Rethinking The Parable Of The Mustard Seed: Studies in Mark, Pt. 73

So, I ventured back into Mark’s Gospel a couple of days ago—something that, as of late, I've not been able to do as often as I'd like to. The story I began reading was what is commonly referred to as “The Parable of the Mustard Seed” (Mk. 4.30-34). After I read this story, I remembered one that came just a few verses before it because it shared a lot of the same imagery: “The Parable of the Seed & Soils” (or, as it is also referred to “The Parable of the Sower”…even though it’s not about the sower!!!). This story and Jesus' explanation of it can be found at Mk. 4.1-20.

Anyway, a few things had struck me when reading the mustard seed narrative: 1) The mustard seed story is only a few verses after the soils & seeds story, so much so that, Mark leads readers to believe that Jesus tells both stories in one sitting—on the boat, 2) Both stories use the images of birds, seeds and soils, 3) Both stories are parables, 4) Both stories have something to say about the Kingdom of God, humanity and satan.

And it is this fourth point that I had never really noticed before. The parable of the mustard seed has always been interpreted by commentators and preachers as a lesson about “big things coming in small packages” or “small things making great differences in the world” or “God being at work even when we can’t see Him working”. I did a YouTube search for “parable of the mustard seed” and found a number of videos making these points. But hold on, I think there’s a problem here.

The problem is that, if Jesus has any such meaning in mind, then Mark must have missed it. Or, if Jesus is supposed to be talking about any of these things, then, when He tells the two parables nearly back-to-back in Mk. 4, He was either confused Himself or He would have confused His hearers! Why?

Well, in Mk. 4.3-4, when Jesus talks about soil, seed and birds, He says in 4.14-16, that each of these things represent the following: The seed is the word, the soils represent the hearts of people and the bird represents satan. Simply put: Seed = word, soil = hearts and bird = satan. Now, here’s the thing: as I pointed out above, Jesus uses these same images just a few breaths later in the mustard seed parable. BUT…for some reason, scholars and preachers and others make those images about something else!!! Why? My theory is because people want the parable to have a positive moral for the conclusion. But alas, the parable isn’t about “much coming from little” or “big things in small packages”.

Instead, when we realize that the images represent the same thing as they did in the soils & seeds parable, we get a different interpretation. In the mustard seed story, Jesus says that the seeds (the word or the Good News) are planted in the soils (hearts of people) and that the seeds grow (the Good News expands) so much so that the birds (satan and his mignons, evil people) perch in their shade. The birds (satan & co.) are not to be taken as people getting rest & relaxation or blessings or whatever. It is not about any of that. It is not about the Gospel bringing blessings to people and especially not about big blessings out of seemingly insignificant things or people. But, what the mustard seed parable is about is God’s Kingdom outgrowing satan’s kingdom. It is about godly people overshadowing evil people. It is about the Kingdom of God towering over the kingdom of evil. Mustard plants don't grow tall, they grow horizontally; they cover hillsides like weeds or plants. If a bird was sitting beneath the branches it would be like a snake hiding in grass--you'd not be able to see it. Thus, this is an image of God's Kingdom blossoming so much and being so fruitful that satan's isn't even noticeable in the world!

Let’s uproot the traditional, happy-ending, moralistic reading of this parable and get to the real heart of what it’s about: God’s kingdom triumphing satan’s!!! And to that end, I even take back my own previous oversight!


  1. You are a little bit wrong, mustard can grow 2 - 3 meters high!! See for pictures: here and here

  2. JP,
    Thanks for the links to those great photos. Indeed, they do get a little height don't they?!!! Still, more to the point I was making is that what makes them noticeable is not usually their height but how they spread out. Or even more to the point, they don't have branches like trees have branches! I appreciate the input JP! Thanks again!!!

  3. You are right, I was reading your article in a hurry. After rereading, From biological view an old grown mustard (with branches) is useless, ie. less seed which could be used for the oil (in those days that was the mayor reason for sowing it), its only useful for birds (=satan & cohords) who can hide in them.

  4. Thanks for the affirmation JP. I should note, though, as I pointed out in my article, that I don't see satan/cohorts hiding in the shade or shadows of the bushes as much as I do being overshadowed or overtowered by them. In other words, satan's kingdom isn't even going to be noticeable because God's is going to outgrow or overgrow it!!! I really appreciate you interacting with me here JP. I look forward to conversing more with you in the future.

  5. I have to say, I really like this interpretation of this parable. But I have to say - I'm surprised I've never heard this before! Now that you point it out, it's actually fairly obvious. Good stuff. Thanks.

  6. Michael,
    Keep up the good work. It's not about me, it's about the kingdom of God.
    That's some fine exegesis you've offered. Sigh, if only all pastors did that. We'd have a reformation on our hands! (And Joel Osteen would be out of work)

  7. Michael,
    just be careful--you're letting the Bible teach you postimillennialism. :)
    You'll be reformed if you keep submitting to the authority of Scripture buddy!

  8. For another interpretation of this parable see:


    The interpretation starts like yours, but does not have the happy outcome.

  9. Chris,
    In your dreams!!!

    I read your post. I have a few remarks. First, your interpretation as far as Matthew intends, may be correct (I'm not sure because I haven't exegeted it in Mt.). But it goes without saying that since they are positioned in completely different places in Mk. & Mt., they probably are meant to be taken differently. That's my view. Secondly, your definition of a parable is quite off!!! A parable is not a "heavenly story put into earthly context". I think this definition, your starting point, misguides your interpretation. As we all know, a parable can be what you're claiming but it can also be an earthly story with an earthly meaning, as is the case with the msutard seed parable. You need to rethink your definition of a parable!!! Thirdly, Mark's point in Mk. 4 cannot be about earthly leaders infesting the Church. Mark has not even talked about or mentioned "church" leaders at this point in his story; it has nothing to do with them!!! It seems to me like you're reading the later epistles back into the gospels!!! Thus, your "happy ending" in my view, is a mis-interpreted one. I hope you can take my comments here in jest and in kindness as I'm not trying to be rude at all. Please don't misinterpret me that way (actually I'm at the local library typing and reading as fast as I can, so, I'm in quite a hurry!!!). Thanks for sharing friend, blessings to you!

  10. Damian,
    I share your sentiments! Why has nobody noticed this?

    ...you're right, if only more pastors did any exegesis!!!