By Charles Kiker
Matthew 13:31-32: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds but when it is grown it becomes the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
One necessary preliminary observation regarding “the kingdom of heaven” in this—and other—parables of the kingdom: this same parable as reported in Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19 has “kingdom of God” rather than “kingdom of heaven.” It is customary for Matthew to refer to the kingdom of heaven and for Mark and Luke to refer to the kingdom of God. At any rate, Jesus in this parable and other parables is not referring to heaven as a place where good people go when they die (or people who have prayed the right prayer and/or believed the right things). It is about the kingdom of God which is coming on earth. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is about the kingdom coming on earth, and the will of God being done on earth where the will and ways of humankind have sway, as well as in the heavens where God and only God has sway.
Much ink has been spilled unnecessarily over the size of a mustard seed. It is a small seed. Whether it is absolutely the smallest of all seeds makes no matter. Jesus is contrasting the small mustard seed with the plant it becomes. It becomes the greatest of shrubs—again it is beside the point to ask whether there might be a larger shrub somewhere in the botanical world—so the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. This mustard plant—the black mustard of the Palestinian area—certainly could get large enough for small birds to nest in. It can grow to a height of six or seven feet. It is a literary allusion back to the Hebrew Bible. In Psalm 104:16-17 the birds of the air nest in the cedars of Lebanon. In Ezekiel 31, Assyria is likened to a cedar of Lebanon (verse 3) in which the birds of the air build their nests (verse 6). Certainly the annual mustard plant cannot compare to a mighty cedar of Lebanon! In verses 10-18 the fall of this mighty tree is described. And great was the fall thereof. (See also Ezekiel 32:4). And in Daniel chapter 4, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is likened to a great tree in which the birds of the air build their nests. This tree also falls. How the mighty are fallen!
So in the parable the kingdom of God is likened to a tiny little seed that grows into a shrub. It is not a great tree like a cedar of Lebanon. It is only a shrub, but it is a shrub which provides care for God’s creatures. And it does not suffer the humiliating fall of the great trees of Ezekiel chapters 31 and 32, and of Daniel chapter 4.
The kingdom of God is qualitatively and quantitatively different than the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon. And for those listening to Jesus who had ears to hear, the kingdom of God was qualitatively and quantitatively different from the Roman Empire. Might we hear Jesus telling us in this parable that the American Empire is not now, never has been, and never will be the kingdom of our God and his Christ?
Come on! Let’s be part of a conspiracy, the mustard seed conspiracy.
Charles Kiker, Ph.D.
Retired Pastor, Bible Scholar, and charter board member of Friends of Justice