Barry Newman's Blog

November 17, 2012

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (part IX)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 8:15 pm

The Birds of the Air and the Branches

As already indicated, in the Old Testament, the phrase, “the birds of the air” is sometimes associated with mention of a tree. That should not strike us as unusual. Birds often appear in trees for one reason or another! In Ezekiel 31: 6 the birds of the air nested in the branches (“se<ppah”) of the tree.  In Daniel 4: 21, the birds of the air lived in the branches (“<enep). In Ezekiel 17: 23 the birds shall dwell in the shadow of its (dangling) branches (“daliyah”). Birds are in trees because they find one or more aspect of trees valuable.

In the parable that Jesus told the birds of the air perch in the branches (“klados”) of the tree (Matthew and Luke) and the result of their being large branches (“klados”) is that the birds of the air “perch” in its shadow (Mark). The Greek word, “kataskenoo” translated here as “perch” has the general meaning of “lodging” , “settling down”, “making camp”.

Jesus uses the imagery of “birds of the air” in association with “branches” to indicate that they come to the tree because they find something about the tree valuable.  In real life however, the birds will tend to be small birds. The mustard “tree” is not all that substantial. And in the parable, they don’t just flitter in and out.  They lodge there – on the branches.

The Contexts Reconsidered

In Matthew the parable is preceded by the parable of the wheat and the weeds and followed by the parable of the yeast.  One could deduce from this that because the first parable, as later explained by Jesus, refers to both the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one and because the second parable refers to yeast which is sometimes considered as an evil influence, that the parable of the mustard seed, should also have some “evil” element in it.  However there is no suggestion in the parable of the yeast that yeast in that parable is meant to indicate something “pernicious”.  Furthermore, what the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the wheat and the weeds have in common is the idea of sowing.  This could have led Jesus to utter one after the other or influenced Matthew to recite them one after the other.  The simplicity of the parable of the yeast, together with its notion of growth could have similarly influenced Jesus or Matthew to place both this parable and the parable of the mustard seed in close proximity to one another.  In fact, the parable of the yeast has much more in common with the parable of the mustard seed than does the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

In Mark the parable is immediately preceded by the parable of the patient farmer and followed by some general statements about Jesus teaching in parables.  The parable of the patient farmer and the parable of the mustard seed share in common the notion of sowing and the general idea of the development of the seed. There is no indication that “evil” is somehow involved in the parable of the patient farmer.

In Luke, the parable is immediately preceded by the healing by Jesus of the woman with the bent back and the confrontation that resulted between him and the ruler of the synagogue because he had healed on the Sabbath. The episode concludes with his opponents being humiliated but with the crowd rejoicing “over all the glorious things being done by him.” As in Matthew, the parable is followed by the parable of the yeast. Given that the final words concerning the healing of the woman with the bent back relate to rejoicing and his wondrous acts, and given the apparent absence of the notion of “evil” from the parable of the yeast, suggests that whatever the parable of the mustard seed is about it is about “the really good”, not “the really bad”.

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