What Jesus Really Said:
31 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. 32 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.”
33 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.” 1
Have you ever found yourself making over-the-top statements to make a point? “If you kids do that one more time, I’m going to explode!” Or, “The 1980s called; they want their hairdo back.” Jesus’ parables contain over-the-top examples as well. We find that in the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven this morning.
Over the summer, we are studying some of Jesus’ parables. The parables can be grouped into three basic subjects: kingdom parables, grace parables, and judgment parables. As their name suggests, kingdom parables are Jesus’ direct teachings about the Kingdom of God as a present, earthly reality. In effect, Jesus is saying, “The Kingdom of God is here; deal with it!”
UNIVERSALITY, PRESENCE, MYSTERY, RESPONSE
The problem for all of us is that this Kingdom doesn’t look at all powerful in the way we understand “power” – particularly not in 21st century America. Even the Sower parable, on its face, pictures a kind of worldly weakness: ¾ of the seeds don’t make it to harvest. In the Seed parable, the tiny seed does what it does all of its own power without any help from the farmer who has no clue what causes seeds to turn into plants.
In the Wheat parable we read last week, the wheat still grows of its own accord, but it grows right alongside darnel (poisonous “false wheat”). Worse yet, the farmer tells his workers to let the weeds grow instead of chopping off the immature weed seeds to stop problem right then and there.
The kind of Kingdom power at work in the world is indirect power, hidden, mysterious. What Martin Luther called, “left-handed” power. It lets weeds grow unmolested with the wheat and forbids any well-meaning-but-ultimately-harmful intervention by the workers. The Kingdom’s power is totally contrary to direct, take-the-bull-by-the-horns, right-handed power. It’s upside-down from how you and I normally deal with life, the universe, and everything.
The Kingdom parables contain four themes: universality/catholicity (the kingdom is not confined to any national boarder); actuality/presence (the Kingdom of God is here right now; deal with it); mystery/left-handedness (it grows and works in an unknown, upside-down way); and, hostility/response (Israel’s leaders hate it; the disciples can’t understand it; it attracts all the “wrong” kind of people).
Wheat and Weeds
We saw these ideas at work in the Wheat parable last week. Not only was the good seed of the kingdom sown into the world, so was the bad seed; both the Kingdom of God and the seed of the enemy are borderless, universal, and present. Both grow in an unseen, mysterious fashion from seed. Both are present in the same field at the same time; but the weeds do not hinder the wheat from doing what it does. The good seed keeps on growing.2
There is the note of a hostile response to the presence of God’s Kingdom. The enemy comes and sows evil under the cover of darkness in an unexpected, hidden way. There is a puzzled response from the Kingdom workers (“Didn’t you sow good seed?”) that results in their idea that our own moral works are necessary to God’s plan of salvation (“Let’s go cut the weeds down right now.”) – because we are all hard-wired for moral superiority and head-on fighting rather than for forgiveness and forbearance.3
Jesus tells us only the farmer knows how to deal successfully with evil during both the growing season and the harvest. In the here and now, he deals with it by forbearance and by forgiveness [ἀφίημι] while these two mysterious kingdoms are intermingled.4 Even the right-handed Final Judgment, the great harvest day, is possible only by means of the mystery of the Resurrection.
The Final Judgment, Heaven, and Hell all happen within the triumphantly reconciling power of Christ’s death and resurrection (Col. 1:20). Resurrection is not a reward for the chosen few; it is the only game there is for of all humanity at the end of the growing season and the consummation of all things. 5
THE MUSTARD SEED
Over the Top
In the Mustard Seed and Leaven parables, Jesus slaps our ears to get our attention; he uses some over-the-top imagery to communicate the upside-down nature of this left-handed Kingdom in which God dying on a Roman cross is considered the greatest victory the universe has ever known. Even his triumphant resurrection from a garden tomb is a limited-engagement performance to only about 200 people over a few weeks.
In these two parables, Jesus pictures two over-the-top things: a spice bush becoming a tree; and, a huge lump of dough being leavened. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the parable of the Mustard Seed, though Mark and Luke begin with Jesus posing the question regarding how to picture the Kingdom. Jesus was a traveling preacher, using the same parables in different towns. So slightly different wordings in three different gospel accounts shouldn’t bother us because the story itself is exactly the same in all three of the synoptic gospels.
Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Again, he tells us the seed is directly sown. It grows from itself and not some secondary cause. In Mark 4:31 Jesus says the Kingdom, “31…is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth….”6 In Matthew and Luke, Jesus says the mustard plant becomes a tree.
Many scholars take Jesus’ words literally and do a great deal of agricultural gymnastics in an attempt to prove that mustard seeds are really small and mustard plants really can grow to tree-like heights. But parables are non-literal stories intended to prove a literal point. Mustard seeds are not the smallest of seeds and mustard plants don’t grow into trees.
I have a fruiting mulberry tree in my back yard. Every Spring it sets fruit with tiny seeds embedded on the outside of the fruit (like a strawberry). Each one of those tiny seeds is a potential tree as huge as the one that turns my dogs purple for a few weeks every year. Jesus made mulberry trees by the power of his Word; but he chose to illustrate his point in this parable with a much larger seed that grows into a garden bush. My point is, his language in this parable is “over-the-top,” attention-getting language of comparison.
It’s likely Jesus is poking Israel’s religious leaders in the ears with these over-the-top statements. They want to kill him and they’re hanging on every word he speaks looking to convict him of blasphemy or sedition. Jesus is wearing them out as they look for allegorical or literal meanings in every word the Lord speaks and every type and symbol he uses. “What does he mean by mustard seed? Mustard seeds aren’t’ THAT small. They don’t grow into trees. This guy really is as crazy as his family thinks he is!”
“O he’s not crazy,” says a Pharisee. “He means something alright. Mustard is spicy and bitter. But it’s really great with pastrami on rye. There’s some hidden meaning there. Those nesting birds are bound to mean something sinister; that’s for sure. Send these words back to Jerusalem. Let’s see what our Rabbis can come up with.”
What’s the Point?
Jesus wants to bog his haters down in the swamp of allegorical interpretation, where every word has some higher and hidden meaning. But he really only has one or two main points in his kingdom parables, and the Mustard Seed parable is no exception.
Some very respected 19th and 20th century preachers and commentators read this parable as Jesus’ warning that the Church will grow unnaturally large, full of liberal theologians, false teachers and make believers. So the birds of the air are predators within the Church.7 While those are true observations of the Church in our time, they treat Jesus’ parable as an allegory to make points Jesus himself doesn’t teach. “The real point of the parable is the marvelous discrepancy between the hiddenness of the kingdom at its sowing and the lush, manifest exuberance of it in its final, totally successful fruition.”8
The Kingdom of God is NOT America. The Kingdom of God is not even the modern American Church. It’s not even the conservative, bible-believing American Church. No politician and no human actions (moral or immoral) can threaten God’s Kingdom. No church leader can advance it or harm it. No false theology can threaten it. It grows just fine all on its own under the sovereign decree and watchful, loving care of King Jesus.
No, all we get in the parable of the Mustard Seed is a peaceable, unshakeable kingdom. The sun is shining. The birds are building nests in its shelter and shade, chirping away happily. There are no hints of hostility encouraging you to defend the Mustard Tree or even cooperate with it in order to help it grow.9
THE LEAVENED DOUGH
Allegorical Sandwich Anyone?
To drive home that point, Matthew slathers on the parable of the Leaven (the yeast). 33 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.” 10
We heard about mustard. Now we hear about bread. Getting hungry yet? If there were parables about corned beef and sauerkraut to follow, we could have a great time examining how the Kingdom is like a Ruben Sandwich.
We could probably allegorize ourselves up an entire deli plate given enough time and imagination and scholarly gymnastics. After all, corned beef is pickled with mustard seeds and depends on a fermentation process, as does the bread we’re examining. So do dill pickles and sauerkraut (as does the vinegar mixed into the French Dressing, which also contains mustard).
Yeast in the Kingdom
But, I digress from the text at hand (allegorizing is downright fun, isn’t it?). The image of dough Jesus gives us is “over-the-top” all on its own without allegorizing. It too, may be intended to slap a Pharisaical ear or two because he compares the work of his Kingdom to the work of yeast. And every good Law-keeping Jew knew yeast was a symbol, a type, for sin in the Mosaic Ceremonial Law.
Yet here is Jesus publically proclaiming that God’s Kingdom is like yeast, or leaven. “What?” Say many modern scholars, intent on a literal word-for-word meaning. “Jesus is clearly warning us to guard against the rise of liberalism in the modern church because yeast means sin.” Well, yeast doesn’t always mean sin in the OT, but it is used as a type, a picture of sin in the Ceremonial Law.11
Typology is different than allegory. Types have very clear scriptural meaning, most often explicitly pointed by scripture (scripture interprets scripture). We know that animal sacrifice is a type, a picture, of Christ and his cross work. “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Allegory, however, is not tied back to scripture; it can mean whatever the “interpreter” want it to mean.
Leaven has a strong enough typological association with sin to keep the Rabbis back in Jerusalem busy banging their heads against a wall trying to invent death-worthy interpretations of Jesus’ teachings. It has enough sin-association to make modern, well-meaning conservative scholars desperately want to inject modern Western Church problems and right-handed solutions into the grammatical-historical context of Jesus’ time in the same way they argue that large mustard “trees” and “bird of the air” are predictions of modern church problems (we call that “anachronism” in literature, by the way).
Powerless Passover Practice
You may recall God’s command to the Israelites to celebrate Passover with unleavened bread and to remove all the leaven out of their homes (Ex. 12:15). Now, the Exodus text merely tells the people to remove their leavened dough from their houses. But that command morphed into a cultural rule of scrubbing down one’s entire house to rid it of yeast – something utterly impossible to do since yeast is a microscopic airborne organism.
To this day, Orthodox Jews work to scrub away the yeast as Passover preparation. Yet they celebrate the feast with wine; and wine is made with yeast; and yeast is still present in the wine no matter how much one tries to filter it out. So, as long as we’re talking about typology (NOT allegorizing) we can look at Exodus 12:15 this way: no matter how hard you scrub, you cannot get rid of sin.
Only the One who knew no sin and became sin for us can scrub you clean from the leaven of all your sins. I never said typology couldn’t result, eventually, in sound doctrine, merely that allegorizing (assigning every word in a text a higher, hidden meaning) it’s not the proper way to interpret scripture – ‘yeast’ of all Jesus’ parables.
But enough about allegorizing. Can we really have ENOUGH allegorizing? It’s SO tempting for making really good points, after all.
IF leaven is to be taken typologically as “sin” in this parable, then Jesus is saying his Kingdom becomes totally corrupt (completely contradicting the wheat/darnel imagery). The rise of liberalism in American and European mainline denominations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created an anachronistic, pessimistic, and contradictory-to-the-text interpretation for fundamentalists to make a good-but-unrelated point in a bad way. Jesus isn’t predicting the downfall of the professing Church in 21st century Western culture; he’s trying to comfort us with a picture of an unstoppable, ever-growing Kingdom of God.12
More likely, Jesus is making a comparison he intends to be shocking to Israel’s leaders and grab his disciples’ attention. The leaders of Israel certainly see Jesus as “bad,” or “leaven.” It’s likely Jesus is saying, “You think I’m evil and you can scrub me out of your house like Passover yeast. Hide and watch as I leaven the whole world with my Kingdom.” And to emphasize the borderless universality of his Kingdom, Jesus pictures a shocking amount of dough.
Jesus pictures a woman taking a leavened piece of dough (not a modern package of dried yeast but a yeast-laden lump of dough) and working it into a bushel of flour. That’s 128 cups worth; 16 five-pound bags – not to mention the 42 cups of water to make the flour into dough. All that will make just over 101 POUNDS of dough, enough to feed an entire village for a few days.13
See the “over-the-top-ness” of Jesus’ “in your face” statement? His Kingdom is huge, as unstoppable as yeast, as certain to work as leavened dough is to rise, and as substantial as 101-pound ball of dough! We don’t need to allegorize it with pessimism. We need to marvel at it and rest in the fact of its total inevitability!
If we’re looking for scripture support to help us with this yeasty parable, we need look no farther than John’s Gospel. Jesus’ first miracle, at the wedding of Cana, turned ordinary water used for ceremonial cleansing into the best wine – evidence of good yeast, a picture of the Kingdom, which at the same time desecrated the unscriptural ceremonial washing jars of the Pharisees (Jn. 2:1-22). “In your face, Pharisees!”
Next, John shows us Jesus feeding 5,000 people with a huge amount of bread (Jn. 6:1-15). Then John records this remarkably-clear passage that teaches us what Jesus means by the parable of the Leaven (6:25-35). When the skeptics ask him for something more than a mere bread miracle, we will hear how Jesus’ responds:
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea [following the great bread delivery], they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you trust into him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and trust you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever trusts into me shall never thirst.
The interesting thing about leavened dough is that it grows, it rises, because the yeast eats the sugar and breaths out CO2 gas. You and I breathe out carbon dioxide too. Jesus’ dough picture suggests all kinds of delicious biblical imagery: the CO2 of rising dough; the breath of God breathed into Adam; Jesus breathing the Spirit into his disciples; the mighty wind of Acts 2; the preaching of the Word breathed out of the lungs Christ’s preachers – all the imagery of life.
God chooses his means of grace to be the most accessible material things: water, bread, wine, and words breathed. These are the tools God’s Spirit uses to till his garden, to grow a tiny seed into a mighty tree as unexpected as a giant mustard bush, or a giant lump of dough turned into food for countless masses until the end of the age.
1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:31–33.
2 Capon, 94-95.
4 Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 509.
5 Capon, 96.
6 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 4:31.
7 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 241. See also: G. Campbell Morgan, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York; Chicago; Toronto; London; Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), 102. For a take on what nesting birds likely means, see: R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 526–527. France sees a connection to the imagery of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom dream in Daniel 4.
8 Capon, 99.
10 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:31–33.
11 “…though yeast is normally associated with evil in the OT, this is not always so (cf. Lev. 7:13; 23:15–18). Metaphors may have diverse uses” (D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 319).
12 See: Justin Taylor, “10 Key Events: Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in 20th Century America.” Accessed 6/22/16 at: https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2014/04/08/10-key-events-fundamentalism-and-evangelicalism-in-20th-century-america/
13 Capon, 100.