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Jesus 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 your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches. (Matthew 13:31-32)

Of course, all the parables have allegorical meaning; that is not questionable. So also this one. But in explaining this parable, some commentators and preachers have interpreted the birds as representing evil, just as they say "yeast" in the next parable, allegedly, always represented evil. Others have interpreted the Birds simply as "people" whether good or evil.

But a third meaning is proposed as the correct interpretation: the spectacular growth of the Kingdom throughout the world, without any allegorical significance relating to goodness of people. This interpretation is based on the use of bird-trees in the Tanakh (Old Testament) which was the common literature of the Jews.

You, O king, are the king of kings...The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory. In you hands He has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live, He has made you ruler over them all. (Daniel 2:36-38)

The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top reaching to the sky, visible to the whole earth...giving shelter to the beasts of the field and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air...(Daniel 4:20-21)

I will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it...it will produce branches and bear fruit and become splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest on it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. (Ezekiel 17:22-23)

Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest...All the birds of the air nested in its boughs, all the beasts of the field gave birth under its branches; all the great nations lived in its shade. (Ezekiel 31:3,6)

In every one of these Old Testament examples, it is not the spiritual quality of the people that is emphasized in the use of birds and animals, but rather it is the universality of the king's empire that is portrayed! So could it not be that Jesus's parable of the birds does not deal with the spirituality of men, but rather refers to the amazing growth of the Kingdom with such a meager, small beginning in Judea!

Are there any reasonable, hermeneutical obstacles or objections to this possible interpretation?

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The parable does indeed refer to the rapid growth of the kingdom, which is why it is known as the Parable of the Mustard Seed and not the Parable of the Birds. The birds are primarily a device used to show that a sizeable bush or tree can come from a tiny seed - large enough for birds to perch in. (This is a more memorable description that saying: "more than two meters tall.")

However, parables are necessarily open to interpretation, and the OP has given us food for thought in citing other scriptures where birds represent people of various backgrounds. I see no obstacle to the interpretation, except for the minor objections that the mustard is often classed as a shrub rather than a tree, and it lacks the majesty of the cedar or the unnamed tree mentioned in Daniel.

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  • Well answered, but please also explain which shrub is in the picture. It does not look like a mustard plant Jan 6 at 11:05
  • here is the link. Most English speaking people think of Nicotiana glauca as mustard but there is also Salvadora persica Jan 6 at 16:48

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