“He presented another parable to them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES.’ He spoke another parable to them, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three pecks of meal, until it was all leavened.’ All these things Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable, so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘I WILL OPEN MY MOUTH IN PARABLES; I WILL UTTER THINGS HIDDEN SINCE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD.’”
The kingdom of heaven starts small but it grows. That was easy. It is actually that easy but there are some interesting things to consider in this context. There are also some horrible criticisms of this passage. Let’s start with the most obvious criticism and dispel any myths about the intelligence of Jesus.
No, the mustard seed is not the absolute smallest of any seed. Many a skeptic are quick to point out that Jesus makes a false claim in this parable. Problem: it’s a parable. When one of these skeptics reads a sonnet of Shakespeare’s or notices one of his many anachronisms they cry, “brilliant!” “Peace, count the clock,” is uttered by Brutus in Julius Caesar. This particular play takes place near to the time of Jesus but was written some 1600 years later. The clock had not been invented in the time of Julius Caesar but had been, quite obviously, by the time of Shakespeare. No one questions Shakespeare’s intelligence or his use of literary devices, yet they question Jesus and his use of them. Another problem: they don’t believe–of course they are going to question Jesus. Nevertheless, their questions and conclusions are fueled by christians who take everything Jesus says to literal extremes. Jesus is the Lord and he cannot contradict or lie. Again, problem: the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds and just as Shakespeare knew that Brutus had no clock, Jesus knows that the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds, literally. He has the liberty to speak in this manner because he is using a literary device, two actually. The first being that he’s teaching in parables and the second is hyperbole. The mustard seed is very small and becomes a fairly large plant. The focus is not on the smallest of seeds nor on a plant that is big but not huge. The focus is on the very small seed becoming much larger–it’s just that simple.
Now that we have cleared that up, let’s zoom in on the interesting aspects of these puny parables. Once again I have used the NASB translation in order that we may see the Old Testament tutor quoted, notice: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES.” Problem, the quotes “the birds of the air” and, “nest in its branches,” are found multiple times in our Old Testament tutor. Psalms, Daniel and a at least a couple of times in Ezekiel contain these quotes. But the common theme in every passage is that of refuge. In today’s verbiage, we’d probably say, “safe space.”
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven starts very small but grows into a safe space for sinners. A very small seed sprouts and grows and becomes a nesting place for birds. What other seed has such possibility? A carrot seed is tiny but not many carrots grow large enough to nest birds in. The context is quite clear, Jesus was not making the absolute statement that the mustard seed is the smallest, but is speaking proverbially in parable, that a very small starting seed, grows exponentially into a safe haven for birds.
Now we see leaven, which to the literally legalistic and dogmatic person, will create a problem; because leaven is evil in the Bible. Jesus frequently makes mention of the leaven of the Pharisees. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to remove the leaven from their midst–a little leaven will affect the whole lump of dough. But as with sheep, seeds and salt, we must apply the CAGED method to properly read scripture. Context is King, and the author’s aspiration to his audience is apex, genre is general–we are reading a parable. Examples enlighten and we have seen a few examples but when we Divide rightly the word, we will see the reason to use expository exegesis of examples. The examples must relate to the context–an example: “don’t count your chickens before they have hatched” is a popular phrase in America, meaning; they aren’t chickens yet. Another idiom in America is, “the chickens have come home to roost.” Both mention chickens but have nothing to do with each other and don’t even have much to do with chickens. We consider the context here–we do not do topical research to link leaven with leaven. We link what is said about leaven to what is said about leaven. Leaven, whether good or evil, based on the context, rises the dough, it increases and expands until the smallest piece of dough has risen to the perfect size.
From this point on in the book of Matthew, Jesus only speaks to the multitude in parable and Matthew tells us why. Notice: “He did not speak to them without a parable, so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘I WILL OPEN MY MOUTH IN PARABLES; I WILL UTTER THINGS HIDDEN SINCE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD.”
The mustard seed not being the smallest of seeds and the leaven not being evil in this particular parabolic passage is perfect–particularly, it proves the prowess of parables. To focus on the mustard seed not being the smallest of seeds or the leaven being evil is partially the point. When our focus is on these things, we confirm the need for parable–we don’t get it; and Psalms said so. Wow, are things hidden from us, in plain sight nonetheless, within the context of the Bible. We read into the text rather than reading out the context. Consider the context!