The parable of the mustard seed is one of the shorter teachings of Jesus defining the Kingdom of God found in the first three Gospels of the New Testament; Matthew, Mark, and Luke, also called the synoptic Gospels. Some accounts of events and teachings in these books differ, but this story is consistent across the three versions.
Jesus was asked about the Kingdom of God, and he explained it was like a tiny seed that grows into a large tree. The next part always intrigued me even when I first began studying the Bible as a teenager; the tree is so large that birds come to perch in its branches.
Why was this detail added to the story? I thought. Certainly, birds could perch in small and medium-sized trees, even on the ground. Jesus could have left it as a big tree, or he could have said it was as big as a building or temple, or perhaps an elephant. Then I looked at what birds have meant in other parts of scripture.
As with any biblically related topic, it is easy to jump down a rabbit hole of competing theories and detailed explanations proposed by biblical scholars. Reams of articles and references delve into original Greek or Hebrew texts and cultural contexts. In short, birds are mentioned both in literal ways as in the Old Testament book Isaiah 40:31, “They will soar on wings like eagles” and in symbolic ways like in this parable.
Interestingly, there are several New Testament verses that present birds in a negative way. For example, the book of Matthew identifies them as “the wicked one,” the book of Mark as “Satan”, and Luke as “the Devil.” Although any biblical perspective is debatable, if we go with this sinister view, the presence of birds in the Kingdom of God raises a flurry of fascinating observations and questions. I’ll pose a few here.
An initial question is, “How can this happen?” If God is God, then why does evil even exist? How is it possible for evil to be “perched in its branches?” A tough question. Unless you have been living under a rock, much evil has been discovered in the world’s largest religions.
On the philosophical side of the discussion, admittedly reducing volumes of content to a few simple ideas. One thought is that good cannot exist without evil. “White” is meaningless without “black,” and “up” cannot be defined without “down.” Thinking of it this way, do the evil birds define the goodness of the Kingdom? Even more mind-blowing; if God is the creator of everything, could God be the creator of both good and evil? Or, is everything a part of God; the good, the bad, the angels, and devils?
I think there are two ways to view this parable. Taking one step back, the Kingdom of God can be like a large tree with elements of evil sitting on its branches. Taking another step back, the Kingdom of God is a beautiful and complex living entity working itself out perfectly, birds and all.
Explore more interesting topics about God, life, and your relationship with both in my book 12 Lessons.