“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.” Matthew 13:31
Though the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, “so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” Jesus gives no explanation of this parable, so we must tread carefully. If we remain consistent in our interpretation with the first two parables, which also include a sower sowing seed in a field, then it is a picture of the Son of Man sowing seed into the world, but this time specified as mustard seed.
The popular interpretation is that the kingdom grows from humble beginnings into something good and great, which provides a refuge for the birds. This is not a proper understanding. The key to this parable is in the seed being specifically stated as mustard seed. Mustard is a herb and not a tree. It normally grows to about four feet and would not be a place you would expect to find a bird’s nest. This is not a picture of natural growth but of something unnatural, portraying a false greatness. The birds nesting in the branches are not something good, but evil. In the first parable, the birds came and ate up the seed on the path. Jesus described them as representing “the evil one”.
There is a similar image in a vision given to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, in which a tree, representing himself, grows large and strong, “with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth… and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air” (Daniel 4:20-21). The tree demonstrated Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance, and in due time, a messenger of God came and chopped the tree down and Nebuchadnezzar was greatly humbled and reduced to poverty.
It would seem what Jesus is saying here is that instead of being characterized by humility and gentleness, the kingdom of heaven in its manifestation on earth has become rich, powerful and, in some instances, authoritative and arrogant. Its strategies are in danger of not deriving from obedience to Jesus Christ, dependency on the Holy Spirit and child-like trust in a heavenly Father, but from marketing tactics, high profiled publicity, public relations expertise and the attempt to woo others with our bigness and noise. It has become a nesting place for the birds!
This parable does not teach the failure of the church as a manifestation of the kingdom of God, but it does predict its distortion and corruption, which history and current experiences have shown to be true. This is how those outside of Christ will perceive the kingdom of God in our world today.