"Last Sunday our minister preached from Mark. In Mark 4:31 Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, but my biology book says otherwise. Was Jesus wrong?"
When I got this question I began looking through reference books to find out what the smallest seed is and our reader is correct, the mustard seed isn't the smallest of seeds. In fact, it isn't even particularly small when compared to many of the smaller seeds. According to the research I did, the smallest seeds are those of the orchid family while the largest is the coconut. In fact, a mustard seed is many, many times larger than an orchid seed. So, was Jesus wrong?
Well, yes and no. Obviously, since a mustard seed is larger than an orchid seed, Jesus' claim that it's the smallest is unfounded. If he were leading a seminar in biology or the flora of the world he would have lost much of his credibility with his students.
But Jesus wasn't teaching a class of biology students. Instead he was teaching a lesson on the kingdom of God. This is what he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade" (Mark 4.30-32).
And just for the record, the mustard seed doesn't grow to be the greatest of all the shrubs on earth either. But that's not what Jesus was trying to teach. What he was trying to say, before our biology lesson got in the way, was that the kingdom of God is made up of those who are considered to be the least -- you know, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the untouchables, and so on, they are those of the kingdom. The mustard seed isn't a particularly large seed, indeed it is rather small, and there are species of mustard that grow sufficiently so as to provide nesting sites for birds. This then is the lesson to be learned.
However, behind the question of Jesus' rightness or wrongness is this, "If Jesus were really God he would know that the mustard seed was bigger than the orchid seed and wouldn't have made this blunder." Here then is a serious, and yet common, mistake. Whether or not Jesus equals God is a matter of faith, not a matter of fact. When we read the gospels we read of a very earthly kind of man -- one with emotions and problems and even seemingly lacking most of what we would consider God-like powers (he had to pray to get miracles done most of the time). And, according to Paul, Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being in human form he humbled himself" (Philippians 2.6-8a). Paul indicates that Jesus gave up all the trappings of his god-ness when he became human -- thus it is unreasonable to believe that he would have known everything about everything. Instead, he would have learned his biology the same way other Jewish boys learned -- at the local synagogue (as if biology was a required course in Palestine 15 CE!).
Is the mustard seed the smallest seed in Palestine then? No, not even there. But it may have been the smallest seed Jesus knew about, or more likely, it was probably the smallest seed he thought of when he went to tell the parable. In any event, it was the seed Jesus used to tell the story of how God uses the humble to accomplish the great. In this case, it was the right seed to choose. After all, who are we to argue?