Mustard and the Ruins of Empire

And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.’
— Mark 4:30-32
So He was saying, ‘What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.’
— Luke 13:18-19
The disciples said to Jesus, ‘Tell us what the kingdom of heavens resembles.’ He said to them, ‘What it resembles is a grain of mustard seed. It is smaller than all other seeds, but if it falls upon disturbed terrain it puts forth an enormous foliage and is a shade for birds of heaven.’
— Thomas, 20
He presented another parable to them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.’
— Matt. 13:31-32

The parable of the mustard seed very obviously resonated with the followers of Jesus of Nazareth as it appears in three of the four synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), as well as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. And it always struck me with a particular weight that I couldn't quite place until I actually saw a mustard plant, started putting the parable in context both historically and ecologically, and realized just how radical a mustard seed can be.

While certain specifics vary from telling to telling, such as whether or not mustard is a tree and/or produces branches that could support the weight of a bird (which it’s not), it is notable that the name used for the plant is consistent in each telling, Sinapi. This is commonly translated to “mustard,” but more specifically it’s the name that was used in that region for Brassica nigra, or black mustard.

So what?

Well, there are plenty of big plants that come from small seeds, any of which could provide shelter to the “birds of the air” (a common trope in the parables of Jesus for the children of God), and the mustard seed isn't even the smallest/biggest. If the only point of the parable was to say that even a little faith produces big results (an emphasis which, I should note, is missing in the Gospel of Luke’s version), there are far more drastic subjects for the parable that He could have used that would have been more fitting with His characteristically hyperbolic style of storytelling. So why sinapi in particular?

For the agricultural region in which so much of Jesus' ministry took place, most of the audience would be familiar with black mustard. At a fully grown height of 6-9 feet, it’s pretty hard to miss. It was used (and still is by many folks) as a cover crop, spice, and even medicine, but most would probably have known it (any many farmers still do) as a prolific weed. And that’s due in great part to its ecological purpose and where it likes to grow. The Encyclopedia of Life states in its entry for Brassica nigra that:

“Habitats include weedy meadows, thickets, areas along railroads and roadsides, fallow fields, vacant lots, and miscellaneous waste places. Disturbed areas are preferred; Black Mustard doesn't invade high quality natural areas to any significant degree.” Hilty (2017)

That’s because black mustard is about as prime of a primary succession plant as they come, meaning that they only grow in disturbed or damaged areas to prepare the soil for secondary and tertiary succession plants like shrubs and trees. They hold the earth to prevent erosion and fix nutrients in the soil that plants to come will need, which is why farmers will use them as a cover crop. And I think that distinction of mustard being a primary succession plant (annual) as opposed to a tertiary succession plant (perennial), like a tree, has huge implications for the interpretation of the parable. In contrast to a tree, which seeks to establish itself and exist year after year as the final stage of ecological succession, new mustard plants will grow each year only until that area no longer needs their healing to prepare way for the forest to come, as they don’t grow well in healthy, mature ecosystems. They grow not as an end to themselves.

Of course, they can also be a terrible nuisance to farmers who are “disturbing” the soil with their tilling only to sow the plants they need to grow, so it must have caused quite a stir that the “Kingdom of God” would be compared to such a troublesome weed.

Now, again you may be saying, “so what?”

What does this mean for the significance of the parable of the mustard seed? And why are you reading about it on the Highland Support Project blog of all places?

Well, this troublesome weed has become a sort of hallowed model for us; to grow in the fields left fallow, providing shelter in the ruins of empire where once was barren, and nurturing the soil to allow the cleared forest to regrow. The mustard seed is the very essence of post-colonial resistance and recovery. It’s no wonder that this parable resonated so strongly among a movement rising from the wreckage of Rome’s imperial conquest. And it's certainly no wonder that it echoes still today through the highlands of the Americas.

Aaron Stapel