Tag Archives: Parable of the Mustard Seed

Matthew 13: 24-43 Parables of Weeds, Seeds and Leaven

Close up view of Wheat, shared by user Bluemoose on Wiki Commons under Creative Commons 2.0

Matthew 13: 24-43

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs 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 yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

One of the dangers of attempting to interpret parables which are designed both to reveal and to conceal comes with the pinning down the imagery to a meaning. Like a butterfly collector which pins their captures where they can be displayed only to realize the now deceased insect loses the life it once demonstrated, it may still be beautiful but is no longer a dynamic thing. As I have worked through the gospel of Matthew I have attempted to provide a coherent and plausible reading, but the perspective I write from is not the only one and others will and have found other dynamic readings in these verbal portraits of Jesus’ life and teaching. Yet, there are a number of interpretations of both Matthew’s gospel in general and these parables in particular which are not helpful (and may even be toxic) or would not make sense to people in either Jesus’ or Matthew’s audience in the first century middle east. Perhaps these reflections can help us metaphorically see some readings which look like wheat but are really just weeds that occupy the field hiding the fruit of the wheat from us.

It is important to pay attention to structure for clues in how we are to hear these parables and I’ve tried to group these together in ways that make sense to helping us have ears to hear. Matthew likes patterns of three and this is highlighted here by the placement of three parables followed by an explanation of the first parable. Between the three parables and the explanation is another explanation of why Jesus speaks in parables. The joining together of the parables in a group of three points to an interconnection in the imagery and understanding of the stories. Even though Matthew only includes an explanation for the first parable in this group, it is placed there by Matthew to be a key not only for the first parable but for a way of hearing all three parables. Similarly, the first parable of the chapter also provides a window into hearing all the parables gathered together in this chapter.

The opening parable of good seed, weeds and a field again places hearers to the familiar world of sowing and agriculture, yet it introduces an almost comic element when an enemy is responsible for sowing weeds among the field. Anyone who has done any type of agriculture work from a personal garden to industrial farming knows that weeds come whether they are sown or not, no one needs to sow tares; yet, in the world of this story, an enemy does just that. The wheat and the weeds grow up together in the field and the removal of one may mean the uprooting of the other. The householder, or the master of the house, has their slaves wait until the harvest time where the reapers can gather both wheat and weeds separately for different locations.

Matthew’s interpretation points to a world where the children of the kingdom and the children of evil live together. Matthew’s gospel repeatedly references a time of sorting or judgment where the righteous and the unrighteous are separated and God (or those sent by God like the angels) are responsible for that sorting. The gospel of Matthew has pointed to a vision for a community that lives out of a merciful but demanding righteousness and the community the gospel was written for lived in a world where many outside the community followed different visions for what a faithful life looked like. Matthew’s community may have also experienced competing expectations for what righteousness within the community and this parable may have allowed them to accept that both the church and the world were a mixed body until God separates weed from wheat, or in a later images the good fish from the bad fish and the sheep from the goats. As the imagery of the salt and light from Matthew 5: 13-16 point to the individuals and community are called to live out there calling and not to concern themselves with the disposition of the world around them. While they will be recognizable when mature by the fruit they produce, in contrast to the tares, they are not in charge of the time of harvest or the harvest itself. Ultimately any ingathering and separation is the responsibility of God and not the disciples.

The second parable again has the image of sowing in a field but this time what is sown is a mustard seed. Unfortunately, many interpreters get caught up on the mustard seed as being something undesirable in the field but the evidence this claim is built upon is pretty flimsy. Often the connection is made to Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and philosopher, who said of mustard: “It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted; but on the other hand when it has been once sown it is scarcely possible go get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.” Often missed is when Pliny also states mustard is “extremely beneficial for health”, helpful for the treatment of “snake and scorpion bites, toothache, indigestion, asthma, epilepsy, constipation, dropsy, lethargy, tetanus, leprous sores” and other illnesses (Levine, 2014, pp. 175-177) Nor was mustard looked upon as a bad or non-kosher thing.  The word translated shrub by the NRSV (and many translations) is the Greek laxanon which is a vegetable or garden herb. Perhaps the rendering of this a shrub adds to the perception of it uselessness which, in the case of brassica nigra “black mustard” grows into a plant of eight to ten feet when properly cultivated. Matthew has the vegetable (laxnon) become a tree (dendron) which may point in a mocking manner to imagery of great trees that represented empires in Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4 but this is probably not the primary image that the parable draws us to.

If the field continues to be the world and the sower continues to be the Son of Man, which the parallel imagery invites, then the small thing planted in the field is something of use to the entire world.  As Amy Jill-Levine can state:

the mustard plant offers more than a single person can use. The invitation to partake is a universal one, as the birds so neatly demonstrate. Instead of looking at the plant as a noxious weed, we might be better off seeing it as a part of the gifts of nature; something so small, allowed to do what it naturally does, produce prodigious effects. (Levine, 2014, p. 181)

Maybe instead of being the weed no one wants in the field maybe the mustard seed is that which gives rise to a plant which once it emerges grows prodigiously producing with both curative and flavor producing properties meant to be shared among the creation of God, both birds of the air and the people of the earth. Perhaps, like the trees on either side of the river of life in Revelation 22, this small seed emerges as something for feeding creation and healing the nations. Perhaps this is part of the reason faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains for little faith ones (Matthew 17: 20)

Likewise the parable of the yeast has several unfortunate interpretations which misunderstand the place of leaven in Jewish culture. Amy Jill-Levine is again instructive here: “Leaven is not itself “impure”; if it were, Jews would not have to remove it from their homes at Passover, because they would never have used it in the first place.” (Levine, 2014) The cakes used on the altar  for the sacrifice of well-being were leavened (Leviticus 7: 13) and so leaven is not the ‘corrupting agent’ that sometimes interpretations make it out to be.

Leaven at this time is not the packets of yeast we think of in our time but a sourdough starter and the woman does not mix it into the flour, she hides it in the flower (Greek enkrypto where we get encryption or cryptology from). It is also helpful to realize that three measures of flour would be between forty and sixty pounds of flour, which again would be far more than one person could consume. There is a resonance with the story in Genesis 18 where Abraham encounters three men, who we learn to be a divine visitation, and instructs Sarah to make ready three measures of choice flour and proceeds with the bread and a calf, curds and milk to present a feast.  One of the images for the end of the age is of a great banquet, see for example Isaiah 55, and this woman in hiding the yeast in the three measures of flour is beginning the preparation for the feast to come.

In line with the previous two parables, if we want to move this towards an allegory, it would probably make sense to consider the flour the world with something hidden in it by a baker. If you want to proceed allegorically then the woman also represents the Son of Man, which may seem unsettling at first but we’ve already had Jesus adopt the character of Wisdom, and ultimately, as Anna Case-Winters can state,

It is interesting that many commentators and interpreters who work with these parables frequently draw an analogy between God and the male sowers in to of the parables (vv. 3 and 24) but do not draw an analogy between God and the female baker (v. 33) (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 180)

The position of this parable as the third in a series of three also invites us to see this is the image that Matthew has been moving us towards with the two previous parables.

Matthew also follows these parables by returning again to the reason for parables, which both reveal and conceal. As Frank Kermode observed, “Parable, it seems may proclaim a truth as a herald does and at the same time conceal truth like an oracle.” (Hays, 2016, p. 101) The dullness of the people, and the disciples even, may be tiresome and yet this may be the best way for the seed to be sown among those it can take root in.  Things hidden are proclaimed and yet they are proclaimed veiled in stories that require ears to hear and eyes to see and hearts to comprehend. They can continue to amaze and astonish as living things that fly just beyond our capture and demonstrate the beauty of the kingdom of heaven.

I believe these parables can continue to surprise and even delight us in their strange way of illuminating the kingdom of heaven’s place in our world. I’m hesitant to pin them down but perhaps I might point to some lessons that listening to these parables might teach us. First, they require patience, seed is allowed to grow until harvest, a seed grows to a bush and flour rises after leaven is added, none of which occur when we constantly unearth the seeds or disturb the flour. We may not always be directly involved in the state of the kingdom, if the Son of Man sows the seeds and hides the leaven we might just be observing something magical expanding in the world around us as a metaphor of the kingdom. But in the end the seeds and leaven, field and flour are all directed toward the final goal: harvests gathered into barns, bushes which produce flavorful and healing spices, and enough bread for a great celebration. We live in a world of good and evil living together and we may long for a time when all the “all causes of sin and all evildoers”(literally all scandals/causes of stumbling and the ones doing the works of this age) are removed and where the righteous ones shine like the sun but that rests in God’s time and judgment, but the world in which the parables are spoken, seeds are sown and flour rises to create bread for celebration requires the patience to live in a world where the kingdom of heaven emerges from the field of the world in unexpected ways.



The Parable of the Mesquite Tree

Velvet Mesquite with spring foliage, CC 3.0

I know that many people remember times growing up when they would walk through the grass without shoes, feeling the thin blades tickle their toes; that was not my experience growing up. On one hand the grass in south Texas was not the soft grass I would later experience in Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska which seemed to provide a universal blanket on the ground; yards where weeds were the exception as the grass thrived in the more temperate summers and more regular rains. I remember one of the years I served a congregation in Nebraska and they complained about the drought they were undergoing, and I remember thinking that this would have been a particularly wet year growing up near San Antonio. On the other hand, was the presence of the mesquite tree that occupied the back yard of my childhood home. This hardy tree made the already rough combination of grass and weeds a perilous minefield for those daring enough to venture into the yard without thick soled shoes.

Nobody chose to plant the mesquite tree and why would they? Although they were near impossible to kill they didn’t provide a thick canopy of shade like a maple or oak might. The mesquite tree produced bean pods which may have been edible but nobody I knew ate them or used them as feed for animals, but the pods would cover the yard attempting to produce even more of the unwanted trees. The wood seemed to have only one good use, for burning. When it burned it produced a hot fire with a pungent smoke, a fire that seems

to mirror the trees resilience in the ground. When the tree is cut down it activates its own trigger in the roots to produce more and heartier mesquite trees and like the hydra of myth where once you only had one head now you had multiple trees vying for the space occupied by the severed trunk on top of the still living roots. But most distinctive are the thorns, sometimes several inches in length and both tough and sharp. I remember pulling a thorn out of my foot that had punctured through my sandals and still was buried a half inch into my foot. Nobody would plant this tree within their garden.

Yet, as Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed which comes from a small seed, it too was considered a nuisance plant, an extremely large noxious weed that was hard to remove from a field and was something that no farmer would voluntarily introduce. It was the antithesis of the mighty cedar which Ezekiel 17 could reference as an image for God’s planting God’s people in the land of milk and honey. For the cedar is a tree valued for it’s image of strength and power, valued for its strong wood used in the construction of the temple, palace and home. Yet both the mustard and the mesquite become homes for the birds of the airs and seem to provide protection for countless other creatures. Perhaps the kingdom of God looks more at times like the rough field with the mesquite tree than the palatial gardens that have every plant and tree managed and growing in near perfect symmetry. Perhaps the kingdom of God emerges in the less fertile places where only a fast-growing shrub or an incredibly resilient tree can endure the hot sun and unforgiving soil. Unlike the fruit trees which need continual tending or the cedars which thrive mixture of clay and loam and higher altitude of the mountains of Lebanon these unruly plants thrive like weeds no matter how hard they attempt to be eliminated. Perhaps the kingdom of God is something that refuses to go away, no matter how often it remains untended, unirrigated, uncared for, unloved and unwanted. Perhaps it thrives in the areas and situations that kill things more beautiful but less hardy. Maybe the kingdom of God also has its own thorns which may provide protection for the creatures that nest in its branches but provide a painful nuisance for those who look upon the tree as fit only for the fire. And perhaps, just perhaps, that which seems inconvenient, unlovely, and a waste of space to human eyes might be necessary, lovely and providential within the upside-down kingdom where the first are last and the last are first, where masters serve and kings are crucified. I may not always understand it, but I’ve learned to walk among the places where mesquite grow by wearing shoes with good soles and to wonder at their improbable place within God’s garden.

Photo of the foliage of a honey mesquite (Prosopis Glandulosa) by Don A.W. Carlson Shared by CC 2.5

The Kingdom of Fools

The Pearl of Great Price, engraving by John Everett Millais (1864)

The Pearl of Great Price, engraving by John Everett Millais (1864)

Into the fertile fields committed to the harvest wheat and tares are allowed to grow together
And the kingdom of heaven grows from the inconspicuous seed into the noxious bush
Making a mockery of the cedars of Lebanon or the towering cypress and majestic oaks
It bears no fruit and yet it grows resiliently much to the dismay of those who would cut it down
It is a foolish kingdom where a woman contaminates fifty pounds of flour with unclean leaven
Making that which could last throughout the year begin to mold and decay within a period of days
Perhaps only a kingdom filled with gluttons and tax collectors and sinners would merit
Such a wasteful exuberance, an amnesia of common sense and self-preservation
Only in a place where the harvest is thirty fold, or sixty fold or a hundred fold
Would such a feast be possible and such a kingdom endure for more than a fortnight
This scandalous kingdom where one finds what others have missed and to one’s profit
One goes to procure the field where the hidden treasure lays concealed from the world’s eyes
Where all common sense goes out the window to acquire a pearl of exceeding size
Laying aside the needs of the day and the needs of the future to acquire the one thing
The precious result of a long lasting irritant surrounded by the excretions of the fearful mollusk
And perhaps this foolish kingdom is less about some distant and unseen harvest where
Wheat is separated from weed and good fish from bad and fires and barns and markets are fed
But about the presence of the kingdom in the midst of all kinds of fish caught in the net
Where treasures new and old are brought out and put in the service of this crazy dream
And in the midst of the world which holds on with a death grip anxious for some feared future
The insane generosity and abundant belief begins to shape the lives and actions of the servants
Caught up in the inauguration of the kingdom of fools, disciples of a lord of foolish grace
And rather than being consumed by what to include and to exclude they learn to join the banquet
And to be a part of the kingdom that emerges slowly and patiently in their midst  
Neil White, 2014