He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 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.” Matthew 13:31–32
Jesus’ image of a tree in whose branches the birds can nest appears in the Old Testament as a symbol of a great empire. In the Book of Daniel, it represents the king of Babylon.
Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.” Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds. Your Majesty, you are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.” Daniel 4:19–22
Ezekiel uses a similar image to envision the restoration of Israel.
This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. Ezekiel 17:22–23
The mighty trees envisioned by the author of Daniel and Ezekiel are tall, strong and beautiful. They are majestic and a splendor to behold.
The kingdom Jesus describes is not quite so splendid. He compares the kingdom to a mustard plant. In the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old (Carson, Beale, 2007), Craig Blomberg writes:
“This shrub, too, will grow enormously large for a mustard plant, just as one day God’s kingdom will be universal in scope and ethnic membership. But, compared with the cedar, even an enormous mustard bush pales in comparison”
Mustard is not properly a tree, but a large bush. Large, in this case, does not necessarily mean tall. A huge mustard plant might grow to 10 feet or a little more in height. But oh could it spread out! The plant blooms in spring with yellow cruciform flowers. Its branches become thicker as the season progresses, and they become sturdier as they dry out and become more wood-like. The plant reproduces rapidly and becomes a thicket, its branches densely packing together and making the plant stronger.Talmud notes that a man, having sown a single seed of mustard, could climb it as he would a fig tree. So, I guess, strong enough to support birds.
In the American southwest, mustard is considered an invasive species. Like kudzu in Georgia, it spreads out and takes over. In 78 AD, Roman author Pliny the Elder had the same observation. In chapter 54 of Natural History, he wrote,
“Mustard, which with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
The parable of the proverbial small mustard seed is certainly a parable of contrast. Something small and insignificant became something big and world changing. The kingdom of God started with a person who amounted to nothing in the world’s eyes, a wandering Galilean preacher who purported to heal the sick, sinful and demon-oppressed.
What is remarkable, though, is that Jesus does not pull the Ezekiel switcheroo. The tiny seed doesn’t become tall, rich and beautiful. Instead of comparing the kingdom of God to a majestic cedar tree, Jesus compared it to a raggedy bush. Mustard was useful to human beings, but it could also be a nuisance and hard to control. Once it got going, it grew like crazy and took over everything. Its strength was not in a central trunk or a few large branches, but in the plant itself. Its dense mass of branches all tangled together to make it strong.
The church on earth is still a raggedy collection of human beings, but it is God’s raggedy collection. You can look through history and see where the kingdom has literally “grown like a weed” by the power of the Holy Spirit. May it happen more and more. Alone, as Christians, we cannot do much. We are as weak as a single stalk of mustard. Bundled together by God, we are strong enough to offer a place of safety and refuge. You don’t have to be a majestic cedar for the birds of the air to find shelter in your branches.
See also Everything You Wanted to Know about Mustard Seeds, which will tell you absolutely nothing about mustard seeds, but will tell you about the mustard seed savior, the mustard seed church and the mustard seed kingdom. Only mustard seeds produce mustard plants.
The photos accompanying this article are widely reproduced on the Internet. The are not mine. I was unable to determine their origin or ownership.