This is Part 3 in a series about reclaiming the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings (Part 2 here). Today I’ll cover three parables: The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, and Luke 13:18-19), The Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21), and The Parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29).
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in the shade of its big branches.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.
This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.
Jesus used The Parable of the Weeds to warn the disciples that for every person who heard the Gospel and got saved, another person would reject the Gospel. Similarly, Jesus used The Parable of the Sower to warn the disciples that only a very small percentage of those who heard the Gospel would be saved. Not exactly an inspiring pep talk, huh?
However, Jesus did give the disciples a ray of hope, because He said that of those who got saved, they would produce a thirty-, a sixty-, or even a hundredfold return for the Kingdom. That’s like getting a 3,000%, a 6,000%, or even a 10,000% return on an investment! Now that’s more like it.
Today’s parables are even more encouraging. For example, The Parable of the Growing Seed reminds us that a farmer does the part that he can control (plow, seed, and water), but only God can grow the seed. In much the same way, God has charged us to do the part that we can control (preach, serve, and disciple), but only He can save someone and grow them into a mature Christian (1 Corinthians 3:5-9 and Philippians 1:6). Then, we get to celebrate the harvest in Heaven with our spiritual brothers and sisters.
The Parable of the Leaven explains how a tiny pinch of yeast can permeate a huge batch of dough. The yeast works through the entire batch from the inside out, and it has a beneficial effect, resulting in a lighter, tastier loaf of bread. In much the same way, the Kingdom of God started with a small group of disciples, and it will eventually fill the entire world during the Millennial Kingdom. Also, the Gospel doesn’t influence by enforcing a code of conduct; instead it changes people from the inside out. In addition, the Gospel has a beneficial effect on civilization, as you can easily see from the much greater freedoms people enjoy in countries where Christianity has had a strong influence.
Finally, The Parable of the Mustard Seed is very similar to The Parable of the Leaven. The mustard seed is very tiny, about 1 millimeter in diameter, and judging from its size, you would assume that it would produce a very small plant. However, when it is planted it will grow into a bush that’s anywhere from 10-20 feet high⸺basically a small tree. In much the same way, the Kingdom of God started with a small group of disciples, and it will eventually fill the whole Earth during the Millennial Kingdom. The mention of birds in this parable is a reference to a prophecy (Ezekiel 17:22-24) that predicted that the Gentile nations would also be blessed one day through the Jewish Messiah.
As you can see, these parables would have been a huge confidence boost for the disciples who were probably wondering why the other Jews didn’t also worship Jesus as the Christ.
Where People Go Wrong
People generally get The Parable of the Growing Seed right, but people often mess up The Parable of the Leaven by combining it with Jesus’ warning to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:5-12, Mark 8:14-21, and Luke 12:1) People try to mix metaphors and assume that yeast always represents sin, and therefore they interpret The Parable of the Leaven to mean that sin will corrupt the Church from within. However, Jesus wasn’t warning against the sin of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but rather their hypocritical teaching, which had a corrupting influence. The apostle Paul made the same analogy when he wrote that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (1 Corinthians 5:6 and Galatians 5:9) He was warning against the bad influence of the Judaizers and the sexually immoral.
But wasn’t Passover a symbol pointing to Jesus who is our Passover Lamb? Didn’t God warn the Israelites to eat unleavened bread since that was a symbol of Jesus’ sinless life? Actually no, in Exodus 12 God just didn’t want the Israelites to take the old Egyptian yeast with them. They were supposed to make a clean break from the slavery and sinful idolatry of Egypt and start fresh. If yeast is always bad, then why did God tell the Israelites to present Him with an offering of bread baked with yeast (Leviticus 7:13)?
However, the most important point to remember is that Jesus started this parable by saying “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.” If the point of the parable was that the yeast is like sin corrupting the Church, then Jesus wouldn’t have compared the Kingdom of God to the yeast, but to the dough.
People tend to make a similar mistake with The Parable of the Mustard Seed by combining it with the description of the birds in The Parable of the Sower. In the former parable, Jesus explained that the birds represent Satan, who comes to steal the Gospel from people’s hearts so that they may not believe and be saved. Therefore, they argue that the birds who roost in the branches of the mustard tree represent false doctrines that infiltrate and corrupt the Church.
It’s true that birds sometimes symbolize demons (Revelation 18:2), but the whole analogy of birds roosting in the branches of a large tree was a common metaphor in the Old Testament that had nothing to do with demonic doctrines corrupting the Church. For example, the mighty nation of Assyria was described as a towering tree with birds nesting in its branches, and the birds represented foreign nations (Ezekiel 31:6). Likewise, King Nebuchadnezzar was described as a towering tree with birds nesting in his branches (Daniel 4:12 and Daniel 4:21), and again, the birds represented foreign nations.
It makes much more sense, based on the flow of the passage in Matthew 13, that Jesus was using these parables to encourage the disciples. “Hey guys, cheer up! I know the Kingdom of God doesn’t look like much right now, but wait until you see where things end up.”
Answering the Atheists
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is a favorite target for atheists desperate to disprove the Bible. Their argument goes like this:
- The mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds on Earth. Tobacco seeds and the seeds of certain tropical, epiphytic orchids are smaller than a grain of salt.
- Either Jesus didn’t know about the orchids or He lied. Therefore, Jesus is not God.
The answer to this alleged contradiction is found in the immediate context:
- Reread the sentence from Mark’s gospel very carefully. Jesus said, “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants.” Jesus said that that the mustard seed must be sown on the ground first and then grow into a garden plant, which ensures that the context only applies to edible garden greens, herbs, and vegetables. Therefore, the statement is true.
- Jesus was teaching proverbially, and the whole point of the parable was to point to something hopelessly small that grows surprisingly large despite its humble beginnings. To make His point, Jesus often used metaphors, hyperbole, and other figures of speech. Such statements were not meant to be taken literally (e.g. Matthew 5:29 and Matthew 17:20).
- The first century Jewish audience would have been unfamiliar with tobacco and orchid seeds. Furthermore, neither of those plants grew to the size of a small tree, so they wouldn’t have illustrated the point that Jesus was trying to make. Jesus would have sounded like a bad stand-up comedian:
- Jesus: “Hey, what’s up with those tobacco and orchid seeds, huh? I mean are those things microscopic or what?”
- Pharisees: “Umm…”
- Jesus: “But then they grow to be like, what, fourteen inches, give or take? If they grew any bigger, I’d need a chainsaw to harvest them. Come on, am I right?”
- Pharisees: [crickets]
Not only did the atheists fail to disprove the Bible, but they also missed the whole point of the parable.