“I hardly think a few birds are going to bring about the end of the world,” says Mrs. Bundy in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film, The Birds.
Melanie Daniels replies, “These weren’t a few birds.”
If you have ever witnessed a massive swarm of birds overtake a tree, chattering and flitting about, you know the intense atmosphere a lot of birds can bring. They are loud. They leave a big mess underneath. Throw in our Hitchockian cultural association of birds with impending doom, and we can understand that birds perching on the branches of a tree is not necessarily a welcoming thought.
When Jesus tells his short parable of a mustard seed in Mark 4:30-32, we often overlook the end of the comparison where he mentions birds. What is he talking about? Is this just his way of creating an idyllic picture of what God’s kingdom is all about? Why does Jesus say that birds will come to perch in the branches of God’s kingdom?
Jesus teaches us that even though God’s kingdom will grow large, it will become a place that supports outsiders and even enemies. The birds will come.
Mark 4:30-32 says this.
And [Jesus ] was saying, “What should we compare the kingdom of God to? Or in what parable should we describe it? It is like a mustard seed sown upon the ground. It is tiny compared to all the seeds that are upon the ground. But when sown, it grows up and becomes one of the largest of all the garden plants. Also, it produces large branches so that the birds of the sky perch under its shade.
In teaching this little parable, Jesus is riffing on the seed theme of a long day of teaching the crowd. Previously in the day, he taught that the seed is the word of God being buried in each person’s heart. In that introductory parable, he defined each piece of the puzzle so his friends could learn to decipher the true meaning behind each parable. The seed was God’s Word. The different grounds were the different people who heard the word. The good soil produces fruit. In another parable, he clarified the seed, or the word, grows automatically. It’s growth is out of human hands.
This mustard seed simile in verses 30-32 is another seed comparison, but this one clarifies a different point. The mustard seed is like the kingdom of God. Jesus mentions size, but is silent about its fruitfulness. Instead, the mustard plant is described as providing branches for birds to shelter from the sun.
Jesus points out that the branches bear birds, not fruit.
In the sister seed parables, Jesus emphasizes the fruitfulness of God’s kingdom. It automatically brings a harvest. In good soil, it multiplies up to 100xs. With the mustard seed teaching, Jesus says the result is not fruit to be harvested, but birds seeking shelter.
Elsewhere Jesus says to his followers, “You are the branches.” The kingdom of God is grown from people who are rooted in Jesus. Jesus teaches that even though God’s rule starts with only a handful it will grow into multitudes. In John 15, Jesus assures that if we remain connected to him, our branches will bear fruit.
Here though, Jesus informs his followers that the big branches will invite the birds. Being bigger brings its own set of problems. Jesus is consistent with this message in Mark. Large crowds do not mean everyone is a follower of Jesus. Jesus uses parables to invite the true seekers to understand, and to keep the bystanders at arm’s length.
The kingdom of God supports and provides shelter for something that is not grown from the mustard seed itself. Something outside of the kingdom comes to make its home within.
As an outside presence inside the branches of God’s kingdom, the birds represent a foreign presence inside God’s realm. The large, supportive structure of the kingdom of God is an inviting environment for those not a part of God’s kingdom. Jesus warns that not everything that looks to be a part of the kingdom actually is.
In his previous explanation of the parable of the seed in the soil, which was taught the same day as the mustard seed, Jesus gives us the key to understanding who the birds represent. The birds are the enemy of the kingdom of God.
As outsiders and enemies, the birds swoop in and partake in the advantages of the kingdom. Sometimes they make a ruckus like a murder of crows in a large tree. Sometimes, they sit quietly and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere that God’s kingdom brings. Sometimes, they leave behind a big mess. Some birds devour the word. They feed off destroying the kernels of truth that spark life. They hope to stop growth before it even has a chance to lodge in the soil.
Jesus wants us to recognize that the birds will come. They are in the tree, but they remain apart from the life of the kingdom.
What do we do about the birds?
In Hitchcock’s movie, people are terrified by the birds. The movie ends with an ominous flock of birds swarming behind the car of fleeing people. We are horrified at the thought of birds taking over and ending the world!
In the same way, many followers of Jesus get distracted by their fear over what the presence of the birds might mean. Will the birds take over the tree? Will the kingdom of God be destroyed by its enemies? Should we be afraid of them? Further, is it our job to cull the birds from the branches? Does Jesus want us to chase the birds away? Do the birds in God’s kingdom spell its destruction like the black cloud of birds at the end of the movie?
As Jesus was telling this parable, he was aware of the birds already present in the kingdom. One of the twelve men he handpicked to follow him in ministry was set on a course to betray him. How did Jesus react to Judas, the bird already perched in the infant kingdom of God? He invited his presence. He fed him. He loved him. He served him. He warned him, yes, but he also allowed him to kiss him in betrayal. And the betrayal did not destroy the kingdom. Instead, it launched God’s plan to reverse death.
God allows the birds to rest in the branches of his kingdom. The branches provide benefits for those who are not a part of God’s kingdom. God gives sun and rain to friends and enemies alike. God’s kingdom brings peace, joy, patience, and kindness even to those who wish to take advantage or to destroy.
Jesus does not give us instructions about how to rid the tree of birds, he provides his own example. God’s kingdom shelters outsiders and enemies, but it will not be destroyed by them. They are a part of God’s good plan.
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus warns his listeners that even though the kingdom will successfully grow to be large, it will also shelter the enemies of the kingdom. The birds will come.
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus warns his listeners that even though the kingdom will successfully grow to be large, it will also shelter the enemies of the kingdom. The birds will come.Tweet