Harvest parables: mustard seed and yeast

mustard plantsThe Mustard Seed and Yeast. There is much debate over the meaning of these two short parables. Some Christians believe that the imagery of the parables is meant to portray the presence of evil within professing Christendom. This is due primarily to an understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven as a “mystery” encompassing Christendom, understood as organized Christianity. Christendom as a whole contains evil elements mixed with the good, so both parables are usually viewed as picturing that evil. The birds nesting in the mustard tree are unbelievers. It is also pointed out that yeast is often a symbol of evil (Exod 12:15, 19; Matt 16:6, 11–12; 1 Cor 5:6–8; Gal 5:9; but see Lev 7:13–14; 23:17) and asserted that the parable of the yeast portrays the growth of evil within Christendom. This view of the parables is often held in conscious opposition to a view which understands the images of the growth of the Kingdom in the two parables as indicating the ultimate conversion of the world to Christianity before Christ returns.

There is good reason to disagree with the view that emphasizes the presence of evil. First, its understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven as the mystery of evil within Christendom between the two advents of Jesus is doubtful. Rather, the Kingdom in Matthew is the rule of God, inaugurated through the words and works of Jesus and consummated at his return. Second, it is very doubtful that straightforward statements that compare the Kingdom of God to yeast or to mustard seed should be understood as a portrayal of evil. After all, it is the growth of God’s rule, not Satan’s, which is being portrayed. One need not assume that birds or yeast must always be viewed as biblical symbols for evil—consider that the imagery of a lion portrays Satan in one context and Jesus in another (1 Pet 5:8; Rev 5:5). The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast speak of the deceptively subtle yet dramatically significant growth of God’s Kingdom. Despite frequent fruitless responses to the Kingdom message, it does bear much fruit in many cases (13:23). Even John the Baptist may doubt its advance, but it is advancing just the same (11:1–6). The strong man is being bound, and his goods are being plundered (12:29).

While some may view this advance of the Kingdom over-optimistically, others view the present age too pessimistically because they do not acknowledge that the Kingdom was inaugurated and began its advance during the earthly ministry of Jesus. It may presently seem as insignificant as a mustard seed, but it will eventually be the largest tree in the garden. Its growth may be as imperceptible as the influence of yeast in a loaf of bread, but in the end it will be pervasive throughout the earth. The use of humble symbols like mustard seeds and yeast is appropriate for God’s humble servant who does not cry out in the streets (12:19) and who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a stallion (21:1–5). The majority of scholars hold that that these parables portray a contrast between the present reality and the ultimate destiny of the Kingdom. That which is now humble will be glorious. The realization that God is already at work and that there is a unity of the ultimate with the present should give all believers hope.


Matthew 13:32 the smallest of all the seeds: the mustard seed is not technically the smallest seed, but the phrase must be taken in its context as affirming that the mustard seed was the smallest herb seed commonly planted in Palestine. The mustard seed emphasizes how the Kingdom grows from an insignificant beginning into the largest of garden shrubs, suitable for nesting birds (cf. Ps 104:12; Ezek 17:23; 31:6; Dan 4:12). becomes a large bush: The Greek expression is lachanon, literally “herb” or “vegetation” [EDNT 2:345]. The mustard bush/tree could reach a height of 8-12 feet, but not generally. The bush provided shade for the birds beneath the bush’s foliage.

Mathew 13:33 13:33 yeast…mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened. The yeast pictures the tangible but subtle influence of the Kingdom as it permeates the world. The amount of flour leavened by the yeast is three satas. This is surprisingly large, amounting to 21.6 pints, 35 liters, or nearly a bushel of flour, enough to feed around 150 people. These two parables, unlike the first two, are not interpreted by Jesus, so there is less agreement among scholars as to their meaning. The major question is whether the symbolism portrays the spread of evil within Christendom, or the spread of the rule of God in the world through the words and works of Jesus and his disciples. Except here and in Matthew 16:12, yeast (or “leaven”) is, in New Testament usage, a symbol of corruption (see Matthew 16:6, 11-12; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1; 1 Cor 5:6-8; Gal 5:9).


  • G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 306-12
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 288-95
  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 534-39
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 227-32
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 203-10
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris(Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 881-2
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 385-90
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 146-51
  • D. Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 187-93


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – The New American Bible © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.

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