The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven – Matthew 13:31-33

By Ron Latulippe on June 24, 2012
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The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven   Matthew 13.31-33



-“Like” parables are similes. This is similar to that.

-No developed plot. We are not to analyze the meaning of each part of the parable but take it as a whole.



-Mustard Seed: growth of church, life of Jesus, personal spiritual growth.

-Leaven in Flour: Mary, Church, Twelve apostles, Christian doctrine, Bible. Trinity and Asia-Africa-Europe

-Birds and Leaven represent corruption in the present Kingdom of God.



-Mustard Seed: Black mustard, not technically smallest but smallest of garden herbs, germinates and grows quickly to 10 to 15 feet with broad leaves.

-Leaven in Flour: leaven is fermented dough used for the next batch, little less than a bushel and required 3 to 4 pounds of leaven and made 100 to 150 loaves of bread.


Teaching of the Parable

-Jesus told this parable to prepare his disciples for a long but steady and certain growth of the Kingdom of God.

-Mustard Seed: what begins small will one day be a great Kingdom. The greatness of the Kingdom is shown by the birds in the shade and making nests in the branches. Ezekiel 21.6; Daniel 4.12, 21

-The Leaven in Flour: what begins small will permeate the whole.



Not Universalism or Dominionism. 1) Assurance that we are on the winning side. 2) Encouragement that we are incrementally adding to the growth of the Kingdom. 3) Our small obediences may have major consequences. Zechariah 4.10.



The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven

Matthew 13.31-33

Both of these parables, the mustard seed growing into a tree with birds in the branches, and the leaven permeating the three measures of flour, are familiar to us. They are both “like” parables. Another term often used to describe “like” parables is the term simile. The Kingdom of God is similar to such and such. Another way to distinguish between a parable where the parts are to be closely studied for what they represent and a simile where the whole description is to be taken together is to look for the development of a plot in the parable. In these two “like” parables there is not development of plot and so we need to interpret that parable as a whole and not try to identify what each part of the parable represents. We are not to ask what the birds in the branches represent or what the yeast represents.


The parable of the mustard seed has been interpreted in many ways. It has been interpreted as the growth of the church from Pentecost to its future glorification; as the development of Jesus from Bethlehem to His glorification in at the right hand of the Father; and as representing the individual spiritual growth of the Christian. The principle used in each of these interpretations, that something small will grow into something large and glorious, is indeed correct but the parable of the mustard seed is not about the church, or Jesus, or individual maturity in Christ. It is about the Kingdom of God.


The same can be said of the parable of the leaven in the measure of flour. While the parable of the mustard seed clearly emphasizes the small becoming great, the parable of the leaven emphasizes the small permeating the whole. In the past the leaven has been interpreted as Mary, the Church, the twelve apostles, Christian doctrine, and the Bible. The interpretation of the three measures of flour have ranged from the Trinity to Asia-Africa and Europe. Again the parable as a whole is about the Kingdom of God.


One very interesting interpretation of these two parables, which to my surprise is taught by two well known Bible teachers I read this week, is that these parables are about the corruption of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew 13 these two parables follow the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. In that parable, which is not a simile and has a developed plot, all the parts of the parable are explained by Jesus to the disciples. There is good seed and bad seed and both are allowed to grow together until the end of the age. Taking a lead from this parable these commentators take the birds in the parable of the mustard seed and the leaven in the parable of the leaven and the flour as representing evil that corrupts the present Kingdom of God. They add to these three parables the parable of the drag net at the end of Matthew 13 with its mixture of good and bad fish as a final confirmation that these two parables are part of a group of parables that teach that corruption will be part of the Kingdom of God while it is growing.


The teaching of corruption being part of the present Kingdom of God is true and that is what is taught in the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds but I do not believe that is what is taught in these two parables.


What these commentators have done is taken these two similes as developed parables and interpreted the birds and the leaven as symbols of corruption. Birds and leaven often represent evil in the Bible but not in every case and in this case they do not. They are part of the whole analogy of the Kingdom of God. More later on the birds and the leaven.

We must be careful in our study to understand what Jesus is saying in these two parables. Jesus is not making an elaborate statement full of symbolic meanings in these parables. He is stating a very simple truth but a truth that impacts time and eternity.


Here is some background information on these two parables before we look at what they are teaching us. The parable states that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. Mark goes so far as to say that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds on the earth. Jesus is speaking of the Black mustard seed. Technically the Black mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world. There are some seeds that are smaller than the Black mustard seed such as some orchids, petunias, and begonias. Gloria bought a bag of celery seed this week and those are small seeds. Some of the orchid seeds are not even visible to the naked eye.


When Jesus made this statement about the smallness of the Black mustard seed he was not speaking absolutely but relative to the agriculture and culture he was addressing. You will notice if you read this parable in Matthew and Mark that Jesus compares the mustard seed to all the rest of the herbs and garden plants. The mustard seed was well known for its smallness in comparison to all the rest of the seeds they planted. Proverbially in that culture one would compare something to a mustard seed to show how small it was. Remember how Jesus said that faith the size of a mustard seed was sufficient to move a mountain (Matthew 17.20). The standard for small was the mustard seed.


The Black mustard seed germinates within 5 days and grows quickly to a height of 10 to 15 feet. It can easily be called a tree even though technically it is a large bush. The tree has large leaves especially at the base and provides shade for birds, a place to make nests in its branches, and food from the seeds produced. The mustard seed fits with the truth Jesus wanted to teach.


In the second parable the leaven is put within three measures of flour. Leaven is not the same as yeast. Leaven is fermented dough that is kept aside from one batch of dough to be used to leaven the next batch of dough. Yeast is what we add to dough to cause the leavening process.


In that Jewish culture women were expected to make bread for their husbands and families. Baking bread was one of seven chores a woman must perform for her husband as recorded in the Mishnah, which is the interpretation of the Law of Moses. I thought you might want the whole list of these seven chores a woman must perform for her husband so here is the list: Grind flour, bake, launder, cook, nurse her son, make ready the husband’s bed, and work at the wool.


Women often baked together in groups. The amount of flour mentioned in this parable is a little less than a bushel. This would require three to four pounds of leaven and would make from 100 to 150 loaves of bread. It would take one woman all day to knead this much flour.


It is important at this point to ask why Jesus told these two parables? The Jewish people were expecting the Messiah to come and establish the Kingdom of God with power and to bring in the renewed rule of King David with even greater glory than David’s kingdom had. They were looking to Jesus to do this. His miraculous power and supernatural ability and his capacity to attract a following all pointed to the establishment of the expected Kingdom of God. Jesus had already taught them that the Kingdom of God had come with his coming and they were expecting the fullness of that Kingdom soon. In the light of the cross and their coming disappointment, Jesus wanted to reassure them and teach them that his Kingdom would indeed come with power and glory but not as they were expecting. The full Kingdom of God would come later than sooner. The Kingdom would grow steadily but slowly until it reached its fullness but it was certain to reach its fullness. It would start very small but eventually dominate everything and everyone. When people later pointed to the insignificance of Jesus’ ministry, and especially after his death, these parables would give the disciples a foundation for their faith in what God was doing in the face of an insurmountable task.


In some ways we still find ourselves in the circumstances of the early church. Today it often appears that evil is growing and winning and dominating and that the Kingdom of God will not rule and dominate the nations and peoples as God promised. These two parables are an encouragement to us if we truly believe what Jesus said is true. We also need to remind ourselves that what is happening in North America is not typical of what God is doing in the rest of the world. Many are coming to Christ from all religious backgrounds all over the world and the Kingdom of God is growing. It also continues to experience much opposition.


In the first parable the smallest of seeds, the Black mustard seed, when planted grows into a large tree like bush, and the birds come and find shade under its leaves and make nests in its branches. What begins as the smallest of seeds becomes the largest of plants. Now let us think about the birds for a few moments. They are finding shade and nesting in the tree. The focus in this parable is not on what the birds represent but in the fact that the birds are finding shade and nesting in the tree.


In the OT we have a few pictures of birds finding shade and nesting in trees. The trees represent large kingdoms and the birds represent the nations under the dominion of the King over that kingdom. Turn to Ezekiel 31.6 for an example. [Read] This is speaking of Pharaoh king of Egypt and his great kingdom which rules and shelters the nations. A more familiar picture is found for us in Daniel 4.12, 21 [Read]. This is a dream of Nebuchadnezzar which pictures him as a great king over a great kingdom. So what Jesus is saying in this parable with the birds finding shade and nesting in the branches is that the expected end of his present ministry is the establishment of the Kingdom of God that will rule over all peoples and all nations.


The same is true with regard to the leaven in the flour. The leaven does not represent anything in particular but pictures the permeating effect of the Kingdom of God. What starts as insignificant eventually influences the whole batch of flour.


These are simple but profound truths.


Let me close with two warnings and an application. These parables do not teach Universalism. The flour is not the world that will eventually be completely converted by the leaven of the Gospel. The mustard tree does not pull everyone into the Kingdom of God. Universalism is the belief that all people will be part of the Kingdom of God at the end of time. God’s Love and Grace will eventually sweep all people into His Kingdom. The Bible teaches that some people will be lost because they do not put their faith in Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God will rule over all but not all will be in the Kingdom of God. Some will spend eternity in hell. That is the first warning.


The second warning is against the teaching of Dominionism. Christianity and the Church have always been at the forefront of helping the poor, defending the oppressed, providing justice for those who could not defend themselves. Many of the unions, hospitals, universities and educational organizations, and social institutions were founded by Christians. Much of our law and ethics is based on the Bible. We have all heard of the Christian work ethic which has caused our society to prosper. Democracy is a Christian concept. Christianity and the Church have had a great impact upon our culture. Dominionism teaches that Christianity and the Church will so influence education and governments that the Kingdom of God will be ushered into this present world. Dominionism works hand in hand with the New Age movement and compromises Biblical truth for the sake of peace on earth and good will toward mankind. Dominionism is not the plan outlined in the book of Revelation for the ushering in of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God comes with the violent overthrow of evil by the return of Jesus Christ.


What can the teaching of these parables do for me today? 1) It gives me the assurance that I am on the winning side. One day the Kingdom of God will dominate over all and God’s purposes will be fulfilled. 2) It encourages me that what I am doing today is incrementally adding to the final purpose of God’s Kingdom. 3) Finally as it says in Zechariah 4.10, “Despise not the day of small things”. Be faithful in the small tasks that you do. Don’t worry that you are not an important person who is recognized for what you do, just do what God has called you to do. You do not know what influence that will have on the Kingdom of God. When I was just a new convert and returned to Canada I saw an ad in the Welland Tribune about a special meeting at Rosedale Baptist Church and came here for that meeting. Pastor Beerman asked me if I might give my testimony that night. When I came to the front and turned around to speak I saw Miss Moore. Miss Moore told all the children in the neighborhood Bible stories and then gave us candy. She had these great books of pictures for all the Bible stories. She prayed for us kids and was a powerful influence in building up the Kingdom of God. I attended Rosedale for awhile but eventually started attending a church in St Catharines. A friend of mine invited me to the Dunville Baptist youth group. On the way he asked if we could stop to visit a sick Pastor and to deliver a cake which his mom had made. This was Pastor Muir. I sensed the presence of God in a powerful way in that house. Soon he moved to Rosedale and so did I and now I am the pastor here. Do not despise the day of small things but be faithful and trust God as He builds His Kingdom.

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