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The Mustard Seed

Etching by Jan Luyken illustrating the parable, from the Bowyer Bible (1791-1795).

Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson March 20–26: Matthew 13; Luke 8; 13

We read in Matthew 13:31-32, “Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” The account in Mark 4:30-31 states that the mustard seed, “…is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.” Luke 13:18-19 did not mention the size of the seed but did say that, “…it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.”

So two of the three accounts state that the mustard seed is “least of all seeds” or “less than all the seeds that be in the earth.” I purchased a bunch of herb and a few other seeds to compare the size of today’s mustard seed to the others. It turns out that a yellow mustard seed purchased from the spice section of our local grocery store, is around 2 mm x 2 mm in size. That measurement makes it about average in size compared to the other seeds – not the largest, but certainly not the smallest. I did not find any black mustard seeds, which I have read are about 1 mm in diameter. Even at that size, both mint and oregano, at 0.75 x 0.75, apparently have smaller seeds.

I think it is very likely, because the mustard seed is the part of the plant that is used as a spice and in medicine; that the size of the mustard seed has increased over the past 2000 years as the result of domestication and selection. By contrast, mint and oregano leaves are used in cooking and medicine, therefore, there is no selective advantage for breeding ever larger seeds. Therefore, it is very likely, and I would say almost certain, that mustard seeds in Christ’s day were much smaller than mustard seeds today.

If we consider the plant itself, however, there is a huge difference in size among the herbs. Many of the herbs in the above list grow less than a foot in height; quite a few grow to around two feet in height; lupine may grow up to three feet tall; dill may grow up to four feet tall; and poppy may grow up to five feet tall; several plants on the list, including asparagus, cilantro, fennel, onion, and rosemary may grow up to six feet tall – but all those plants are quite wispy at that height, with little or no branching. Mustard, on the other hand, becomes a tree, as tall as twenty or even thirty feet tall and twenty feet in diameter, with substantial branches. I have seen small birds, such as finches, land in tall asparagus plants that have gone to seed, but, at twenty feet, the very substantial mustard plant could hold pretty much any bird that wanted to perch there.

The point of Christ’s parable is not so much about the starting size of the seed – one might say that it is “among the smallest of seeds” – probably even more so in Christ’s day; but, rather the point is the relative size of the mature plant. No plant starting from such a tiny seed comes even close to the size of the mature mustard plant. The point of Christ’s parable is “the kingdom of heaven.” Christ’s original church began with just a very few people, probably not the smallest core group to start a church, but certainly among the smallest. Since its beginnings, Christianity has grown to become one of the largest religious movements of all time – again, not the largest, but among the largest.

The Prophet Joseph Smith made the same analogy for the restored Church: “This figure [the mustard seed] is given to represent the Church as it shall come forth in the last days. …Let us take the Book of Mormon … ; let us behold it coming forth out of the ground, which is indeed accounted the least of all seeds, but behold it branching forth, yea, even towering with lofty branches and God-like majesty, until it, like the mustard seed, becomes the greatest of all herbs. And it is truth, … and God is sending down His powers, gifts, and angels to lodge in the branches thereof.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, p. 301, 2007)

Please join me for my weekly discussions of Where Science Meets Religion – The Infinite Creation – 6 PM each Thursday at the Century Ward meeting house (at 4th and Fredregill, Pocatello). Last week we discussed The Eons of Earth. This coming week we will discuss The Creation of Plants and anything else you want to discuss. For the next few weeks we will be in the Primary room. I will also be Zooming the sessions: Meeting ID: 935 754 2152 Passcode: nka.

Trent Dee Stephens

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