A few years back, our film crew sent this email from Israel:
Dear Allen. We’re trying to film a mustard tree, but our guide says mustard seeds only grow to be shrubs. We got some great shots of the mustard seeds, but now we’re stuck. Any ideas?
They were talking about these words from Jesus:
Matthew 13:31-32 (my translation, compare ESV)
31 The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person sowed in their field. 32 It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when it grows it’s the biggest herb. It becomes a tree so the birds of the heavens can live in its branches.
Now, Jesus was not giving horticulture lessons. You can find smaller seeds, and Jesus’ audience would have recognized a mustard bush — typically a metre or two tall. They would have been gob-smacked at how Jesus’ story ended.
The basic point of the parable is clear. When you’re buying a few grams of mustard seed to plant your field, you don’t really care whether that last seed is in or out. One seed is irrelevant, just dust on the scales. For many of those listening to him, Jesus must have seemed that insignificant. What difference could one Galilean prophet make to the world and its troubles?
But a seemingly insignificant mustard seed can grow and take its place in the garden. They were listening to someone who had a significant place in God’s economy for Israel.
Then Jesus story takes an unexpected twist. The mustard bush grows into something bigger than anyone imagined. It morphs into a tree, a tree with spreading branches that invite the birds of heaven to rest in its branches.
Jesus’ audience would have been scratching their heads. Mustard bushes don’t do that. Was there anything else to help them make sense of this extraordinary turn?
Indeed there was. These phrases were not original with Jesus. They had been stock imperial propaganda in the Middle East for centuries, and other Jewish prophets had borrowed them too.
The story of Daniel reports that Nebuchadnezzar thought of himself as a world-dominating tree, providing shade for the animals of the field and shelter for the birds of heaven. Daniel did not question the way the king saw himself; he just pointed out that the God of heaven who allowed him to become great could also cut him down (Daniel 4:12, 14, 21).
Ezekiel had also warned Pharaoh not to think of himself the way the Assyrian rulers had. Assyria saw itself as a tree that towered above all others, with the birds of heaven taking shelter in its branches (Ezekiel 31:5-6).
The image of the world-dominating tree arose from the hubris of those who ruled the world:
In the ancient world the king and his kingdom were inseparable. An impressive array of data from the Mesopotamian world identifies the king as a tree. For example, a Sumerian royal hymn addressing the king says, “O chosen cedar …, for thy shadow the country may feel awe.”
— Paul Ferguson, “Nebuchadnezzar, Gilgamesh, and the ‘Babylonian Job’” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:3 (1994), 324.
What Jesus has done is to borrow this old imperial propaganda, and reuse it for his mustard-seed kingdom. He did so because he believed that authority came from God, and God had promised to replant his kingdom:
Ezekiel 17:23–24 (ESV)
23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree …
Jews were clinging to this hope when Jesus was born (e.g. Luke 1:51-79). As God’s anointed, he planted God’s kingdom. It seemed a mere mustard seed.
2000 years later, it is no longer a shrub in a Jewish garden. The kingdom of God established through Jesus the Messiah stands as the greatest and most enduring kingdom the world has ever known.
We have seen it grow in history. This is God’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. We ourselves are among the creatures who find solace and shelter under Jesus’ reign. As his community, we live to honour earth’s true ruler.
That little seed Jesus planted is growing into the kingdom of our heavenly sovereign.
What others are saying
John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus electronic edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012):
The beginning of his ministry was carefully noted by Luke according to the Roman calendar: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene.” From complete obscurity, Jesus came to public attention for the blink of an eye — maybe three years, maybe as few as one. Yet today, every time we glance at a calendar or date a check, we are reminded that chronologically at least, this incredibly brief life has become somehow the dividing line of history.
Famous people often seek to preserve their legacy by having others named for them. The Bible mentions various characters named Herod or even Herodias who were intended to remind us of Herod the Great. On the day after Jesus’ death, no one in the tiny circle that knew his identity was naming their new baby after him. But today the names of Caesar and Nero are used, if at all, for pizza parlors, dogs, and casinos, while the names in Jesus’ book live on and on.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 527:
The mustard plant hardly qualifies as a “tree,” and the term may be a deliberate exaggeration designed to evoke the echo of Dan 4:12–21 … But the point of the parable does not depend on its botanical accuracy; parables often exaggerate for effect.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1998), 387:
The kingdom of God has humble beginnings; it is like a mustard seed, small and unimpressive. It can be overlooked or dismissed as a trifle. Its coming did not overwhelm the world, as had been expected. Yet it is destined to become an impressive entity in radical contrast to its beginnings. … The kingdom’s mysterious growth is the work of God.
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Update 2022-05-18: Translation added.