61. Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast (Luke 13:18-21)

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Gospel Parallels §164

John Everett Millais, 'The Leaven' (1884), wood engraving on paper
John Everett Millais, 'The Leaven' (1884), wood engraving on paper, 140 x 108 mm., part of The Parables of Our Lord, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers.

"18  Then Jesus asked, 'What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? 19  It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.' 20  Again he asked, 'What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21  It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.'" (Luke 13:18-21)

Do you ever get discouraged? I do. Sometimes we look at things and they seem so overwhelming that we get depressed.

Jesus has a pair of parables that speak to our weak-kneed faith, as well as expanding our understanding of his Realm.

What is the Kingdom Like? (Luke 13:18)

"Then Jesus asked, 'What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?'" (13:18)

We have the luxury of hindsight. But the disciples are having trouble understanding the nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming. Oh, they have their own views, of a messianic overthrow of the Roman oppressors and a restoration of David's throne. But they have little understanding of the true nature of the Kingdom of God of which they are ambassadors-in-training.

Jesus searches for a comparison to help them understand, and so gives two brief and familiar parables: the Parables of the Mustard Seed and of the Leaven (or Yeast). Note: this is a comparison not an allegory. In a comparison, one point is compared; in an allegory each element in one scene fits an element in the other. A few of Jesus' parables have allegorical elements, such as the Parable of the Tenants (20:9-19). But the parables we are studying today are not allegories, but simple comparisons. Let's try to see what the point or points of comparison are.

Like a Mustard Seed (Luke 13:19a)

"It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches." (13:19)

A mustard seed, parallels in the other Synoptic Gospels tell us, was considered by the Jews as the smallest of seeds (Matthew 13:31-33; Mark 4:30-32). You probably remember when Jesus used the mustard seed to describe the tiniest amount of faith (Luke 17:6). "Mustard" is usually identified as Sinapis nigra, "black mustard," which grows to a shrub about 4 feet high, but occasionally can grow to 15 feet high and would qualify as a "tree." Three varieties of mustard were grown in gardens because of their aromatic seeds.579 Jesus mentions the growth, but the main emphasis seems to be on the beginning (very small) and the end (very large). Small beginnings, large endings.

Birds Perching in Its Branches (Luke 13:19b)

But there's one more detail to consider:

"The birds of the air perched in its branches." (13:19b)

Probably all that means is that the tree was large enough to sustain life around it. It isn't just a marginal tree, but one which provides support for wildlife. Some think that the birds of the air represent the Gentile nations seeking refuge with Israel.580 That may be so (as a secondary allegory). But I think "the birds of the air perched in its branches" is the way Jesus rounded out his story, in words echoing Daniel and Ezekiel.581

Note that in the Parable of the Sower, the birds pecking at seed along the path stand for the devil "who comes and takes away the word from their hearts" (8:5, 12). But here the birds are not enemies but welcomed guests. Jesus' use of examples is flexible. Just because an item was used for evil in one parable doesn't mean it has to have the same significance in another. Which brings us to the Parable of the Yeast or Leaven.

Comparing the Kingdom to Yeast (Luke 13:20-21)

"Again he asked, 'What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.'" (13:20-21)

Jesus is looking for another comparison to explain the Kingdom of God. He compares it to a small lump of yeasty dough that is kneaded into a large amount of flour until it is homogenized. We buy sealed packets of dry yeast for baking. But in Jesus' day, they would save a little bit of one day's dough, and keep it moist to mix into the dough for tomorrow's bread.

If you've never baked a loaf of bread, you may not understand the radical difference that yeast makes. You take flour, water, a bit of oil and salt and knead it together with some softened yeast. It is pretty compact at this point, and if you were to bake it now, the bread would be heavy and hard. I've made some pretty awful bread in my day, to the point that my wife accuses me of giving my son what I claimed was bread but was really a stone (compare Matthew 7:9).

As the yeast begins to metabolize the sugars in the dough, it forms carbon dioxide that puffs into tiny gas pockets all through the dough. The gas can't escape because of the elastic gluten in the flour, so these pockets of gas stay in the loaf. When the loaf finally goes into the oven, the gas expands even more as the temperature rises, until the dough finally bakes, holding the shape of those tiny gas pockets, now filled with air.

And as the bread rises, the size increases many-fold. When I bake bread, I use a large pottery bowl and place the kneaded dough in the bottom of the bowl. By the time it has risen, the dough is nearly overflowing the bowl.

What's the point of the parable? A small amount of yeast will leaven a large amount of flour. The tiny lump of yeast will soon pervade a large volume of dough. Small beginnings, large endings.

Occasionally, people get confused about this parable. They reason that since leaven is used negatively sometimes (Luke 12:1; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 5:9), that it must be negative in the Parable of the Leaven. As we've seen in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, that assumption isn't warranted.

Small Beginnings, Much Discouragement

If you're like me, sometimes you get discouraged. What you've worked so hard to do seems so small and insignificant -- so futile, so hopeless, so tiny. The disciples may have felt that way about the Kingdom of God. Here is an itinerant carpenter-preacher speaking in villages in a minor Roman province. Not very impressive when you look at the big picture. But within a single generation after Christ's death, Christianity had spread all over the Roman Empire and beyond, India to the East, Ethiopia to the South, and Britannia to the West.

Just because the Kingdom didn't seem very great as yet, Jesus is saying in these parables, doesn't mean that it will stay small. The Kingdom of God begins as small and insignificant, but grows to become large and powerful. Mustard seeds versus trees, tiny leaven-lumps versus large bread loaves, fresh and fragrant from rising, and ready for the oven.

What is it that you are facing that discourages you? What is the mountain that seems insurmountable? There's a trite but true old saying, "Little is much if God is in it." There's a very interesting command in Zechariah 4:10: "Don't despise the day of small things."582 Too often we, like Jesus' first disciples, are tempted to give up when we see the tiny, struggling beginnings, and think that's all there will be.

So Jesus' parable about the mustard seed and the tree is a parable for me and you, too. Tiny leaven, big loaf is intended for us, as well. My disciple friend, let Jesus speak encouragement and faith to you this day. Don't quit. Don't judge your efforts or Jesus' power by what you can see right now. The seeds we sow today will grow great crops in season. "For we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7, KJV).

In fact, the entire Bible is filled with the paradox illustrated by these parables:

"Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession -- to the praise of his glory." (Ephesians 1:13-14)

"So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

"Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy." (Psalm 126:5)

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." (Romans 8:18)

"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." (2 Corinthians 4:17)


Father, too often I believe only what my eyes see, and I get discouraged. Forgive my faint heart. Help me to be filled with your hope and your vision for your Kingdom. Expand my seeing, mushroom my understanding. Help me to see the Kingdom of God as Jesus sees it. In his holy name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches." (Luke 13:18-19)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. What about God's kingdom is impossible to comprehend without understanding these parables?
  2. Why did the disciples in particular need to understand these parables?
  3. How has God expanded your vision of his Kingdom? In what areas do you need an expanded vision?
  4. In what area are you discouraged? (Be honest now....) How can you apply this parable to your discouragement?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[579] R.K. Harrison, "Mustard," ISBE 3:449.

[580] They cite Daniel 4:12, 21; Psalm 104:13; Ezekiel 17:23; 31:6; and 1 Enoch 90:30.

[581] Jeremias, Parables, p. 147. C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (Scribners, 1961), p. 153. T.W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (Eerdmans/SCM Press, 1957).

[582] See my article "Don't Despise the Day of Small Things" www.joyfulheart.com/encourag/small-tg.htm

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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