myself like the seed in Jesus’ first parable today, my father, like the farmer in that same parable, would also sleep and rise night and day to watch over me, to make sure I was safe and had everything I needed to grow big while he kept himself small.
A curious thing about mustard: the individual plant doesn’t grow very big, but it spreads like wildfire. A Roman named Pliny the Elder who lived at the same time as Jesus wrote about mustard, “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.” You see, mustard plants don’t put a lot of energy into making themselves big, they put their energy into making other mustard plants grow. And in doing so, they become the greatest, not the biggest, but the greatest of all the shrubs and cover acres of earth so that all the birds of the air can make nests on the ground in their shade.
My father has this in common with mustard; both make themselves small to make their families great. It is to this that Jesus compares the kingdom of God. This is where Ezekiel says God is acting, where the high tree becomes low so that the low tree may be made high. God is so committed to this principle, that God on high becomes low in Christ, that God might not just tell us how to live the kingdom and have us forget, not just show us, and have us remember, but let us try and understand. And our brother Christ will sleep and rise night and day by our side to watch over us until we do.