The Stories Jesus Told: The Seeds and the Leaven, Matthew 13:31–33; Mark 4:26–29, 30–32; Luke 13:18–21
May 26, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
The Stories Jesus Told: The Seeds and the Leaven, Matthew 13:31–33; Mark 4:26–29, 30–32; Luke 13:18–21
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Some time after being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus began to preach that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.1 The phrase “kingdom of heaven” is interchangeable with “kingdom of God.” In first-century Palestine, the Jewish people refrained from saying the name “God” and used indirect means and substituted other words to avoid it. (Observant Jews do the same thing today.) In this case Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish audience, replaced “God” with “heaven.” Thus, he wrote “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He taught about the kingdom of God. We’re told that He went through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.2 When the crowds …followed him, he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God.3 He sent [his disciples] to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.4 Proclaiming the kingdom of God was a major focus of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus used a number of parables to teach about different aspects of the kingdom of God, and in this video I will cover three parables that address the growth of the kingdom. The first parable, sometimes called “The Growing Seed,” which is only told in the Gospel of Mark, is as follows:
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.
In this parable, Jesus was comparing the kingdom to the process of seeds being sown, coming to fruition, and then being harvested. Keep in mind that the parables are short, and leave out many details which the listeners or readers can fill in themselves. We see the farmer sowing the seed, and then sleeping and rising day and night while the seed sprouts and grows.
The point of the parable is not to accuse the farmer of being lazy and doing nothing, or of not being knowledgeable of farming practices. Rather it’s pointing out that during the time between the sowing and the harvesting, while the farmer’s actions are helpful, they aren’t what make the seeds grow. He waits for the seed to go through the various stages of growth until it comes to fruition.
The seed—in this case a wheat seed—grows on its own, taking time to first push through the ground as a blade, then the ear of wheat is formed, and eventually it matures and is ready for harvest. The full process that brings the plant to fruition takes time, and nothing that the farmer does, other than sowing the seed, causes the actual process to happen. The rain, the elements of the earth, the life within the seed, all products of God’s creation, are behind the growth of the seed. Once the seed is planted, it successfully fulfills its intended purpose. When it’s fully grown, it’s then harvested.
What point is Jesus making about the kingdom when He tells His listeners this parable? He’s explaining that the kingdom is like a process of growth which moves automatically toward fruition and harvest. The farmer’s inactivity shows the marking of time—he sleeps, he wakes, day after day, and during that time the seed grows on its own. Eventually when the grain is ripe he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come. This wording reflects similar wording from Joel 3:13, which says:
Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.
Harvesting the grain with the sickle points to judgment, and in this case future judgment, one that comes after the harvest is in full bloom. In another parable, Jesus said:
The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels.5
Jesus tells this parable to convey the point that the kingdom of God is steadily coming into being, apart from human efforts to either bring it about or to oppose it. The focus of the parable is the seed—its steady growth to the blade, the formation of the fruit, and eventually to the time of its harvest. It’s a process which takes time, but which steadily moves forward day by day. The farmer knows that once he plants the seed, there is nothing he can do to make the process move faster. He also knows with certainty that the seed will produce fruit, and when it does, there will be a time of harvest.
To understand the point Jesus was making, it helps to remember that He was speaking to people who were witnesses to His ministry—both His disciples and those who were gathering to hear Him—people who had Jewish expectations about the Messiah’s mission. They anticipated a king or ruler who would rise up and break the shackles of the oppressors, the Roman rulers, and would restore the kingdom of Israel to its past glory. This anticipation can be seen in the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. We’re told:
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.6
Jesus was preaching the kingdom of God, but the kingdom He preached wasn’t meeting the standard expectations of the people of that time. He was healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead, but He wasn’t confronting the political situation. There was no sign that He was moving toward the overthrow of Roman power. It’s possible that the excitement among some of those who originally welcomed His message was beginning to wane. Some may have been questioning His message and method, to the point that, as John’s Gospel tells us, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.7
Some clearly questioned if Jesus could be the Messiah, since their expectations were not being fulfilled. In this parable, Jesus was making the point that the listeners needed both to expand their understanding of the kingdom and allow for the passing of time for it to be fully in effect. The kingdom, like the seed, takes time to go through the full process from sowing to harvest. It requires time to come to fruition, but when it does, the harvest will certainly come.
Through two other parables, Jesus makes a similar point. The first is the parable of “The Mustard Seed,” which is told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Matthew relates it like this:
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.8
There are a few minor variations in the two other versions, with Mark writing that the plant puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade, while Luke says it became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.9
Calling the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds was in alignment with the Jewish and Greco-Roman proverbial use of mustard seeds to denote something as very tiny. It doesn’t mean that there are no smaller seeds in existence. There are. But this seed was the smallest sown by farmers in that day. Most commentators identify the seed in question as a black mustard seed (Brassica Nigra). This tiny seed produces a large plant which grows to the height of 8–12 feet (2.5–3.5 meters), which is as tall as some trees. The size of the plant allows for birds to make nests in its branches, thus it fulfills the function of a tree. Jesus uses the parable to contrast the tiny seed with the tall bush that comes from it.
In likening the kingdom to the mustard seed, Jesus makes the point that though the kingdom He is preaching is presently minuscule, it will grow enormously compared to its beginning. He’s contrasting the size of the tiny seed and the size of the end result.
Making reference to the plant functioning as a tree, with birds nesting on its branches, would likely remind the listeners of the scriptures which compared the Babylonian kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar to a large tree whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, … under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived.10 They would have also heard echoes of the kingdom of Assyria being called a cedar tree which towered high above all the trees of the field, [and] all the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs [and] under its shadow lived all great nations.11
The mustard plant springing up from the tiny seed and becoming large enough for the birds to nest in its branches makes the point that from something so small and insignificant comes something large and grand. The connection to the Old Testament imagery likens it to immense kingdoms which encompass the nations. This illustration depicts the greatness of the kingdom of God which will grow from Christ’s ministry.12
Through this parable, Jesus likens the tiny mustard seed to the small beginning of the kingdom of God, which in time will grow into its greatness. What has begun as something minuscule will grow into something immense.
As with the parable of “The Growing Seed,” there is an interval between the sowing of the mustard seed and the full growth of the bush. What is happening in the present isn’t the end of the story. Time will pass, the plant will grow, the birds will nest in its branches.
In the third parable, told by both Matthew and Luke, Jesus makes a similar point. Let’s listen to what He says:
The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.
The picture is of a woman adding leaven13 to three measures of flour. In Palestine at that time, typically bread was leavened with a piece of fermented dough that had been set aside from a previous baking, which was added to the flour for the new baking.
It’s interesting that in Jesus’ day (and in observant households today) once a year, at the Passover feast, all leaven was removed from Jewish households, and for seven days they ate nothing containing leaven.14 While not eating leaven was for religious purposes, having to destroy all leaven in the house meant that every home in Israel started the following year with a new batch of leaven, and this may have also mitigated possible corruption or infection.15
In the parable, the amount of flour the woman was using (three measures) was enough to make about one hundred and fifty loaves of bread—quite a large amount. To the dough she added a small piece of leaven and let it sit, likely overnight, allowing it enough time to rise. During that time, the small amount of leaven affected all of the dough and caused it to double or triple in size.
Like the previous parable, this one shows that over time the small beginnings of Jesus’ ministry would result in great growth and expansion of the kingdom.
One author put it this way:
The little group of disciples might be despised as preaching a Kingdom too insignificant to be noticed, but as surely as a tiny piece of leaven had its effect on a large mass of dough, so surely would the Kingdom have its effect throughout the world.16
Like the parable of “The Mustard Seed,” this parable tells of the growth process of the kingdom; that something surprisingly large will grow from something very small.
All three of these parables address the questions which naturally would have arisen about the effectiveness of Jesus’ ministry during His lifetime. Though He was doing many miracles, there wasn’t any preaching about or outward manifestation of delivering the nation from Roman oppression. Jesus was, in fact, presenting a different, more accurate view of how God was moving and stating how the awaited deliverance would be different than expected. Though the preconceived ideas of the kingdom weren’t being met, He was informing His listeners that the kingdom had arrived and would grow, just as definitely as the seeds planted in the field, the mustard seed, and the leaven brought about growth. Though at the moment it didn’t look like much of anything, the final result would be huge.
Today we can see the truth of these parables. In the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the kingdom slowly began to grow. It didn’t meet the limited expectation that those of Jesus’ day looked forward to; instead it has spread throughout the entire world. The small beginnings have over time grown far beyond the expectations of that day. As surely as the kingdom has expanded due to the “seeds” sown in Jesus’ time, so can we be sure it will continue to grow until the time of harvest. As the kingdom has consistently grown, as Jesus alluded to in these parables, so too we are assured that the time will come when the harvest will be reaped.
It is one of our jobs as Christians to continue to spread the message of the kingdom, to share the good news and invite others to enter God’s kingdom through coming to know Jesus and receiving Him as their Savior so that they too can have newness of life. Each generation of Christians, from the time of Jesus until now, has shared the news of the kingdom with others, thus doing their part to ensure the growth and continuance of the kingdom beyond their lifetime. It is our responsibility to do the same.
We are commissioned to share the gospel, to leaven today’s world with the leaven of God’s Word and the message of salvation. May we each do our part as God’s leaven, as those who plant seeds, so that His kingdom will expand in the lives of those around us. May we each be part of the fulfillment of the message of these stories that Jesus told.
The Mustard Seed and the Leaven, Matthew 13:31–33
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.”
The Parable of the Seed Growing, Mark 4:26–29
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.
27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.
28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Mark 4:30–32
30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?
31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,
32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
The Mustard Seed and the Leaven, Luke 13:18–21
18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?
19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?
21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Matthew 4:17.
2 Luke 8:1.
3 Luke 9:11.
4 Luke 9:2.
5 Matthew 13:39.
6 John 6:14–15.
7 John 6:66.
8 Matthew 13:31–32.
9 Mark 4:30–32; Luke 13:18–19.
10 Daniel 4:20–21.
11 Ezekiel 31:3–6.
12 Robert A. Guelich, World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:28 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989), 251.
14 Exodus 12:15, 19–20.
15 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 353.