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In Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus tells the Parable of the Mustard Seed (NIV):

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches."

Obviously one of the points of the parable is that while the mustard seed has a small beginning, it ends with a surprisingly large effect. This matches the theme of the immediately following Parable of the Yeast.

However, in the Mustard Seed parable Jesus also mentions that birds come and perch in the tree's branches. A couple commentators, drawing on images of birds in Ezekiel, seem to see an allegory to the Gentile inclusion. Others insist that this is strictly a one-point parable and that the birds carry no additional allegorical meaning. But recently I heard it suggested there might be a connection to the birds in the Parable of the Sower just a little before this passage:

As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.

Beyond only the verbal connection, I don't know how such a connection is supposed to work, though. Is anyone aware of interpreters who follow such a line of thought, and if so, how does it work? And finally, is there any weight to it? Or should we see a reference to Gentile inclusion here? Or are the birds just there to aid with the visual of a big plant from a small seed?

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But recently I heard it suggested there might be a connection to the birds in the Parable of the Sower just a little before this passage

The way the parable is phrased doesn't lend itself to any negative allegorical interpretation of the birds. The concept of nesting under protection is hard to square with any link to the birds in the parable of the soils:

32It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 13:32, ESV

The expression τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ appears in elsewhere in Matthew, only with a positive (or at worst, neutral) connotation:

26Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 6:26, ESV

20And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 8:20, ESV

Or should we see a reference to Gentile inclusion here? Or are the birds just there to aid with the visual of a big plant from a small seed?

A link to Gentile inclusion here is too great a leap to make with any confidence[1]. Rather, the parable makes a particular point of visible, relative size[2]. It is "a grain of mustard seed" starting as "the smallest of all seeds", then finally it is "larger than all the garden plants". The relative size is visually emphasised by the fact that birds are able to "come and make nests in its branches", in contrast to the other "garden plants".


[1] Gentile inclusion isn't a theme of the other parables, and is only slightly alluded to in Matthew's gospel until the latter chapters.

[2] In contrast to the parable of the yeast that follows, which continues the theme of growth.

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Throughout the seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13, Jesus seems to be using similar words and metaphors within the parables:

Element     Parable
Sow         Sower/Tares/Mustard Seed
Sower       Sower/Tares
Wicked One  Sower/Tares/Net
Birds       Sower/Mustard Seed
Field       Tares/Mustard Seed/Treasure

In His explanations, Jesus explains certain metaphors. For example, in the parable of the Sower the Word is sown. In the explanation of the Tares, He identifies the Sower as the Son of Man, but what is sown is not identified. Yet from the parable and explanation it is clear that what is sown is the Word.

In the parable of the Tares, the field is the earth and it appears to represent the earth elsewhere. Likewise for the wicked one. Apparently in this group of parables Jesus does not vary a metaphor between parables.

If that is the case, then birds are identified in the parable of the Sower (ESV):

And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. (13:4)

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. (13:20-21)

The birds are affiliated with the evil one and it is unlikely they are meant to have a positive meaning such as the Gentile inclusion, in the parable of the Mustard Seed.

The explanation of the Sower states the seed sown on the path which the birds devoured represents the Word which was sown but was not understood. Therefore the birds did not prevent the Word from reaching a person; instead the prevented a person from understanding the Word.

The parable of the Mustard Seed differs from the parable of the Sower on two key points. The sower is a "man" not a "sower" and the mustard seed is not the Word. This is evident because it is identified differently (a mustard seed) and it does not grow or produce like the Word (as described in either the Sower or Tares parables).

Birds make noise. A tree full of birds would be a noisy place. The imagery of the parable of the Mustard Seed is one a plant which has grown out of proportion into a tree providing a place for a lot birds to nest and make a lot of noise.

In the parable of the Mustard Seed, a seed which is not the Word grows up out of proportion and provides a place for the birds to nest. The seed could represent human wisdom or false teaching. If the role of the birds from the Sower is continued into the Mustard Seed parable, the birds continue to prevent understanding of the Word. They are making noise which hinders, distorts, or denies a person the opportunity to understand the Word. Their noise would also draw attention to the "impressive" tree where they nest.

  • So if "the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed" and the "seed could represent human wisdom or false teaching", you're saying that Jesus is claiming that the kingdom of heaven is like a false teaching? – Soldarnal Feb 14 '17 at 21:12
  • It is not that the kingdom of heaven is like false teaching but false teaching is present within the kingdom (isn't that true?). Many of the parables teach both good and evil are present. The enemy plants false seeds which are permitted to grow. The kingdom of heaven is not presented as an always perfect or ideal place. In terms of the Mustard seed, there are 2 other parables with seed. In one there is only good seed; in the other both good and bad. I see no reason why this one could not be about only bad seed. – Revelation Lad Feb 14 '17 at 23:18
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The phrase in Matthew 13:32 is literally "birds of the sky", not simply "birds" as the NIV suggests. The Greek word for "sky" (οὐρανός), can also mean "heaven". The root of the word for "bird" (πετεινόν) is the verb πέτομαι, which means "to fly". Hence "birds of the sky" can also mean something like "winged creatures of heaven".

Theophylact, a Byzantine commentator, suggests that the birds of the last verse could represent angels:

Thus you will be come greater than the shrubs, that is, greater than those who are weak and imperfect, by yourself being perfect, so that even the winged creatures of heave, that is, the angels, will take their rest in you who are living the angelic life

Explanation of the Gospel According to Matthew (tr. Chrysostom Press, p. 116).

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Birds, elsewhere rendered fowls of the sky or air, largely in the old testament, when used as an allegory refer to both evil and righteous angels, depending on context.

In Matthew 13:31-32, He clearly identifies these birds/fowls as the ''evil one,'' the evil one being a characterisation of a category of them, just as He says the word of God is the seed. Therefore, if we take the signification of that seed to refer to the word of God, so should we understand the birds as the evil ones, most likely the ones in 'high places' so signified in Ephesians 6:12, or the servants of 'the ruler of the air'

Ephesians 2:2; ..in which you used to walk when you conformed to the ways of this world and of the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience.

The birds would be the 'powers' of the air.

In Ecclestiate, we are warned not to speak a word against the 'king,' even in the secret, because these 'rational' birds/fowls may 'hear' the complaint and inform the king, and according to the context, it doesn't refer to a man but the prince of darkness, since these 'birds' don't serve man but fellow higher up spirit rulers in Ephesians 2.

Ecclesiastes 10:20 Curse not the king, no not even in your thought; and curse not the rich in your bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which has wings shall tell the matter.

Strangely, it's same warning that Jude 1:9 gives!

So in many places where this symbolism of ''birds'' is used, it largely concerns how information is handled among men, for evil or for good. These are the same evil angels in Jeremiah 12:9, denoted as ''speckled birds,' that came as judgements against Israel; which ate Israel's 'fruit,' that is, a righteousness derived from observing His laws.

Lastly, but not the least, the signified 'clean, or unclean birds' in the laws whose ways Israel shouldn't practice, this signified as 'not eating,' the same 'eating' signified in John 6:56 as 'if you eat my flesh and...'' , meaning to practice His words.
This is the allogory of birds in most parts of scripture.

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There appears to be an allusion to Ezekiel 17:

NIV Ezek 17: 22“ ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. 24All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. “ ‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’ ”

In Ezekiel 31 the tree shelters beasts and birds and they seems to be associated with nations:

NIV Ezek 31: 3Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest; it towered on high, its top above the thick foliage. 4The waters nourished it, deep springs made it grow tall; their streams flowed all around its base and sent their channels to all the trees of the field. 5So it towered higher than all the trees of the field; its boughs increased and its branches grew long, spreading because of abundant waters. 6All the birds of the sky nested in its boughs, all the animals of the wild gave birth under its branches; all the great nations lived in its shade. 7It was majestic in beauty, with its spreading boughs, for its roots went down to abundant waters. 8The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor could the junipers equal its boughs, nor could the plane trees compare with its branches— no tree in the garden of God could match its beauty. 9I made it beautiful with abundant branches, the envy of all the trees of Eden in the garden of God.

A comparison can be drawn with the United States military presence throughout the world discouraging aggression by its enemies and providing a certain Pax America, the birds and beasts being the nations "shaded" by the "branches" of the empire.

Jesus draws on that and says that the kingdom of heaven(s) will likewise rule the nations with a rod of iron. But the image is much more profound than most people grasp because he doesn't say that a small tree becomes a great tree but rather that a small seed is planted/buried and THEN grows into a huge tree. Jesus is the small mustard seed and he dies and is resurrected:

NIV John 12: 23Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted upg from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

The "many seeds" shows that believers are planted/buried with Jesus:

NIV Romans 6: 3Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried [ie: "planted"] with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

So the believers are not the birds but rather the branches:

NIV John 15: 3Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

So the story of the kingdom that Jesus is providing is:

  • Jesus is the mustard seed
  • God planted him in his field in his death
  • God raised Jesus from the dead to rule the nations with a rod of iron
  • believers are planted in the pattern of his death
  • they are co-raised with him through the operation of God
  • this new regime is the king and his subjects
  • there is some sense in which the kingdom of God is a superpower over the whole earth, which will be fully realized after the tree grows and matures
  • the birds are the nations that live in the enforced peace
  • this is fully realized in the millennium

But in the final eschaton, God alone rules and the enforced peace is replaced with a true peace where only the people of God live in true peace and harmony forever. Until that day the foxes have holes to live in and birds of the air have nests while the son of man and the saints are not at home except in the kingdom and rule of God.

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It has always seemed to me that the birds have represented the ability for demonic influences existing within the church kingdom. I have never heard it supposed that these could be holy angels as well. I looked up this interpretation because this is how I read it being so close the parable of the sowers and I do not think this is a coincidence. I definately dont think Jesus mentioned the birds for no particular reason. Practicly I think this way because it seems that in all congregations there seems to be elemental spirits at work which constantly need to be recognized and dealt with accordingly. It partially comes from my struggle in how to reconcile how many of the churches I have been to seem to have people who love and worship Jesus in Spirit and truth yet there also exists erroneous doctrine and love for the world....just sayin:/

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Do the birds who perch in the mustard tree have allegorical meaning?

Matthew 13:31-32 (NRSV)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

31 "He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

The grain represents the good news of the kingdom of God, and the consequence from the preaching , was the creation of the Christian congregations.

Luke 4:43 (NRSV)

43 But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.

The mustard seed was one the tiniest then known, likewise the Christian congregation had a tiny beginning at the time when Jesus was resurrected. But within three to four decades , Paul was very happy to say that the gospel was proclaimed in all creation:

Colossians 1:23 (NASB)

" If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister."

The growth was rapid so that the "birds of the air ",were able to make,"nests in its branches.” The birds represents the ,humble, those seeking righteousness, spiritual food and shelter within the Christian congregation. Compare Ezekiel 17:22-23 and Zephaniah 2:3

Zephaniah 2:3 (NRSV)

3 Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath.

Ezekiel 17:22-23 (NASB)

22 Thus says the Lord God, “I will also take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and set it out; I will pluck from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one and I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the high mountain of Israel I will plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar. And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches.

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Seeds fell along the path are precious word of God happened to reach a heart where all kinds of principles doctrines and isms of the intellectual world have equal acceptance.In such a secular heart, Jesus is nothing more than a wise man.His word feel like those of any other popular icons of the world and therefore soon become less interesting for a doctrine and thus immediately faces rejection and thus will soon disappear from heart.

  • Hi, welcome to the BHSE community! Could you make your answer more aligned to what the question is asking? Thanks! – phil-al-sophy Nov 30 '18 at 3:39

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