Who are the birds in Jesus' mustard seed parable?

Missions: The Heart of God

"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 that 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, they see them as "window dressing" or 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 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 proclaim is inviting and attractive.

The inclusiveness portrayed in the mustard seed parable evokes 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?

Discussion questions

  1. How does Jesus' mustard seed parable convey something important about the Kingdom of God? What does the inclusion of a flock of birds contribute to this message?
  2. In what ways do the birds in the parable represent the inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God? What does this mean for people from all backgrounds and cultures?
  3. How can the concept of "nesting" in the Kingdom of God create a sense of home and belonging for people of all backgrounds, and how can this be applied in our lives and communities?
  4. How can churches use the mustard seed parable and its imagery of the Kingdom of God as an impetus to reach out to people from different cultures and backgrounds and invite them into the Kingdom?

    -- 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.


Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed, which is small but grows into a large tree, providing shelter for birds. What do those birds represent? Here are two possible interpretations:

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