Mustard seeds, trees, and theological virtues


Nearly all of the Mass readings today are about seeds and trees, and especially about big growth from small beginnings. When I used to teach Sunday School back when I was a Presbyterian, we used a hands on, imaginative curriculum called Godly Play. The children loved the mustard seed parable lesson, as it featured taking a small mustard seed and passing it around the group, then for the lesson, unfolding a large, folded up felt tree that spread wide across the floor. The children were then invited to place cutout birds into the branches and then I’d ask them: how many birds could fit in the tree? How do  you think the birds feel about sitting on those branches? Where are you in this story? The story is ripe with imaginative possibilities, and the children would often offer answers up like “The tree makes them feel safe” or “There is enough room in the tree for all the birds in the world” or “I’m the little bird over there on that branch.”

For me, I can still identify with that childlike imaginative element of where we find ourselves in the kingdom–a roomy place with lots of shade, shelter, and community. More intellectually, the mustard seed parable is also about the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Faith is about believing in that which is as of yet unseen (St Paul’s words, later taken up by Aquinas). When we plant seeds, whether encouraging a child to be imaginative, or teaching a college student a new author, or beginning a new project at work, we don’t know what the outcome will be. The smallest action done with love might have the greatest effect–or not very much at all. But we trust that God will make something good out of our lives and our efforts, even the smallest ones. When I first taught the mustard seed lesson, I used to bring in a real mustard seed from my kitchen spice collection. Then one year I did not, so we passed around an imaginary one. For the little children, the imaginary one that we passed around was just as real–they could imagine the possibility of something that they could not see far better than most adults can. We are also invited to believe in possibilities that God will grow into good, new life.

Hope is about moving into the future with a sense of the meaningfulness of life despite its ups and downs, successes and failures, because the Lord accompanies us in whatever we do or experience. We don’t see the growth of a tree no matter how long or carefully we look at it while it is growing, but can look back it after a longer time and notice the magnificent changes of growth. Likewise, God works in and through us and in the world—slowly but surely, like the growth of the mustard seed into a large, drought resistant tree. Hope is about trusting in the Lord to take care of what we cannot do on our own strength alone (Catechism 1817).

The mustard seed parable is also about Love: the tree provides shelter, shade, and a home for the little birds who— as the children in my Sunday School class knew—are us God’s people, all of us. When we know that we are protected and sheltered by God, we can reach out to love one another in community. God’s love grounds our own love.