There are some things in life that go hand-in-hand such as peanut butter & jelly, bacon & eggs and ham & cheese. It is true that one can eat either of those foods without the other one, but most people enjoy them as a pair. They refuse to have one without the other. When it comes to interpreting four of the kingdom parables in Matthew thirteen, the same principle comes into play. Here is what I mean. The parables of the mustard seed & leaven work in tandem as do the hidden treasure & the pearl of great price. The individual parables within those pairs complement each other in order to convey the same message. In this entry, I will focus on the mustard seed and leaven parables, and then cover the latter in part two. Jesus speaks the following words to the multitudes and the disciples along the shores of the Galilean Sea:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened'” (Matthew 13:31b-33, ESV).
Throughout the history of the church, two interpretations have surfaced with respect to the parables of the mustard seed and leaven. Both views agree on the following point: the parables represent two sides of the same coin: the mustard seed shows the external quality of the kingdom’s growth while the leaven reveals its internal quality. It is with respect to the nature or character of the growth illustrated in these two parables where the two views oppose each other. For the lack of a better word, the common view is that the parables of the mustard seed and leaven depict the kingdom spreading throughout the world. One variation to this first view goes so far as to teach that these parables portray the eventual Christianization of the world into a golden age of peace and righteousness prior to the Messiah’s second advent. The alternative position to the preceding views understands the mustard seed and leaven parables as picturing the spread of corruption within the kingdom on the earth.
For starters, all of the views agree that the mustard seed stands in for the kingdom while the man represents the Son of Man and the field is the world. The basis for the latter two claims comes from the Lord’s interpretation of the symbols of the man and the field in the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:37-38, ESV). One thing to remember is that Jesus teaches the parables of the sower, the weeds, the mustard seed and leaven as one unit. Outside of his interpretations of the sower and the weeds, the audience is the same for all of them. It is my contention that the Lord seems to be using the same symbols to represent the same things in each parable. If this is not the case, then Jesus is either a bad teacher or setting up his audience for confusion. Should he shift the meaning of the symbols, one would expect the context to suggest it; therefore, I agree with those who interpret the man and the world within the parable of the mustard seed as the Son of Man and the world respectively.
Now, I reject outright the view that says the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven illustrate that there will be a golden age of peace and righteousness during the church age before Christ returns. It is true that the kingdom of heaven had humble beginnings and displayed increasing growth: Christ came in a manger, then he chose the twelve, then the seventy-two, then Pentecost, and up through today. The major flaw with this view is that it demands that the growth necessarily leads to a golden age, which contradicts the main thrust of the parables of the sower and the weeds. The former depicts that only one of the four soils responds to the gospel or the word of the kingdom (Matt 13:8 & 23, ESV). In the parable of the weeds, good and evil grow side-by-side until Christ returns at the end of the age (Matt. 13:30, ESV). Neither the parable of the sower nor the weeds allow for a golden age of peace and righteousness on the earth before the second coming of Christ. The question that remains before us has to do with the nature of the growth depicted in these parables.
Some of my readers might be wondering why I left out the symbol of the birds in the mustard seed parable. I did that on purpose because I think their presence in this parable tips the scales toward the growth being negative rather than positive. In the parable of the sower, Jesus identifies the birds as the evil one, who snatches away the gospel from the hard heart (Matt. 13:4 & 19, ESV). It is my belief that the birds in the parable of the mustard seed either represent the evil one or his emissaries, who nest in the branches of the tree (Matt. 13:32, ESV). This last detail seems innocuous, but it provides key information. These birds are not perching for rest or safety from enemies. They are making nests. This means that the conditions are ripe for allowing them to multiply. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the tree’s or the kingdom’s large size undermines its purity. Bigger is not always better.
If the outward expression of the kingdom in this age allows for birds to nest in its branches, this begs the question regarding the quality of its inner life. This is where the parable of the leaven provides some insight. The popular interpretation states that the woman or the church deposits the gospel into the world (the dough), which permeates it completely like leaven in dough. The loaf of bread rises because of the influence of the Spirit through the gospel. This is a pretty compelling view of this parable, but it is not without problems. First, Jesus speaks to a Jewish audience, and Matthew writes his gospel with the same people in mind. No Israelite in attendance would have viewed both the woman’s actions and the leaven as something positive. In the Old Testament, especially the Torah, leaven always represented either sin or false teaching (Exodus 12:19-20; Leviticus 2:11; Deuteronomy 16:3-4; Hosea 7:3-5; Amos 4:4-5, ESV).
In the New Testament, its authors and teachers utilize leaven in the same way as their Old Testament forbears. Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herod (Matt. 16:11-12; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1, ESV). Paul the apostle uses leaven to illustrate the influence of sin or false teaching within some of the early churches (1 Corinthians 5:6-8 & Galatians 5:7-9, ESV). The second problem with the popular view of the leaven parable is that it completely redefines the actual nature or character of leaven itself. In today’s common vernacular, leaven is equivalent to yeast, which is a fungus. According to science, a fungus like yeast promotes decay in living things, which falls under the classification as a decomposer in the life cycle. Remember one more thing, Christ’s audience was much more agrarian than ours today. Even if they lacked our supposed scientific advancements, they understood their relationship to nature better than us because their entire way of life tied them more closely to its rhythms.
Based on the above two problems, I do not believe that the parable of leaven portrays positive growth. For me, it pictures the influence of false doctrine within the kingdom of this present age. There is one more piece to highlight in order to ram this home. At first glance, the amount of flour leavened by the woman comes off as an extraneous detail. Not so fast my friends. Back in Genesis 18:6, Abraham requests Sarah to make unleavened bread from three seahs of fine flour for their angelic visitors. Abraham presents the unleavened bread to them, which depicts his and Sarah’s profession of faith and worship in God. Now, the amount of flour leavened by the woman in Christ’s parable is the same amount kneaded by Sarah in the Genesis account. Any study bible with cross references will bear this out. What does this mean? Jesus knows the Old Testament, and alludes to this account in Genesis as a clue to assist in the parable’s message. My view is that Jesus seems to be teaching that the church compromises her profession of faith in God to the world by embracing false doctrine.
Alright, so what is the point? The mustard seed parable warns against growth for the sake of growth. Another way to say this is that the ends justify the means. It does not matter what methods church leaders and ministers employ in preaching and teaching, evangelizing, and discipling as long as people keep coming and the church continues growing. The other thing to mention is that one might believe that sizable growth is always an indicator of good, spiritual growth. From my point-of-view, the parable of the mustard seed and the leaven exclude that type of thinking and method of classifying growth. Why do I say this? The presence of the birds in the parable speak to this issue. The same is true of the leaven permeating the dough, which does not rise because there is more. It rises because there is less of it due to the leaven. If there is one main takeaway from the mustard seed and leaven parables, then it is that some growth is not good growth.