Barry Newman's Blog

November 25, 2012

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (part XIII)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 7:22 pm

The Construction of the Parable

If Jesus had the Ezekiel 17 “parable” at the back of his mind he is not simply going to repeat that parable if he wishes to make a particular point that is not present or not as sharply made in that parable.  He will make his own point in his own way but with allusions to the Ezekiel parable, if thought appropriate.

The parable that Jesus creates focuses on the smallness of the mustard seed. The twig in Ezekiel 17 is small, but the mustard seed is much smaller, very small. Possibly, speaking proverbially, it is the smallest of all seeds.  Jesus then describes, similarly to the description in the Ezekiel parable, how it becomes a great tree!  Well, not really.  Haven chosen the mustard seed for its very small size, Jesus can but acknowledge the limitations of the mustard plant. Its seed will not develop into an enormous tree. That Mark makes no mention of a “tree” may indicate that originally Jesus made no reference to a “tree” as such. None the less Jesus wishes to say that it will develop into something quite substantial.  It becomes the largest of (all) herbs, almost a tree, large enough to be called a tree (by Matthew and Luke) anyway!

And birds come to lodge in it. Well, normally, small birds do. It is only a mustard tree after all. But according to the parable, they come to lodge in it, not to fly in and out, which many in reality might well do. In Ezekiel there is no restriction on size.  In that parable the tree will cope with birds of all sizes and in real life, some may well lodge there.

Why do the birds come and lodge there? With respect to this matter Mark may reflect the original words of Jesus better than the other Gospels.  They come to be sheltered from the sun, they come for the shade.  The Ezekiel parable also has the birds coming for the shade. It may be that in both parables one could imagine that they come for other things, for example to nest and in the parable that Jesus told, that they come to be safe from predators or to eat the fruit.  But Jesus simply says they lodge there with only the one reason being given, the one that appears in Mark.

Jesus could have concluded his parable at that point where he describes that the plant becoming the largest of (all) herbs, having large branches (Mark) even a tree (Matthew and Luke).  And what appears to be his main point would still have been made.  That he then referred to the birds of the air lodging in its branches may have been because he also wanted there to be an allusion to the Ezekiel tree.

But why did Jesus not refer to “the birds of every wing” rather than “the birds of the air” if he wished to make the allusion to the Ezekiel parable obvious?  Perhaps, because, as discussed above, with respect to the mustard “tree” one would not find “birds of every wing”.  In the main, they would only be small birds and only birds of certain types. To speak of “birds of every kind” would stretch the “reality” being portrayed too far.  It could be that it was being stretched enough as it was.

And if Jesus wanted any allusion to the Ezekiel parable to be obvious, why after concluding his parable did he not refer to other “kingdoms” recognising the greatness of the kingdom that God would establish?  In a sense there was no need to.  Any Jew of the time of Jesus would have assumed as much anyway.  The parable that he told was cryptic, plainly told and complete within itself.  The listener was required to “connect the dots” if “dots” there were.

In the end what drives the parable that Jesus told is the smallness of the mustard seed and if there are allusions to the Ezekiel tree they will have to suffer a little if necessary.


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