So He was saying, “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and THE BIRDS OF THE AIR NESTED IN ITS BRANCHES.” (Luke 13:18-19 NASB)
Ah, parables; those “earthly stories” with “heavenly meanings” (sure). Luke especially of all the gospel writers has preserved sayings of Jesus that really seem incomprehensible. Here we have a simile parable where the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. “Oh?” you reply, “how is the Kingdom of God like a mustard seed?” To which Jesus answers, “A man took and threw it into his own garden and it grew into a tree where birds nested.”
Oh sure, can’t you see it now? The Kingdom of God is thrown into a “personal garden” to grow into a…well, some big form of a natural transformation, and lots of…well, someone comes to live in it. Oh certainly, it’s all clear to me now…or obscure, or so convoluted I have no idea what Jesus meant. And it’s so short, it’s hard to try and fill in the details from a context or other elements in the story.
So, here’s my “spin” on this one: The mustard seed = “the Kingdom of God” (duh, He actually said that one); the “man” is God; the “personal garden” is the world we live in, perhaps especially Israel; the “tree” is a depiction of the exponential transformation in shape and size of the Kingdom once “planted”; and the “birds of the air” are unexpected guests or recipients, perhaps Gentiles. I say “unexpected” because you would expect the fruit of the tree or the tree to be some source of something productive (however they make mustard from it, but without pork, what would they use it for?). Instead of some “fruit” from the tree, it becomes a place for birds to next.
There is often an oblique reference in the margin of reference Bibles to Ezekiel 17:23, but the “birds of every kind” really aren’t well defined there either, but are often thought of as Gentiles. The “trees” seem to be nations or empires, or some other political or people entity. But if I follow the rough correspondence of elements of the parable out, then the meaning does seem to fit Jesus’ conclusion of verses 24-30 which claims the Kingdom will be enjoyed by Gentiles with the Patriarchs, and not so much by those to whom Jesus preached.
The Kingdom of God seems small, but expands rapidly into something more immense but also used for a different purpose. I don’t think that this “nesting” purpose excludes using the resulting tree for obtaining mustard though, just that it includes a wider purpose than the expected one. The birds weren’t chased off, but welcomed, as if they were supposed to be there.
While it’s possible Luke worded or included this parable for his Gentile readers, it’s also cannot be ignored that Jesus said this to expressly distress His Jewish listeners. He wanted them to become uncomfortable that they were missing the very thing they had waited so long, with such expectation, to obtain. Here it was passing them by, and they didn’t even realize it. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” “Do what? It’s where? What do you mean?” And so it went.
But the challenge is there for me too. And it’s there for you as well. You, if you’re reading this, have an expectation of participation in the Kingdom of God, just like I do because I write this drivel. But are we missing the Kingdom because it doesn’t fit our expected paradigm? Who are we excluding whom God is including? What are we doing or not doing that God is already at work to accomplish? Are our heads up, looking about, seeking the work and will of our Master? Mine is often absorbed in all sort of stuff, that while possibly important, is not the Kingdom nor of or about the King. And that, my friends, needs to change.
What do you learn from this brief parable?