This post last updated on May 23rd, 2022
Jesus had a way with words. Makes sense because he is the Word of life (John 1:1). Unfortunately though, his audience didn’t always like his teaching and they typically wanted to arrest, beat, or even kill him when he was done talking.
Jesus often taught using parables. Great, but what’s a parable? Fair question, really. A parable is an illustrative story that communicates an important lesson or a fundamental principle.
You’ll find these in the Gospels, and Matthew’s has quite the collection of parables taught by Jesus.
Sometimes they make perfect sense, clear as day. And sometimes you really need to stop and think long and hard on what he’s teaching. Fortunately, Jesus frequently goes on to explain a lot of them.
The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are 2 of them that he did not explain, and maybe you already understand them. Or maybe you just like a little more clarification about mustard seeds, leaven and the Kingdom of God.
Jesus and the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven
Remember, context is everything when studying the Bible. So here it is in it’s entirety.
He put another parable before them, saying, “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 13:31-33 (ESV)
Let’s take a closer look and start with the mustard seed.
Mustard and the Kingdom of Heaven
When I was in England, I discovered a fondness for English mustard. That stuff is powerful! Some types of British mustard are powder in a tin. You mix it with water and you could produce some mustard that will make you cry. Literally!
The point is that mustard can be quite potent. And a little bit goes a long way.
So have you ever seen the little seed that all of this wonderful spiciness comes from? These things are tiny!
First, see how Jesus begins and ends the mustard seed parable. Quick and to the point. However, not all teachers agree on the meaning of the message.
Where most scholars do agree are on the points of the church having small beginnings and quickly growing far reaching branches. This can be illustrated by the rapid growth of a mustard plant, which can stand up to 10 feet tall after having started with “the smallest of seeds.”
Birds in the Bush
So then we ask, are the branches of the parable’s mustard tree illustrative of the global reach of the church? Seems reasonable, but who are the birds nesting in the branches?
Some teach that they are Gentiles taking refuge, or they’re the “sinners” that Jesus made friends and shared meals with. Others even suggest that the birds represent false teachers that have become part of the church.
Here’s something to think about. His parable is about the kingdom of God and is illustrated by the seed. (“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed”). Seeds take root in the ground, which in this illustration is the kingdom placing it’s root in the world. Until it grows, a mustard seed in any field is far outweighed and out sized by anything else you’d find there. The church has without doubt had an enormous impact on the world, especially if you consider it’s beginning.
Personally, I don’t believe that the birds in this parable are false teachers infiltrating the church. What makes me think so is the words that Jesus used to describe them saying, “so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
And then there’s the impact of God’s kingdom on an individual life. A tiny seed of faith planted in a heart that grows to mountain-moving potential.
He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”Matthew 17:20 (ESV)
Clearly Jesus used the mustard seed and tree as an illustration that his kingdom, though from a tiny start, would grow quickly and that it’s reach would be far and wide.
The Kingdom of God and Bread Dough
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 13:33 (ESV)
Leaven is an ingredient that you would add to dough to cause it to rise. Like mustard, a little bit can have a big impact.
So Jesus immediately gives a second illustration of what “the kingdom of heaven is like.” Honestly, I’ve often lumped the 2 parables together because of their proximity and they both seem to illustrate the same thing. Right?
But wait. If you think about other places leaven is used as an illustration, it’s never a good thing.
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”Matthew 16:6
Or the time Paul wrote about sexual immorality desecrating the church.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.1 Corinthians 5:6-7
And then we return to Jesus talking about leaven and his kingdom like it’s a good thing! My point being that context is really interesting and something to definitely pay attention to while reading your Bible.
So what is he saying here anyway? First, we have to notice that he actually is on the same topic: the expansion of his kingdom.
A Little Goes a Long Way
If you’ve never worked with leavening agents or any yeast-like ingredient, you sprinkle that stuff in. If you get too much into your mix, your bread will rise too big, too fast and it will be full of air and you’ll end up with holes where bread should be.
That makes me think about the Christian life or even a church that’s out of balance. Too much of this or not enough of that and inside there are vacancies and emptiness where something substantial should be.
Also interesting is that Jesus was specific to use “three measures of flour.” A measure in this context was called a saton in Greek. One of those is 7 kilos, or just over 16 pounds. That makes 3 measures 21 kilos, or about 50 pounds of flour! That’s enough dough to feed well over 100 people.
The parable of the kingdom, the flour and the leaven then shows us that God’s kingdom will start small and spread quickly. The right ingredients and the correct proportions are in place with Jesus and his Holy Spirit.
Something to think about from a very short but meaningful parable. Mustard is powerful, leaven penetrates, and a little of either will go a long way.
How will you allow his kingdom to permeate your heart and impact your life today, tomorrow, and after?