Field Notes From The Past (15): The mustard ‘tree’



Black Mustard
Brassica nigra

Flowers–Bright yellow, fading pale….
Preferred Habitat–Roadsides, fields, neglected gardens.
Flowering Season–June–November.
Distribution–Common throughout our area; naturalized from Europe and Asia.

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field: which indeed is less than all seeds; but when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.”

Commentators differ as to which is the mustard of the parable–this common Black Mustard, or a rarer shrub–like tree (Salvadora persica), with an equivalent Arabic name, a pungent odor, and a very small seed. Inasmuch as the mustard which is systematically planted for fodder by Old World farmers grows with the greatest luxuriance in Palestine, and the comparison between the size of its seed and the plant’s great height was already proverbial in the East when Jesus used it, evidence strongly favors this wayside weed. Indeed, the late Doctor Royle, who endeavored to prove that it was the shrub that was referred to, finally found that it does not grow in Galilee.

–Neltje Blanchan, 1917

At this point I was intrigued (and somewhat disappointed) by the fact that the mustard of the parable was the shrub and not the tree! So I kept investigating about the parable itself. I found this:

One typically thinks of a shrub rather than a mustard “tree”, so that Jesus seems deliberately to emphasize the notion of astonishing extravagance in his analogy. This idea is furthered by the detail that birds nest in the branches of this tree–a possible allusion to several Old Testament texts emphasizing the bounty of God’s favor and the universal reach of God’s empire. Why is this point not made with reference, say, to the mighty cedar of Lebanon? No doubt, this is grounded in the dissonance of Jesus’ message: God’s kingdom is established through means other than the coercive power and intrigue usually associated with the establishment of a new order, and his dominion purposefully seeks out persons who do not represent the socially powerful and privileged.

–Joel B. Green, 1997



–Green, J. B. (1997). The gospel of Luke. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

–Blanchan, N. (1917). Canadian Wild Flowers Worth Knowing. Doubleday, Doran & compay.


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