I was born into a liberal, grace-based protestant environment. I still remember a minister’s explanation of Jesus’ famous mustard tree analogy in a weekly sermon at my childhood church:
“The church started very tiny, the smallest of seeds! And now we have grown worldwide. Just like that tree which Jesus said would hold many birds, we now house many, many people of all nations in our branches. What a glorious thing to have seen the church grow as it has grown to be in our lifetime!”
I felt warm inside. That pastor was always positive and he was one of my favorites. And so I unwittingly held to that interpretation of the mustard-tree-analogy. Church growth was good. It all counted. Everyone in the church would be saved through the church. And it’s a tall tree = a big deal. I am part of a very big deal…this was my sincere belief about mustard trees until the year 2009.
One summer day I wanted to know what a mustard tree actually looked like. Just wanted to see a photo of it… See, I am a plant person. It is not unusual for me to research plants or to remember their names and other details about them.
I was well aware that in Middle America, mustard is viewed as a weed. In my youth it was pervasive in cultivated crop land where thick swaths of yellow blooms stained the fields of still-green wheat.
Google searches told me what I’d already known: mustard is a plant; not a tree. Yet I was surprised by this as I had assumed that in Israel they must have ‘different’ mustard seeds or something, given the famous Bible analogy of a mustard tree. But even there, mustard is more of a plant; not necessarily a tree. Oh, it can grow into a tall-ish woody shrub in the Middle East. I also learned, in my search, that weary tour guides in Israel will sometimes point at another variety of a tree, when western Christians eagerly ask to see an example of the mustard tree which Jesus referenced.
I would be tempted to respond as those tour guides; especially if those asking about it were some combination of earnestly eager and/or innocently naive.
I learned the truth of Jesus’ analogy through some discernment blogs as well as reading for myself, in context, the Bible verses preceding, and following, the mustard tree analogy. (It is always a good idea to let the Bible interpret the Bible, which, in my opinion, it will do for a sincere seeker if you open it up and read it — in context and in entirety — for your…SELF).
In short: most birds of the air, in biblical terms, are not seen as a good thing. Like yeast, or leaven, they represent compromise, evil, and false or idolatrous religious practices.
Hence Jesus’ followers would have known what He meant. Because it would be like telling a modern day American farmer that the Christian church (that was presently forming) will be like planting a kernel of corn in the ground. But instead of a corn plant sprouting up, a tall tree (both supernatural AND unnatural) will come up in its place. This will be shocking to those who saw the kernel go into the ground. The resulting tree will then grow so large that all sorts of unclean and evil things will find shelter within it.
Let’s just ponder all of that for a minute.
A small and pure beginning quickly morphs into something which it was never intended by its nature to become, yet it is allowed to do just that by the one who planted the seed… It then becomes a safe haven for unclean and evil creatures.
Perhaps this is the point where you don’t want to read any further. You prefer my childhood minister’s explanation of the mustard tree analogy. If so, feel free to write this off as the convolutions of a confused, or negative, or jilted woman, (or whatever); and pledge to never return again to my salty little corner of barely-read intellectual property.
I get it.
The truth is a miserable thing to behold sometimes. It can also scare the pants off a person. Sometime later, after it has made you quite miserable, the truth WILL set you free. Jesus assures us of this. But getting to that point is rough. Too much light can blind you; sometimes we have to gradually walk into hard truths.
And so I studied the mustard tree analogy at work during a slow summer afternoon. Troubled. Deeply troubled, seeing another area where my childhood belief system was filled with…crap. My mind going into a downward swirl — like the wastewater in a flushing toilet. Yet a part of me still unwilling to fully believe what I’d discovered. That mustard-tree-analogy minister from my childhood was so…nice. Loving. Kind. He was my all-time favorite of the half dozen who came and went. How could he have been so off-base? In that frame of mind I drove home and found my yard filled with blackbirds.
Hundreds of blackbirds filled the lawn around my garden and landscaping areas. They were also hovering in the air above the house, circling ominously over the driveway. My children were riding their bicycles in the driveway while my husband grilled dinner on the porch. I parked my car and immediately ushered the children inside; on account of the birds swarming everywhere. “Yeah, Mom, we thought all the birds were weird too. They just appeared out of nowhere!”
If you think, as I did, that coming home and seeing hundreds of blackbirds hovering near your children, on that particular afternoon was affirmation-from-God that Christians need to be very aware of evil as it is gunning for our children, and that Christians need to be married to the truth or we will be caught up in a tangled branch we cannot escape, then I feel your pain at losing something you once found comforting; but hang in there. Push a bit further and it will all be worth it.
As a result of this, and MANY other truth-filled warnings in the Bible, none of us can say we weren’t warned about the days in which we live. Days of evil-hiding-in-plain-sight. Pedophiles and domestic abusers…getting a free pass in the church. Posing pastors, greedy evangelists, businessmen who attend services regularly for networking purposes, and careless elders all too willing to overlook a little evil.
After my initial shock wore off it began to make sense. It laid the foundation for being able to see (several years later) that I wasn’t the one at fault for the abuse which had happened to me in my childhood.
Was I going to hide, myself, like an unclean bird, behind a facade of religious tradition or was I going to stop hiding under anything but the wing of God Almighty, who promised me nothing, not even the gates of hell, would prevail against His (true) church???
Christians often lament the state of the world. This is almost a noble thing to do–share all the tsk-tsk memes on Facebook and idolize any celebrity or athlete who makes mention of God in an interview. Yet it is seen as sacrilegious to lament the fact that evil can hide easily within a church setting. Which is backwards from how the Bible says we need to do it. The world is and was and always will be the world; and we are told not to pay too much attention to its sinfulness; nor to warn or judge it or worry about it. It is the Christian church, and one another within the church, which we are to examine, exhort, encourage, uplift, rebuke, and hold accountable. Those are all actions of love! Sharing Kirk Cameron memes on social media is not biblically mandated. Exhorting a brother or sister whose soul is in danger IS commanded, and can only be done well if one operates in love.
That day that my curiosity about plants led me to search for a photo of a mustard tree changed everything. A decade later I can openly say that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. And that one of my abusers was my uncle–an ordained, grace-based, protestant minister. I cut all contact with him when I (finally) saw the truth, because the Bible tells me that is what I am supposed to do (have nothing to do with them). But I did not cut all contact with the Christian church, even though it has become exactly what Jesus told us it would become.
Rather, I see it as my calling to be planted in some little, relatively safe and true corner of the overgrown branches; continuously having my own sinful heart purified by God’s light and thereby (hopefully) casting light upon what lurks around me as well.