One of the best things about having multiple Gospels is how it allows us to see events from the viewpoint of the different writers. Sometimes little details offer a deeper understanding of something Jesus did or said, and also help us understand the perspectives of the writers themselves.
Jesus’s mustard seed parable is a good example. Both Luke and Matthew document this teaching with slightly different emphasis. Let’s take a look!
The mustard seed in Luke’s Gospel
Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches” (Luke 13:18-19).
As was the case in a lot of Jesus’s parables, He was using metaphors to communicate facts about the kingdom of God-and they were often agricultural.
The comparison here between the mustard seed and the kingdom seems to focus on the outcome. This seed that Jesus is planting would eventually be a tree where birds of all kinds could find shelter.
It seems to echo Daniel’s vision:
These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed (Daniel 4:10-12, emphasis added).
It makes sense that Luke’s Gospel would zero in on this parable. As a Gentile, this teaching is significant. The kingdom that Jesus established would grow large enough to extend beyond Jerusalem and make a place for everyone on earth. As an outsider who found shelter in its branches, it would make sense that the emphasis would be on the birds.
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The mustard seed in Matthew’s Gospel
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” (Matthew 13:31-32).
For Matthew, it was essential to emphasize the kingdom’s inauspicious beginnings. The kingdom would eventually grow into a tree that could accommodate all the birds of the world, but it would start from this small, inconsequential seed.
When first-century Jews looked forward to a Messiah, they had nationalistic expectations. They were looking forward to the reestablishment of a sovereign Israel that would never have to fear its enemies again. Even after the resurrection, the disciples were still expecting Jesus to lead them to overthrow Rome and make Israel mighty again.
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6)?
As Matthew meditated on this passage, it makes sense that its small beginnings would be the part that stood out to him. The kingdom wasn’t going to come in the way the Jews had always expected it. It was going to start as the smallest seed and grow into something monumental.
The truth of Jesus’s words
Jesus wasn’t wrong. He started with 12 disciples. And despite being murdered to squash out His message, He conquered death and launched His church. And even though Judaism and the Roman Empire rose up in defiance, His mostly working-class disciples helped initiate a movement that made Christianity the largest religion-a tree where all the birds of the air can find refuge and shelter.
Check out the scene, “The Kingdom of God as a Mustard Seed” from the “JESUS” film.
All Scripture references quote the New International Version unless otherwise noted.