The Victorious Underdog: The Parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven

Following is chapter 5 of The Kingdom According to Jesus. You may order the entire study from a number of the nation’s leading booksellers.

Matt. 13:31-33 (HCSB)

31 He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.
32 It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when grown, it’s taller than the vegetables and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.”
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into 50 pounds of flour until it spread through all of it.”

The parable of the mustard seed also is found in Mark 4:30-32 and in Luke 13:18-19.

The parable of the leaven also is found in Luke 13:20-21.

The context

Jesus continues teaching the crowds from a boat at the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Already, he has given them the parable of the sower, and the parable of the wheat and tares. He has explained to His disciples the meaning of the parable of the sower, as well as why He is teaching the mysteries of the kingdom in parables. Later, He will explain the meaning of the parable of the wheat and tares. But for now, He presents two short parables that describe how the kingdom of heaven begins humbly, almost imperceptibly, on earth.

Remember what Jesus has said in Matt. 12:28; it is crucial in understanding His parables in chapter 13: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Jesus declares that the long-awaited kingdom of heaven has come – but not in the way the Jewish leaders were expecting. Rather than as a political and military machine, the kingdom has come quietly and with great spiritual power, invading Satan’s kingdom and binding him (the “strong man” of Matt. 12:29) so that He may plunder the evil one’s kingdom.

The scribes and Pharisees will have none of this teaching and reject the King and His kingdom. So in chapter 13, Jesus leaves Peter’s house and sits beside the sea. Multitudes gather around Him, having witnessed His miracles and having heard His declaration that the kingdom of heaven has come. Jesus gets into a boat – perhaps Peter’s boat or a boat made available for Jesus’ use whenever He needed it – and begins a series of eight parables on the kingdom of heaven. The parables of the mustard seed and leaven are the third and fourth of these parables.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Central theme

The central theme of this parable is that the kingdom of heaven has begun on earth humbly, almost imperceptibly. It is like a tiny, insignificant mustard seed; in fact, to ancient Jews the mustard seed was the proverbial symbol of something of little importance. Nevertheless, it is God’s kingdom and must not be despised or ignored.

It should be noted that some see this parable as an illustration of the monumental growth of the kingdom, from humble beginnings to towering majesty. True, the kingdom starts small, then grows quickly and powerfully. From 120 believers gathered to pray following Jesus’ ascension, the early church grows to more than 3,000 in a single day following Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts. 1:15 and 2:41). Yet this is not the key point of the parable, for Jesus could have used better illustrations, like an oak, to illustrate a sturdy and towering kingdom. His point is to emphasize the “mystery” that the kingdom, as a present reality, is not in the form Jewish leaders are expecting.

George Ladd comments: “The Kingdom of God … is here as something tiny, as something insignificant, as something as small as a mustard seed. The important thing is that even though it is like a tiny seed, it is still the Kingdom of God. Jesus says, ‘Do not let its apparent insignificance deceive you. Do not be discouraged. The time will come when this same Kingdom of God, which is here like the tiny seed, will be a great shrub, so great that the birds of the heaven will come and lodge in its branches’” (The Gospel of the Kingdom, pp. 58-59).

Central character

The mustard seed, or khardah, symbolizes humble beginnings and denotes the smallest of weights and measures.

Details

The great shrub growing from the mustard seed often reaches heights of 10-20 feet within a matter of months. Some say the “birds” symbolize Satan and his evil ones, who find their place in the church. Others say the birds foretell the denominations of Christendom. But more likely, if there is any significance at all, Jesus uses the birds to illustrate the strength and security believers find in the kingdom.

Spiritual application

Nearly 2,000 years after Jesus told this parable, the kingdom of heaven continues to be more like a mustard seed than a towering tree. But believers should look up. Christ reigns today in the hearts of men, and His kingdom is growing. One day it will be impossible to ignore.

The Parable of the Leaven

Central theme

The central theme of this parable is the same as the theme of the parable of the mustard seed: The kingdom of heaven has begun on earth humbly, almost imperceptibly. For background, note that the Hebrew housewife could not buy a yeast cake at the corner market. She had to take a piece of dough that already was leavened and put it in a batch of unleavened dough, where it would do it work without fanfare.

There are two general interpretations of this parable, both of which miss the main point. First, some say the parable illustrates the gradual but complete spread of the kingdom. Certainly, it’s true that yeast works its way through the dough until the entire lump is leavened. And it’s true that the kingdom of heaven reaches around the world one heart at a time until people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” become its citizens (Rev. 5:9). But the main point of Jesus’ parable has to do with the imperceptible nature of the kingdom; it is not now here in power and glory, as the Jewish leaders expected; rather it hides itself in people’s hearts and comes quietly through its King, a Galilean carpenter.

The second interpretation of this parable is that it illustrates the spread of false teachings throughout the kingdom, since leaven in scripture normally typifies impurity or evil. It is true that Jesus warned His followers about the leaven of the Pharisees (hypocrisy), Sadducees (rationalism) and Herodians (worldliness) [see Matt. 16:6-12; 22:16-21, 23, 29; 23:27-28; Mark 8:15]. However, as with the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus’ point is to show His followers that the kingdom has already come, but not in the way they expected – not as a glorious political and military machine led by a conquering king, but as transformation of the human heart made possible by a Suffering Servant.

Central character

The kingdom, Jesus said, is like leaven. So leaven, not the dough or the woman who kneads it, is the central character. The kingdom of heaven, as God’s reign, is good; therefore, leaven cannot symbolize evil in this context, even though it normally does in other scripture passages. The leaven in Jesus’ day consisted of a piece of fermented dough kept over from the former baking. This preserved lump of dough either was dissolved in water in the kneading trough before the flour was added, or was “hidden” in the flour and kneaded along with it, as in the case of this parable.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia helps draw the distinction: “The figurative uses of leaven in the New Testament, no less than with the rabbis, reflect the ancient view of it as ‘corrupt and corrupting,’ in parts at least, e.g. Mt 16:6 parallel, and especially the proverbial saying twice quoted by Paul, ‘A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump’ (1Cor 5:6f; Gal 5:9). But as Jesus used it in Mt 13:33, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven,’ it is clearly the hidden, silent, mysterious but all-pervading and transforming action of the leaven in the measures of flour that is the point of the comparison.”

Details

This is such a simple parable that we risk clouding the message by treating it as an allegory. It is true that the woman is used figuratively in scripture three ways: as a kingdom (Babylon, for example), a city (Jerusalem), and the church (both the true church and the apostate church). Some would argue that the woman in this parable symbolizes the apostate church, which hides her false teachings among true teachings and thus permeates the entire body of Christ with “doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). Others would argue that the dough signifies the church, or the fellowship believers have with God; both are corrupted by false teachings. But assigning these meanings to the woman and the dough misses the point and fails to recognize that a parable has one simple lesson, not many hidden meanings. So it’s best for us to consider the details as “window dressing” and focus on the simple message of this parable: that the kingdom of heaven is among us, but not in the way it was anticipated.

Spiritual application

Though the kingdom of heaven is within the hearts of believers today and its King is not reigning outwardly, Christians should take heart. The King of kings and Lord of lords will return one day in power and great glory, just as surely as the yeast will permeate the dough and rise in the oven.

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