Missions: The heart of God

Who are the birds in Jesus' mustard seed parable?

"Though [a mustard seed] 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 13:32

Matthew 13 contains half a dozen of Jesus' parables about the Kingdom. Jesus opens with the parable of the sower. Then, He talks about an infestation of weeds, a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a valuable pearl, a fishing net, and a homeowner.

To explain the mustard seed parable, Leo Hartshorn uses only eight words: "A handful of disciples become a worldwide church." That the Kingdom of God is going to be large is without question a central point of the mustard seed analogy. There is, however, one detail in it which gets little attention: the birds.

The transformation of a mustard seed into a giant bush emphasizes the Kingdom's organic, continually expanding aspect. What those birds emphasize is that the Kingdom is open to all. Unfortunately, if people think about the birds at all, they see them as "window dressing" or as simply an indication of how big the bush is.

Sadly, if that's all we think about when Jesus mentions the birds, we miss the point of the birds. Here, as in a similar scenario in Ezekiel 17, birds represent various people groups. Jesus mentioned birds to say that the Kingdom is not just for "my kind" of people (those who think, act and speak just like me). The Kingdom is for all kinds of birds!

Bird watchers say that the land of Israel is a paradise for them. Indeed, it is. In that fairly small area -- 70 miles wide and 270 miles long -- more than 400 species of birds have been sighted. That is because the area where Jesus lived and ministered is a main bird migration route to and from Europe and Asia to the north and Africa to the south.

In the light of that, the "birds of the air" (in King James and English Standard version wording) surely means more than a few sparrows or starlings. Palestine had 70 indigenous bird species. With those different kinds of birds around, plus all the migratory fowl passing through, isn't there a chance Jesus was trying to get us to think about how inclusive the Kingdom of God is?

Furthermore, the birds illustrate that the Kingdom is beckoning to all peoples. Where the KJV speaks of "perching," translations like the New Living and New American Standard use "nesting." The Kingdom thus is to become a "home." "Nesting" means that the Kingdom of God that we must proclaim is something inviting and attractive.

The inclusiveness portrayed in the mustard seed parable evokes for me words I have sung often: "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white . . ."

Isn't it wonderful that we get to point each of those different "birds" (peoples of the world) toward that extraordinary tree called the Kingdom of God?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.

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