The Time Jesus Spoke about Birds and the Tree
As any reader of the Gospels knows well, Jesus used parables to paint pictures of the Kingdom of God.
Of the 40 parables He taught, 19 are devoted to directly addressing the Kingdom—and many of the others indirectly teach Kingdom dynamics. Some parables are long, such as the Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23) and the Parable of the Father’s Love (Luke 15:11-32). Others are short, a sentence or two—and sadly, their value is often not fully appreciated. Like the time Jesus spoke about the birds and the tree.
Then He said, ‘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 put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.’”
In this parable expressly devoted to explaining the Kingdom of God, Jesus likens it to a mustard seed that grows into a tree in which “the birds of the air” find shelter in its branches.
Israel was home to around 70 indigenous bird species at the time. However, Israel serves as the main bird migration route between Europe and Asia. During late August to mid-December, Israel provides the final feeding stop for millions of birds before they tackle the five-day journey across the Sahara Desert. According to Forward, “Israel draws about 500 million birds annually from 550 species.” That’s a monumental number of birds especially given that Israel is a relatively small area (115 kilometres wide and 420 kilometres long). One might argue that the number of birds and number of bird species may well have been larger in Jesus’ day.
Metaphorically, birds have several meanings in the Scriptures, largely positive—for example, a dove speaks of the Holy Spirit and an eagle is symbolic of the righteous. Given the influx of millions of foreign birds through Israel during migration season, Jesus no doubt alluded to the Gentiles in this parable (and thus, all peoples).
Furthermore, this parable would certainly have reminded Jesus’ audience of Ezekiel 17, words that are very similar to the ones He used:
In 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.”
In Ezekiel 17, the prophet foresaw a day when the Messiah would open His heart and hands to all people.
The Kingdom is not just for “my kind” of people—people who act, speak or think like me. Or interpret the Bible as I do. The Kingdom is for all kinds of birds. The Kingdom allows all kinds of people to “nest under its shade”, as Mark records it (Mark 4:30–32).
While it might be fun to imagine that first century Jews were avid bird watchers, for people living under the brutal oppression of Rome, an invasion of foreign birds was a nuisance, a massive flock of feathers leaving a mess in their trail.
Jesus was, however, planting a seed to challenge His audience’s mindset. Given the large variety of non-indigenous bird species that passed through Israel during the migratory season, He was trying to get His audience to think about the inclusive nature of the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God offers shelter and refuge to all kinds of people. As the Body of King Jesus, it’s our privilege to be His heart and hands to all people—without judgement and without partiality.
So, what of the mustard seed?
The plant Jesus referred is generally considered to be black mustard, a plant that can grow up to 2.7 metres tall from a small seed. Typically, it’s wild and hardy, grows in open fields, and multiples quickly.
Pliny the Elder, in Natural History (published around AD 78), wrote that “mustard … is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted … 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.”
Jesus envisioned a rapidly growing organic Kingdom; from small and humble beginnings, it spreads and grows and covers the earth to provide a place of shelter and refuge for all kinds of people.
Revealing God’s nature was central to the Message of Jesus. He restored humanity to God’s loving fatherhood, restoring our identity as children of God and our destiny as custodians of all creation.
Restoring humanity to the Father, the Message of Jesus heals our broken identity, restoring us as children of God. Loved by the Father, we are both secure and significant.
Restored to the Father as His children, the Message of Jesus restores humanity’s destiny as custodians of creation. We’re commissioned to partner with Jesus in His restoration plan for the earth.