The Parables of the Weeds, the Mustard Seed, and the Leaven
All learning begins with storytelling. A series of facts means nothing apart from the story that brings it to life. God understands this because he created it. And since he created it, he is, therefore, the very best story teller. It’s no wonder, then, that when Jesus came to earth, he brought with him a collection of stories (which we call parables), revealing to us hidden aspects of ourselves and ushering us into the deep things of God. Telling us the kingdom is coming is one thing. Showing us how is another thing entirely.
The first of Jesus’s parables was the parable of the Sower, which we looked at last week. This was the first of a group of parables we could call Parables of the Kingdom. After the parable of the sower, Jesus tells the crowd gathered around a few more. In the parable of the weeds, the mustard seed, and the leaven, the point is simple, but the stories provide more than a simple point. They show us the expansion of God’s kingdom while revealing the quiet, sometimes hidden way in which God grows it.
Since the moment of the fall, God’s promise was to send a Messiah to rescue his people and establish God’s rule. That expectation grew into a hope of a political overthrow in military fashion. As you can imagine, history filled itself with people claiming to be the Messiah. And for a while, some of these men looked the part. But when Jesus showed up, he began doing things no one had ever seen before. He began performing miracles, healing people born blind and removing the lepers’ spots. He began teaching with a new authority, proclaiming things about God and interpreting God’s law in a way no one else ever had. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). And the people listening took him to heart. They thought God’s man had finally come. They were preparing for the consummation of the kingdom. But it never came. And as Jesus lived longer, it became more and more apparent that he wasn’t the political or military leader they imagined he would be. He was entirely different from their expectations. And that’s the point of these parables: to give us the right expectation of God’s kingdom. Jesus is showing us how God’s plan is different from our plan, and how, in the end, God’s plan is bigger than we could have imagined.
The Parable of the Weeds - Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ”
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to 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 is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons 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 gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
All who accepted Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah anticipated the coming of the kingdom of God. They had lived long under the rule of other nations, presently under the heavy hand of Rome. Jesus was the one to break the chains. He was the one to lead the uprising. He was the one to conquer the badlands and turn them back into the promised land. So, when was he going to do it? That’s the question Jesus steps into with this parable of the weeds.
Upon realizing the bad seed had been sown in the field, the servants in the parable asked, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?” The question is serious. “Jesus, I thought what you created was good. How did evil get here and why is it growing like the good seed? How can the world have weeds when you’re in charge?” This question is the perennial question of the existence of evil. If God is good, why can’t he stop it? The simple answer is, he can. The biblical answer is, he won’t—not yet, anyway. And, as we will see, that is a significant grace of God.
Jesus makes it clear that the good seed will grow. The bad seed won’t stop it. That was never the enemy’s plan, anyway. The bad seed was planted to discredit the Sower, not to destroy the good seed. The enemy doesn’t care about the good seed at all. He cares about the reputation of the Sower. If the good seed is harmed along the way, that’s fine with him, but it’s not the point. He’ll harm only if it brings shame to the Son of Man. The Son understands this ploy, and he won’t fall into the trap of destroying the good seed just to destroy the bad. So he allows the bad to grow alongside the good so he can be good to the good seed. He will not cut it down in youth because he wants it to grow into maturity.
The enemy is sneaky, coming at night, sowing the bad seed in the Good Sower’s field. This bad seed looks like the good seed. In the parable, Jesus uses a word for “weed” referring to a plant that looks identical to wheat, except for a small difference in leaf size. Only once the plant grows and bears grain does it distinguish itself from wheat. One thing is certain, the Son of Man is not responsible for the bad seed. He only plants good seed.
The story does not end with bad triumphant over good. It ends as we hope it will, with the bad being gathered up and burned. What begins as a story of the enemy getting the better of the Master ends with the Master defeating the enemy.
The psalmist of Psalm 73 understood the tension of this parable. He sings, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Ps. 73:1-4)
The wicked do seem to prosper in this life, do they not? This parable doesn’t deny that truth. But the psalmist, and we, are often short-sighted. Like Great Britain during World War II, we are constantly under the bombardment of the enemy, and for a time it looks like they might win, but we have an ally coming to our aid. In a little while, the enemy will be fought back. We will claim victory.
What we need is the proper perspective—the eternal, cosmic perspective of God. And that’s why Jesus gives this parable as he teaches about the kingdom of God. Our expectation is that Jesus will fix everything immediately. And what we really mean by that is he will fix everything in and relating to us immediately. But Jesus says he’ll fix it when it’s time. And we don’t know the time. In fact, Jesus even said he didn’t (Matthew 24:36).
To understand this seems like a wearisome task. That’s why we need to enter the sanctuary of God with the psalmist of Psalm 73, where we can see the ultimate end of the enemy. “For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”
The story includes evil because the world includes evil. But the focus isn’t the evil living in the world. The focus is on the kingdom of God overcoming the world. So, if the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we must repent, when is the Kingdom coming? When will the door to Narnia appear? When can we enter? How do we get in?
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.”
To further answer the question of the kingdom, Jesus gives two more parables. First, a parable of the mustard seed. Second, the parable of the leaven. Each makes the same point with different images. The kingdom of God is growing and spreading, but you can’t see it, and that’s how God wants it.
A grain of mustard seed is not the smallest seed on earth. Jesus wasn’t making a technical statement about which seed is the smallest. Rather, he was making a statement about which seed, being the smallest in use in farming in that day, grew to be the largest relative to its small start. The parable of the leaven teaches the same principle. It is a small thing that, when put inside something, grows into a large thing.
God has always worked this way. Unlike the ways of the world, where the loudest and most impressive receive the limelight, God goes after the small and insignificant. He chose Abraham of Ur and gave him his blessing. Out of Abraham, he created a nation that, even at its peak, was an unimpressive kingdom relative to the world. He chose a remnant out of Israel to preserve his gospel. He chose Mary, a virgin, to bear his Son. He chose a carpenter to father the Savior. He chose Nazareth to raise the Lord. From the smallness of the world grew the largeness of the kingdom. From weakness, his power comes.
This would have encouraged his disciples. They were nothing in their day: fisherman and tax collectors. But to them was given the keys to the kingdom. Even after their years with Jesus, they were considered by outsiders to be common, uneducated men. Their only authority was that they had been with Jesus. And that was all they needed. It’s all any of us need. That’s why Jesus tells us these stories—to show us how deeply he is with us, or, rather, how deeply we are with him.
Jesus was the ultimate pastor, and in his shepherding, he brings us into the depths of God’s purposes. He shows us God’s heart. He is not unconcerned with evil. He is against it. But his view is long-term, not short-sighted. His kingdom has come, his will is being done, and earth will one day transform into heaven. But that day has not yet appeared in its fullness. God is still being patient, not wishing that any would suffer eternal death.
In his incarnation, Jesus endured what God should never have to face. He did it in no small corner of the world. He became the most famous person of his day and the most famous person of all time, but he did not start that way. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, through the womb of a virgin to a crib in a stall. He worked in the shadows, using the enemy’s strategy against him, coming in the veil of night whereby a star led his worshippers to his manger. On that Christmas Day, God’s armies of angels praised him, the war cry of heaven, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). When God waged war on the evil of this world, he sent a baby.
And that baby grew in wisdom and stature, like any baby before or after him—as a mustard seed would, or a bit of leaven in a lump of bread. Jesus brought the kingdom of God in the most fitting way possible: slowly, intentionally, effectively. He grew alongside his enemies, awaiting the time of harvest. But his harvest came early. The enemy would not wait for the end. He acted beforehand, according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). After the last supper, Judas went out to commit his sin, and it was night (John 13:30). And God was in control of it all.
Like an eclipse, the darkness overwhelmed the Son, nailing him to a cross. He hung there in condemnation, a Savior bearing the sins of the world. With a final gasp, he died. He was buried in the tomb of a friend. And he was gone. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).
What the enemy believed to be victory was, in fact, defeat. Without his knowledge, the mustard seed had grown, and like bread too big for the pan, Jesus burst forth from the grave. The enemy may have had some whips and nails, but the Son had life, and his life outlasted the enemy’s death. There was Jesus, in his glorified body, shining like the sun in the kingdom of his Father. His present reality became the future hope of his people and the ultimate dread of his enemies.
What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like wheat growing among weeds, like a mustard seed in the ground, like a little leaven in a lump. The kingdom of heaven is the rumble underneath the earth, waiting for the time of eruption. It’s growing by leaps and bounds, swallowing up the world, until that final day when Jesus returns and makes all things new. Until then, we remain, practicing patience. We may not be shining yet, but we have the Son himself to lean on. Evil may still remain rooted in this world, but we have the Savior granting us the strength to carry on, giving us hope that his kingdom is swelling, and one day, at the end of the age, all will be set right.