The Wheat and the Weeds (Part 2), Matthew 13:31-35

We have learned that Jesus is offering many glimpses of the rule of God that he has brought to the world. One of the biggest questions is how Gods kingship will propagate and change over time. That question is almost as important today as it was in the first century.

Matthew 13:31-35

31 He told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.

33 He told them still another parable: 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.

34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.

Commentary

The Mustard Seed (verses 31-32)

First, we will find it useful to get some facts on the table to help us interpret what Jesus says in this Bible passage. Even though mustard seeds are extremely small (1-2 mm) less than half the diameter of the lead in a fine-point mechanical pencil even smaller seeds are known. But the existence of smaller seeds is beside the point because Jesus used mustard seeds as the proverbial standard for smallness in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world.[1] Mustard seeds germinate quickly and grow to a height of about ten feet.

We can learn something here about parables and similar stories. They frequently include exaggeration and must not be subjected to an overly strict or literal interpretation. This trait made them more useful and flexible when speaking to audiences accustomed to such material.

The Mustard Seed presents an analogy between {the mustard seed and mustard plant} and {the present and future kingdom}. I have gotten free with symbols here to make the analogy more clear. All facts about mustard seeds are irrelevant except for the one fact that it starts as such a tiny seed and grows so large when it becomes a mature plant.[2] That one things makes it comparable to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus used the Mustard Seed to address a question burning in the hearts of many people in Galilee about the kingdom of heaven: is that all there is? Jesus had done many marvelous things, and his teaching easily outclassed anything they had ever heard, but Roman rule over Israel remained unchanged, and evil had not been finally defeated. This was not the glorious kingdom they had been led to expect.

Using the Mustard Seed, Jesus says that the small and unimpressive beginning for the kingdom of heaven should not be used to make assumptions about its final scope. Snodgrass says, The point is that what one sees with Jesus will lead to what one hopes for in the kingdom. … The future kingdom is already present in Jesus teaching and work.[3] As such, the Mustard Seed is a statement of hope and confidence.

The Leaven (verse 33)

The farther I get into research about these parables and similitudes, the more it has become apparent how alienated I have become from the land and its products. After all, my fruits and veggies come as full-grown, finished products at the store!

So, again we start with a few facts. Today we do not generally bake bread and other baked goods as they did in the ancient world. In their efforts to make what is ancient feel more modern, numerous English versions mention yeast in verse 33. NIV, NET, NLT, HCSB and CEB versions all inaccurately say yeast. Other versions, KJV, ESV and NASB, correctly say that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven. Yeast and leaven are not the same.

Leaven is nothing more than fermented dough. Ancient bakers kept aside a small lump of dough from the previous baking and kneaded [mixed] that into the fresh dough so that its leavening effects would spread throughout. When mixing was done, a small lump would again be reserved to do the same thing next time. The leaven contained gas-producing bacteria which helped the bread rise, making it easier to eat. [So does bakers yeast, but that is another story.] Today we call bread made the ancient way sourdough.

So, in the simple story Jesus tells, a woman takes the leaven and mixes it into sixty pounds of flour, enough to feed bread to 100-150 people.[4] Except, Jesus did not say that the woman mixed the leaven into the flour; he said that she hid (Greek egkrupto) the leaven in the flour. Note that ESV, KJV and NASB lead the way among English versions by preserving the meaning hid. What is the point of this word choice? Once you put that leaven into sixty pounds of flour, the leaven is inside doing its vital work even though you cannot see it. The active agent makes the bread rise even though it is hidden from view.

Just as the leaven transforms an enormous amount of flour, so the rule of God transforms the world in a powerful and significant way even though its activity is hidden. Both parables, the Leaven and the Mustard Seed, portray the surprising large effect of something small and unobservable.[5]

In verse 34, we move on to a reminder from Matthew that Jesus spoke to the masses only in parables. He gave the leaders who had plotted to kill him nothing with which to accuse him. The words attributed to Jesus in verse 35 are a paraphrase of Psalm 78:2. The first half of verse 35 explains how Jesus deals with outsiders. The second half of verse 35 informs us that the disciples received things hidden since the creation of the world. Matthew explains that both approaches were revealed by Asaph in a prophecy long ago. The Son of Man fulfilled prophecy. He still does!

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008) 220.

[2] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 220.

[3] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 225226.

[4] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 527.

[5] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 233.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!