THEME: Pervasive Evil
These parables show the subtlety of Satan is evil.
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. 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.” 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.”
Today let’s look at the reasons why I classify these parables with the parable that tells of the devil’s work. First, the growth of a mustard seed into a tree is abnormal. That is, a mustard seed does not grow into a tree; it grows into a shrub. Anyone to whom Christ spoke would know that. So when he spoke of the great and unusual growth of this seed, his hearers would immediately have been alerted to the fact that something was wrong. If Jesus had wanted to stress the “victorious church” view, he should have referred to an acorn growing up to be an oak or a cedar seed growing up to be one of the mighty trees of Lebanon.
Second, in the context of Matthew 13 the birds, who (in this parable) rest in the mustard tree’s branches (v. 32), have already (in parable one) been identified as the devil or the devil’s messengers (v. 19). It is true that an element of one parable need not necessarily carry the same meaning if it is used in the next, but it surely would be strange if an element that symbolized such evil at the start of the chapter carried a totally different meaning just thirteen verses later. Who are the birds who roost in the church’s branches if not those whom the devil has sown among the organized church? If they are not Satan’s people, then who they are is left unexplained. On the other hand, if the birds are the devil’s followers, then there is an immediate and obvious carry-over into the parable of the yeast, for the yeast would represent the same thing as the birds do in verse 32. The parable of the yeast would just add the thought that the presence of evil is pervasive.
Third, in nearly all cases in the Old Testament (and in Jewish life today) yeast is a symbol of evil. In the sacrificial laws of Israel it was excluded from every offering to the Lord made by fire. At the time of the feast of unleavened bread, every faithful Jew was to search his home for any trace of yeast and then get rid of it. That is done today by orthodox Jews and symbolizes for them, as it did earlier, the putting away of sin.
Jesus spoke of the leaven (or yeast) of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and Herod, in each case meaning their evil influence (Matt. 16:12; Mark 8: 15). Paul described deviation from the truth of the gospel as Satan’s persuasion, adding that believers should beware since “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal. 5:9; cf. 1 Cor. 5:6). Some have argued that yeast is not always a symbol of evil, and that is true. Sometimes it is simply yeast. But when it has a symbolic meaning it is nearly always used of something evil rather than something good. It is difficult to see how an important and thoroughly understood symbol of evil could be used by Jesus to represent the exact opposite, namely, the blessed impact of his gospel on the world.
Finally, it is significant that these two parables are bracketed by that of the devil’s work in sowing tares among the wheat (vv. 24-30), and Christ’s explanation of that parable (vv. 36-43). This structure suggests that they should be taken not as teaching something entirely different from the parable of the tares, but as expanding it.
Why does Jesus say a mustard seed will grow to be a tree?
What do the birds represent in this parable?
What does yeast represent in Old Testament Scripture?
Where are these references found? How does Jesus use the image?
It is significant to look at the order of the parables and the context in which they are told.
What are four reasons for including the parables of the mustard seed and yeast with the parable that tells of the devil’s work?