Littlest to Biggest

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds; yet when it has grown it is the largest of the plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and roost in its branches. (Matthew 13:31–32)


Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11
Gardens of righteousness and praise

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to pro­claim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a mantle of praise instead of a spirit of weakness. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his glory. . . .

For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descen­dants will be known among the nations, and their off­spring among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people the Lord has blessed.

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bride­groom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is planted to grow, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations.

Matthew 13:31–32
The parable of the mustard seed

He told them another parable, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds; yet when it has grown it is the largest of the plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and roost in its branches.”

Heaven and Hell #475–77
Our life stays with us after death

We present our whole self in our works and deeds. Our motives and thoughts, or the love and faith that form our inner self, are not complete until they are embodied in the deeds and works that form our outer self. These latter are, in fact, the outermost forms in which love and faith find definition; and without such definition they are like undifferentiated things that do not yet have any real presence—things that are therefore not yet in us.

To think and intend without acting when we are able is like a flame sealed in a jar and snuffed out, or like seed sown in the sand that does not grow, but dies along with its power to reproduce. Thinking, intending, and doing, though, is like a flame that sheds its light and warmth all around, or like seed sown in the soil, which grows into a tree or a flower and becomes something. . . .

We may gather from this what the life is that stays with us after death. It is actually our love and our result­ing faith, not only in theory but in action as well. So it is our deeds or works, because these contain within them­selves our whole love and faith.

There is a dominant love that remains with each of us after death, and never changes to eternity. We have many loves, but they all go back to our dominant love and form a single whole with it.


The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds; yet when it has grown it is the largest of the plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and roost in its branches. (Matthew 13:31–32)

I grew up in a family of ten, with seven brothers and sis­ters and, of course, our parents. One of the practical ramifications of this was that with ten people sitting around the dinner table, it made a big difference—to us kids, anyway—who got served first and who got served last. In fact, by the time the last person was served, if the first person was a fast eater, he or she might already be coming back for seconds.

Because of this, we had several schemes for determin­ing the order in which we would be served. The most common were “biggest to littlest” (oldest to youngest) and “littlest to biggest” (youngest to oldest). Of course, for those who were in the middle, neither one of these was all that great; so sometimes there would be lobbying for “middlest to outsidest.” But for me, being number six, I usually figured that “littlest to biggest” was the quickest route to getting my supper—so that was the one I’d generally root for. This explains how I got such a funny title out of the parable of the mustard seed!

Like all children who reach full adulthood, each one of us little Woofendens grew up to be big Woofendens; and now there are a whole bunch more little Woofend­ens running around—some of whom aren’t little any­more themselves. And so the cycle of life goes on. The human seeds planted by my parents—and their parents and grandparents before them—keep on growing and producing more human seeds. Add all of the families of the world together, and we can see why this earth and its human population is called “the seedbed of heaven.” But I’m getting ahead of myself!

The parable of the mustard seed is a parable of the littlest becoming the biggest. Though mustard seeds were not literally the smallest seeds that the people of ancient Palestine were aware of, they were one of the smallest of the seeds that people commonly planted for their use—and the mustard seed had become proverbial for its smallness. The variety of mustard Jesus was prob­ably referring to (black mustard), when planted in the garden, will usually grow only about three or four feet high. However, when it has enough water, sunlight, and soil, it can and does grow to be ten or even fifteen feet high—which approaches the size of many of the com­mon trees that grow in that part of the world. And unlike trees, the mustard plant, which is an annual, does this in a single season. In other words, given the right conditions, it is a phenomenally fast-growing plant.

All of this—not to mention the hot and pungent fla­vor of the seeds themselves—made the mustard seed an ideal image for Jesus to use in showing how the initial seeds of spiritual love and understanding that are sown in us grow up into lives of “righteousness and praise,” to use Isaiah’s words.

If we look at the world around us, spiritual truth and love do, indeed, seem like “the smallest of all seeds.” What are most people engaged in most of the time? From the look of it, most people are engaged most of the time in making money and pursuing enjoyment, plea­sure, or power. We have built up vast economic and gov­ernmental systems that are geared almost entirely to providing for our material well-being and asserting our economic and political power as far as it will extend. In the face of that huge machine, what hope do truth, spirit, and love for God and the neighbor have? They seem almost to be swallowed up in the human hubbub—tiny, insignificant seeds that almost disappear because their presence and influence is so slight in our ordinary worldly consciousness.

Yet those tiny, insignificant looking seeds have a quality about them that causes us to “plant them in the field” of our minds. When the pursuits and pleasures of this world begin to lose their savor, we are attracted to the heat and pungency of spiritual ideas that challenge everything our materialistic mind takes for granted, and promise a very different life than the one that has already begun to grow old and stale for us. We plant those seeds of spiritual possibility in our minds and hearts, and wait to see what will come of them.

It is important to notice that this parable of the mus­tard seed appears early in the Lord’s series of parables on the kingdom of heaven. Even when the mustard plant has grown, it does not represent our full, mature state of spiritual development, but rather the time when spiri­tual life first begins to spring up and grow in us. These first few parables deal with seeds and plants growing. Later the parables move on to themes of treasure and wealth. And the latest in the series deal with human beings—first workers in the vineyard, and then people attending weddings. And we will see as we move along in our series on the parables of the kingdom of heaven that this progression moves us through the stages of our spiritual growth to full spiritual maturity, in which we participate in “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (Reve­lation 19:19).

In the parable of the mustard seed, we are dealing with the earlier stages of our spiritual growth. This brings us to another, more personal reason why the mustard seed is called “the smallest of the seeds.” When we first begin our spiritual journey, we are fresh from our previous lives, in which our main focus was our own comfort and possessions, and those of our family. At that point, our habit is still to think of ourselves first, and others after we’ve gotten enough for ourselves.

Because of this, when those first seeds of new spiri­tual truth and life are sown in us, we tend to be focused on what we are going to get out of this new, spiritual life, and how things are going to be better for us. We also tend to think that our new spiritual understanding makes us pretty darned good—certainly much better than all those selfish, materialistic, unenlightened peo­ple milling around out there. In other words, there is still a lot of ego and a desire for our own advantage in the beginnings of our spiritual life. We are still a long way from being angels of love and light. And the good­ness and truth in us are still very small.

But it’s a start. And having some spiritual life—even if it’s a rather smug and self-satisfied spiritual life—is bet­ter than having no spiritual life at all. We have to start somewhere; and we start from where we were in our lives. So even though we may recognize, in our clearer moments, that we are still misguided, selfish so-and-so’s, we should still go ahead and plant those spiritual seeds in our minds and hearts, and let them grow.

Perhaps an example might help to see this more clearly. Consider a young (or not so young) married couple who are having a rough time in their marriage. They seem to argue and fight more than they support and love one another. Things are looking bad, and divorce crosses their minds more and more often. Each one of them is thinking, “Why should I stay in this mar­riage? I’m not getting the love and support I’m supposed to get out of marriage. I just get a lot of grief. What good is that?” So the relationship grows more and more strained and cold.

This is a situation seriously in need of some spiritual input. Let’s consider that for this couple, the “mustard seed” they plant in their field is the idea from the church that marriage is meant to be a spiritual and eternal union. Of course, this couple could just say to them­selves, “I picked the wrong person; maybe I’ll try some­one else.” But they do still have some affection for each other, and they did, after all, love one another enough to get married. So they decide they need to work on this marriage and overcome their difficulties.

Much of the incentive for doing this is expressed in the thought I just mentioned: “I’m supposed to get love and support out of marriage.” In other words, marriage is supposed to make me feel good! I suspect that for most couples who have not progressed very far emotion­ally and spiritually in their marriage, the thought of what I’m going to get out of the marriage is the major driving force pressing them forward to see if they can get their relationship fixed: “If I have a better relation­ship, I’ll have a more enjoyable life.”

That is the mustard seed. Getting a more enjoyable life for ourselves is not a very noble or spiritual motive. In fact, by itself, it’s a fairly selfish motive. True marriage love is not about getting pleasure for ourselves, but about giving love and happiness to our partner.

Still, we have to start somewhere. And likely as not, in this example of marriage it will be the spiritually tiny, but hot and pungent (in our hearts) mustard seed of wanting a better, more enjoyable, and more affectionate relationship for ourselves that gets us moving. In fact, with this goal in mind, we may vigorously pursue ways to improve our relationship with our partner. That mus­tard seed grows fast and big as it causes us to work on our relationship! In the process, we make things better not only for ourselves, but also for our partner, for our children (if we have them), and for the rest of our family and friends.

More importantly, as we work on our relationship from what may be less than noble and altruistic motives, we begin to learn that relationships are not about get­ting pleasure for ourselves, but about giving love and happiness to our spouse and our children. And then we can begin moving on to the next stages, not only of our relationship, but of our spiritual life.

This, I hope, gives a clearer picture of how those early mustard seeds of not yet mature spiritual life first spring up and become an active force in our lives.

What does all of this have to do with heaven?

Of course, every time we grow in new ways in our understanding, our emotions, and our spirits, we are entering more fully into the kingdom of heaven even while we are here on earth. So in that general sense, this parable is all about our place in the kingdom of heaven.

But our reading from Heaven and Hell, and the whole chapter in which it appears, give more urgency to the question of just what seeds we will plant in our fields. Swedenborg writes, “There is a dominant love that remains with each one of us after death, and never changes to eternity.” In the last chapter we spoke of a “final harvest” that comes when our life here on earth has ended, and we enter the spiritual world. There, our true inner nature will come out—however well we may have hidden it from sight here on earth—and we will become exactly what we are like in our heart of hearts, and in our inner mind.

The process of sorting out that I mentioned in the last chapter involves discovering what our “dominant love” is. It involves opening up our heart of hearts, and bringing our whole life—from our innermost thoughts and feelings right out to our words and actions—into harmony with whatever it is that we love most of all.

Do we love ourselves most of all, and consider other people to be no better than servants to our will? Then we will become devils of hell, continually struggling for dominance over other people who are equally intent on dominating and subjugating us. Do we love money, pos­sessions, and physical pleasure most of all? Then we will become satans of hell, always grasping for others’ goods and possessions, and stealing them when we can—and suffering a similar fate at their hands.

Or do we love the Lord and our fellow human beings most of all? If so, we will become angels of heaven, at a higher or lower level depending on the depth and strength of our love. We will spend eternity in the joy of love and service, in community with people who get just as much pleasure out of loving and serving us as we do out of serving them.

As we consider the parable of the mustard seed, we do well to consider just what kinds of seeds we are planting in our lives here on earth. Whatever seeds we sow in the fields of our minds and hearts, those are the seeds that will grow up into the largest of garden plants, and finally become trees firmly rooted in our lives. Let us resolve to plant good seeds of love, kindness, and understanding, so that we may become angels of love and light.

(This post is the fourth chapter in my book, On Earth as it is In Heaven, originally published in 2005. For a description and Table of Contents, please click here. This material is copyright 2005 by Lee Woofenden.)


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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