Emerging Truths

One man's unorthodox views of selected bible stories

Two Little Parables

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This article presents an analysis of two of the shortest parables Jesus ever spoke. While scholars are in general agreement about the meaning of most of Jesus' parables, these two continue to be a source of controversy—some attributing to them a positive connotation while others, including the commentaries in the King James Study Bible, published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, a negative one. I will present both cases here, so that you, like me, can decide for yourself what you think they mean.

Before we get to the parables, notice the context which immediately precedes them:

Matthew 13:10-11 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.


Here, then, are the two parables themselves, which may not mean what they seem to mean at first glance:

Matthew 13:31-33 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.


First a minor but important clarification: By kingdom of heaven, Jesus is likely speaking of the earthly counterpart thereof—the church. This becomes clear after one reviews all the numerous parables Jesus spoke beginning with "the kingdom of heaven is like unto...". Now, on to the analysis.

The parable of the leaven


The parable of the leaven is found in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Thomas:

Matthew 13:33 Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.


Luke 13:20-21 And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.


Thomas 96 Jesus [said], The Father's kingdom is like [a] woman. She took a little leaven, [hid] it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!


In Jesus' day, leaven was spoiled dough in a state of fermentation which, when hid ("mingled") with normal dough, caused the bread to inflate when baked, as does yeast today. A small amount of leaven was sufficient to leaven a large amount of dough—in this case, three 'measures' (9 gallons). Many interpret the leaven as symbolic of the word of God being preached throughout the whole world until all nations have heard it.

However, this interpretation of leaven is scripturally unsound: Throughout the Old Testament, leaven carries a consistently negative connotation. In the New Testament, leaven was spoken of metaphorically by Jesus and Paul to symbolize not the word of God but rather the doctrine of men being mixed with the word of God, thereby corrupting it:

Matthew 16:6-12 Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. [...] Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.


Luke 12:1 In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.


Galatians 5:7-10 Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.


1 Corinthians 5:6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.


There are no other mentions of leaven in the New Testament, so there is not a single place in the entire bible where leaven denotes anything positive. With this in mind, it seems likely that this parable has a negative connotation: the leaven represents the doctrines of men being mixed with the word of God, thereby corrupting the whole of it. Having already seen what the Pharisees had done with their false doctrine, Jesus may have understood that his own church would follow the same course as it became larger.

The parable of the mustard seed


The parable of the mustard seed is found in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Thomas:

Matthew 13:31-32 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.


Luke 4:30-34 And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.


Thomas 20 The disciples said to Jesus, Tell us what Heaven's kingdom is like. He said to them, It's like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.


There are multiple passages in the Old Testament which contain imagery that closely parallels this parable, including the birds, and carry a positive connotation:

Daniel 4:10-12 Thus were the visions of mine head in my bed; I saw, and behold a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great. The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth: The leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all: the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the fowls of the heaven dwelt in the boughs thereof, and all flesh was fed of it.


Ezekiel 17:22-23 Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent: In the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell.


Ezekiel 31:1-9 Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. The waters made him great, the deep set him up on high with her rivers running round about his plants, and sent her little rivers unto all the trees of the field. Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the field, and his boughs were multiplied, and his branches became long because of the multitude of waters, when he shot forth. All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations. Thus was he fair in his greatness, in the length of his branches: for his root was by great waters. The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him: the fir trees were not like his boughs, and the chestnut trees were not like his branches; nor any tree in the garden of God was like unto him in his beauty. I have made him fair by the multitude of his branches: so that all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied him.


Thus, if the parable of the mustard seed was conceived from these passages, it would seem to have a positive connotation: that the church would start out small, but then would grow larger than anyone would have guessed from the size of its seed.

However, given that Jesus spoke these two parables in almost the same breath, and given that the parable of the leaven seems likely to have a negative connotation, can we find a negative connotation here?

What do the birds represent? One possible answer is found by revisiting the context of the parable. The man is a farmer planting an herb garden. He plants this tiny seed in his field, but it becomes a tree so large that it attracts the birds to make their homes there. Taken out of context, this image of the birds may seem pleasant. However, birds are usually an unwelcome presence in a garden, for they eat up all the seed, as portrayed in the parable of the sower, where some of his seeds get eaten up by the birds before they have a chance to grow. The birds, then, may be seen to represent false teachers who, when the church becomes large, will be able to come and make their home in it, preventing it from bringing forth much fruit.

The book of revelation predicts this state of affairs metaphorically using Babylon to represent the great size of the church, fallen into corruption, and birds to represent some of the evil ones inhabiting it:

Revelation 18:2 And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.


Conclusion


When I first set about to write this article, it was with the belief that both of these parables had a negative connotation encrypted in them. For the parable of the leaven, this was a fairly easy argument to make. The parable of the mustard seed was more of a challenge, especially when I considered the many Old Testament passages which seem to parallel this parable. In the final analysis, however, I remain convinced that these parables are a related pair which denote not just the growth of the church, but growth with attending corruption. But what do you think? I'd love to hear your opinion. Write me, or leave a comment below.

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