By a delicate symmetry, the parable of the mustard seed takes up just two verses of the Scriptures (Matthew 13: 31-32). In the 18th century “the smallest of all the seeds” was such a convenient metaphor for next-to-nothingness that land was sometimes rented for the symbolic fee of one peppercorn, its minuteness a sign of royal largesse.
The Lord of Creation knew, and knows, more about the intricacies of His creation than any modern microbiologist or geneticist. His earthly contemporaries would have been confounded by the system that encodes in the first inkling of a life all that the organism will become. In modern bioethics, it is easy to lapse into a primitivism by claiming that a thing becomes alive only when it looks alive, but that contradicts genetic fact. A stem cell has as much claim on reverence for its life as a pope or president or Nobel laureate. A seed is alive, even if it looks like little more than lint, and the first cell of human life is alive, though a clinician chooses to call it a blastocyst. The mustard bush is implanted with its mustardness and bushness even when it is a negligible seed, prey to rapacious birds, as the first cells of human life are prey to genetic engineers.
The mustard seed is a parable of the Church, nascent and fragile, yet inscribed by the Divine Word with all the saints and sinners, confraternities and schisms, shrines and hovels, golden and dark ages that will be until the Lord comes again. Zechariah prophesied it—”Who hath despised the day of small things?”—as did Daniel when he saw a stone becoming a vast mountain. Every cathedral and miracle and converted nation was in the breath of Christ when He said to the woman of Samaria, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who speaks to you….”
The genetics of the Church as the body of Christ totally befuddled those who measured greatness by size, whether they were Romans boasting the length of the Empire or Jews hymning the height of the Temple. The little seedling did not seem to have much promise, and it seemed certain to die when it sprouted into a cross.
There remains a temptation to judge the Church by its size. If this means the number of converted souls, that is faithful to the parable and was commissioned by Christ Himself as He ascended. If it means only having the biggest basilicas, then the whole point is missed. The calendar of saints should remind us of the unreliability of appearances. Theirs is a greatness grander than size, and a prominence more cogent than popularity. A glance at Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, written when the Church was just emerging on the classical scene, will reveal few names still recognizable today among all those once-famous Greeks and Romans. It will be the same 2,000 years from now when someone uncovers calcified copies of People magazine. There was nary an echo of Jesus’ name in Rome the day He died.
The parable of the mustard seed takes account of the apparent insignificance of the early Church and declares that same Church’s vitality. As the seed grows into the greatest of all the bushes, so does the Church grow from its beginnings into its full glory. This only makes sense in the light of heaven, for the Church’s glory will always be brightest as a celebration of littleness. It is glorious when a million people gather together to hear the pope, but only because the pope himself knows that he would never be more like Christ than if the whole crowd were to walk away, leaving him alone.
As a seed is nourished by the soil, so the Church thrives in indigenous cultures, transfiguring what is worthy, shucking off what is not, giving new vitality to old customs. The druid’s fire becomes the Yule log, Saturnalia shines brighter as Christmas, and the classical diocese and presbyter, vestal and pontiff are grafted onto an imperium that will never end. Here is a consolation, too: Into the mustard bush all manner of birds will gather. Canaries are there, but there will be crows cackling along with them; vultures may share a perch with doves; common sparrows may feel a little intimidated next to peacocks; and for every wise owl you may expect a few cuckoos.
It is a little parable, this one about the mustard seed—deliberately so, I think. Its size teaches a sullen world a lesson in splendor. The Church learns as much from little verses as from long discourses; some of Christ’s most pointed revelations are to be encountered in his asides. There is a lot of ecclesiology—not to mention botany and biology—to be garnered from the elliptical bits of God’s Word that seem like breathing space between the grand panegyrics and pericopes. But the breath breathed is the breath that made the world.