While the mustard seed is indeed not the smallest of seeds, it was one of the smallest planted by people in the time of Jesus. The mustard seed was also frequently used in rabbinic proverbs to designate the smallest of things. In using the mustard seed, Jesus would be using something that they would understand well. No other seed so small produced such a large plant.
In context, we will look at the parable of the mustard seed as told by Matthew in Matthew 13:31-32, by Mark in Mark 4:30-32 and by Luke in Luke 13:18-19:
Matthew 13:31-32 (TNIV)
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”[emphasis added]
Mark 4:30-32 (TNIV)
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” [emphasis added]
Luke 13:18-19 (TNIV)
18 Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”[emphasis added]
There are some interesting notes here that might shed some meaning on this parable that we would not normally see. Let us look at this through the ancient Jewish mind also.
Let’s look at the mustard plant. In my look at different mustard varieties, most are small and low to the ground, however, the Black Mustard plant which was grown in the Holy Land areas grow very large in one season and are characterized by a rapid germination of the seed. Mustard planted one day could begin growing the next. There are wild mustard plants over ten feet tall near the Jordan River, and even in moderate climates a mustard plant may grow that tall, provided it gets enough sunshine. I would note that generally trees in most parts of the Holy Land do not reach a large stature. The stem of a mustard plant also becomes dry and wood-like, which gives it the aspect of a tree.
I also discovered an interesting twist, Paul taught earlier that “birds of the air” often symbolized Satan or satanic power. Let’s look at what Scripture says:
Ephesians 2:1-2 (TNIV)
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. [emphasis added]
Iwould note that Satan is often described as the “Prince” of this world by Jesus in Scripture as in John 12:31, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” and John 14:30, “I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me,” and see John 16:11, “and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.”
Jesus also uses birds in an earlier parable as a metaphor for Satan. Listen to Matthew 13:4, “As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.”…and now look at Jesus’ explanation of this parable in Matthew 13:19, “18 Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path.”
I found it interesting that in Genesis 15, when God creates the Abrahamic covenant with Abraham, Abraham is preparing to seal the covenant by making a sacrifice. In Genesis 15:11 we see, “Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. ” It seems that anytime something good happens……Satan attempts to ruin the moment.
Could it be that as the kingdom grows, that birds (false accusers, the slanderers) begin to flock around, argue, criticize, fight, and fly around. Birds do all sorts of things. Just go near a tree filled with birds you will know what I mean (don’t stand to long underneath it!). And……they even sing (the deceiver). So….we continually have to be diligent.
An alternate explanation can be found in Ezekiel 17:22-24, Ezekiel 31:6, and Daniel 4:20-23, a tree that could support birds nesting was considered prosperous and healthy. However, I would point out that this explanation is not consistent with Jesus’ use of the birds metaphor in the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:4 and Matthew 13:19). Additionally, because it would grow anew each year, birds could not nest in it when they built nests in early spring; but small birds could light on it. I can see how this is all that is necessary to fulfill the language here. Also, some scholars believe that the birds of the air represent the Gentiles becoming a part of God’s kingdom. What do you think?
Today’s CLUE: The kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God began in a relatively small city, in a small country and has become a world-wide kingdom composed of people from all walks of life and all nationalities.
What do you think?
My friend, RonLawHouston commented: “The gospel lesson today in church was John 17:15-19. In it, Jesus tells how his followers are “in” the world but not “of” the world. I think this is important in the whole “kingdom” language. Jesus, I think, is saying that his followers may be living in the kingdom of Rome, but they are of the kingdom of heaven.”