Jesus and His Stories

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a series of parables and after the first one his disciples interrupts Him asking why he tells these stories. Jesus’ answer gives us a view into his audience minds and expectations.

From verse 11 we read

He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:
‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
And seeing you will see and not perceive;
15 For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

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Somehow the majority of Jesus’ audience spiritual eyes where blinded, even the righteous ones. When Jesus spoke plain words they did not understand the plain meaning of it. Why this spiritual blindness? I think if we investigate who these people were and what their expectations of the Kingdom of God were we might get an idea why they heard but did not understand. These people were Jews and the Jews expected the Kingdom of God to come by certain means and liberate them, the Jews, from the yoke of the Roman empire. Some of them expected the Kingdom to come by force (the Zealots), others expected it would come by political means (the Sadducees) and then there were those who expected God would liberate them if they got their act together and acted according to the Mosaic law (the Pharisees). Besides all of their different views all of them expected the Messiah to come with much fanfare and kingly splendor. So for them to hear that the Messiah came from a lowly town, born out of wedlock and He then speaking of walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, paying taxes to the Romans, mixing with the low life of the time… Jesus and the Kingdom he spoke of was not what they expected. I’m convinced that these expectations they had clouded their understanding so that they could not comprehend what Jesus spoke of. Consequently Jesus told stories that brought them images of what the Kingdom of God is really like. Images have a powerful way of circumventing our expectations and opening the mind to other possibilities.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a series of parables that He begins with “the kingdom of heaven is like…”. So the focus of these parables is to explain the nature of the kingdom of heaven or as noted in other passages the kingdom of God. The parable of the mustard seed is recorded in three gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke and in all three it is covered by only one sentence. It seems that in the Gospels Jesus had this ability to communicate something profound in very few words and this parable is one such example.

Matthew 13:31
31 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, 32 which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

Mark 4:30-32
30 Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? 31 It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; 32 but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.”

Luke 13:18-19
18 Then He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”

A Few Things About Mustard and Birds

The Mustard seed, like the parable says, is a relatively small seed. The mustard plant is a shrub that grows easily and spreads fast and it can take over a garden in a short period of time just like weeds. In Jewish culture a well kept garden was desirable and allowing mustard to grow in your garden was prohibited by Jewish law in fact it was considered a weed. The mustard shrub could grow to the size of a small tree but is bushy and not what we would call aesthetically nice to look at.

Just a few verses before Jesus was talking about birds of the air and using that image to describe unwanted influences. Birds of the air would most likely have been viewed as a nuisance by an agricultural society like the Jews of the time. Birds would be something you would want to keep away from your fields and gardens. The use of straw men keeping the unwanted away comes to mind.

Why Mustard and Birds?

Jesus was provocative in using these images to describe the nature of the Kingdom. He could have used the image of a lofty cedar tree (which also has a small seed) and of eagles that nest there. Why did Jesus use the images of a weed and birds that made nuisances of themselves to describe the Kingdom of God? My dad loved his Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible and I thought it a good idea to see what Mr. Henry thought of the parable as told in Luke 13:

Here is, I. The gospel’s progress foretold in two parables, which we had before, Mt. 13:31-33. The kingdom of the Messiah is the kingdom of God, for it advances his glory; this kingdom was yet a mystery, and people were generally in the dark, and under mistakes, about it. Now, when we would describe a thing to those that are strangers to it, we choose to do it by similitudes. “Such a person you know not, but I will tell you whom he is like;” so Christ undertakes here to show what the kingdom of God is like (v. 18): “Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? v. 20. It will be quite another thing from what you expect, and will operate, and gain its point, in quite another manner.” 1. “You expect it will appear great, and will arrive at its perfection all of a sudden; but you are mistaken, it is like a grain of mustard-seed, a little thing, takes up but little room, makes but a little figure, and promises but little; yet, when sown in soil proper to receive it, it waxes a great tree.”

Jesus was clearly demonstrating to his audience that the Kingdom of God was very unlike to what they thought it would be. The beginning of it small, like the seed of the mustard plant. No victory brought about by sword and violence, no glorious entrance of a political hero and no heralding of a moral prophet and judge to bring a nation back to obeying ancient laws but a small almost unnoticeable event – the death of a man hung between two criminals and a rumour that he didn’t stay dead*. Then there is the spread of this Kingdom. No disciplined military maneuvers, no political alliances and no getting on God’s good side by being the obeying older brother but unpredictable (John 3:5), sometimes in places where it is not wanted and the people involved in it not the beautiful and famous. The word subversive comes to mind to describe this Kingdom.

Then there are those despicable birds that take refuge in this mustard bush. Could it be that the ones that find this Kingdom attractive are those that the Jews looked down upon? The Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors and gentiles?

Our Expectation of the Kingdom of God and His Christ

I think that this parable must cause us to ask some serious questions to ourselves. It is always so easy to see how other people have the wrong idea about the Kingdom but what about us? Will we be able to get beyond our expectations of what the Kingdom of God should be and who Christ should be to be acceptable to us? Or will we stay stuck in our clouded mindsets where the Kingdom should come in a neat way and liberate us from our oppressors with the force of a super power’s army? Should those who find shelter in this Kingdom be the acceptable ones or come already repentant?

May God’s Word become alive to us, transforming our lives to reflect His gory.

* Just to make it clear – I absolutely believe that Christ Jesus rose from the dead. I’m stating here what might have been the perception of the first people who heard the news.

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