Parables of Weeds, Mustard, and Leaven

painting depicting growth of a mustard seed
Art by Piety Choi

What does the kingdom of Heaven have to do with weeds, a mustard seed, and some leaven? Right after the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus goes through several more parables right in a row that begin the with the words, “The kingdom of Heaven is like…” Today, we’re going to look at the first three of these parables where Jesus compares the kingdom to wheat growing among weeds, a tiny mustard seed, and leaven placed in some flour.

The Kingdom of Heaven

Before we get into these short parables, let’s sdefine what Jesus means when He says, “Kingdom of Heaven.” There are historically two ways we interpret God’s kingdom. The first is Heaven itself, where God reigns for all eternity. This interpretation usually fits in passages Like Matthew 7:21 – 23, where Jesus says, “Not all who say Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven,”  or I Corinthians 15:50, where Paul says that flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom.

As we look through the content of these parables, this definition doesn’t make a lot of sense here. So what else do we have? When Jesus sent the twelve out to preach in Matthew 10, He instructed them them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Matthew 16:28, and Mark 9:1 has Jesus promising that some standing in His presence would live to see the kingdom established with power.

Based on these passages, Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:17 – 19, and the events of power in Acts 2, it’s pretty clear the the kingdom of Heaven can also refer to Christ’s church. We are what Peter refers to as a holy nation in I Peter 2:9 — not defined by geography or alliances, but defined by our citizenship in Christ’s holy kingdom. And it is the kingdom of the church that these parables are talking about.

A Harvest Among the Weeds

Matthew 13:24 – 30:

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 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?’ 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?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 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.”’”

Like the parable of the sower, Jesus gives us an explanation of this one beginning in verse 36.  He is the Master who sows the good seed, but Satan sows weeds among that seed in order to choke it out. The harvest is the judgment where the wheat will be gathered and the weeds will be cast away. It’s pretty straightforward. But the interesting part comes when the servants ask whether they should go weed the field. The Master actually says no. Rather, He lets the crop and the weeds continue to grow side-by-side until the harvest. That’s when He will separate.

In the World, Not of the World

As before, the good seed are those who hear and receive God’s word. In this parable, the weeds are those who reject God. Our Master says we need to grow side-by-side until the harvest time has come. This is teaching “in the world but not of the world” in a nutshell, like Jesus’ prayer in John 17, where He says in verse 15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Through this parable and in His prayer, Jesus is telling us that we who accept His word will still be a part of the world.

Sometimes, we go to great lengths to shelter ourselves and our families from the influence of the world, but those efforts sometimes backfire. Too often, overly sheltered young Christians plunge headlong into temptation and sin as soon as they get their first taste of independence. They are so ignorant of the world and the insidiousness of temptation that they have no real defenses once they are on their own without someone else’s faith to lean on. We need to be able to guard our families from the influence of the world while still acknowledging that the world is real and that we live in it.

Influencing Without Being Influenced

Furthermore, if we extract ourselves entirely from the world around us, how do we seek and save the lost? Again, take Jesus as an example. He would eat and socialize with all sorts of sinners and social rejects. Jesus lived in a way that His influence could rub off on others, but He did not let their influence rub off on Him. Yes, Paul warns that evil companionship can corrupt good morals, but that does not mean we prevent ourselves and our families from having any contact with the world. Else how can we even go into the world to seek and to save?

To reiterate, when we withdraw from the world, we defeat ourselves spiritually in two important ways:

  • We weaken our defenses and leave ourselves unequipped in the battle against temptation.
  • We isolate ourselves from the very people we need to be reaching.

Yes, Satan uses the influence of the world to turn us from God, just like the adversary in the parable sowed weeds to choke out the crops. God’s solution is not to destroy the weeds immediately, and do you know why? Because, unlike the weeds in your garden, we of the harvest can convert those weeds to be part of God’s crop. We live, work, and school among the weeds so that we can save them.

A Mustard Seed and Leaven

The next parable is in Matthew 13:31 – 32:

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. 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.”

Have you ever seen a mustard seed? They are super teeny tiny. It’s ridiculous. Their entire diameter equals about one millimeter. Jesus calls them the smallest of all seeds, but I’m assuming He’s limiting the comparison to crop-bearing seeds. There are orchid seeds even smaller, but the illustration still stands. It starts small and then grows into something immeasurably bigger than its original form. Here, Jesus is probably referring to a black mustard plant which can grow in excess of nine feet tall.

Another thing about these mustard plants is that they grow fast — so fast that some regions consider them an invasive crop. Once it begins growing in a field, it is almost impossible to eliminate. It’s like this stuff called Oriental Limelight we put in the garden when our home was new. The stuff took over the garden and even began spreading into our yard. It was an unstoppable force. The same is true of the leaven Jesus speaks of in the very next verse. The leaven didn’t stop until it spread throughout the entire batch of flour.

A Growing Spreading Church

The lesson for us is simple. God’s kingdom cannot be contained. Jesus illustrates the influence of the church with two items whose spread is virtually impossible to stop, though they both start incredibly small. How did the church start? With just a few faithful followers standing up to declare the Lord on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. From there, the church grew to about 5,000 people — exponential growth but still rather small. Today, hardly a community in the world has not heard, in some form, the teachings of Christ. And it all began with one sermon on one day nearly two thousand years ago. Each of us are a part of that growth.

Furthermore, both examples use things that are virtually impossible to eliminate. When black mustard plants take hold, they are there to stay. When you add leaven to flour, you can’t simply extract it after it spreads. This is the same with Christ’s church. It’s as Gamaliel said in Acts 5:34 – 39: “…if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” God’s word, once it takes root in your heart, can never be completely erased, no matter how hard you try. Likewise, the kingdom will never be destroyed, no matter what the devil throws as us.

As Paul writes in Romans 8:35 – 39:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Encouragement and Work

These things should serve as an encouragement to all of us. No matter what our enemy may do to stop God’s kingdom, he will fail. He can throw weeds among us to choke us out with trials, worries, and temptations, and they cannot touch us as long as we remain rooted in the kingdom. He can use the powers of this world to try to stop God’s church and erase us from history, but that too will always fail. God’s kingdom will always endure. It will always spread, and it is here to stay.

The question is will you and I be found among the wheat of the kingdom when the harvest comes? God intentionally left us in the world so that we could bring others to Christ and change weeds into wheat. He expects us to grow and spread like leaven. This means we don’t let the weeds choke us, and it also means we get out there and do the work. No hiding behind locked doors like the apostles after the crucifixion — we only grow by getting out of our bubbles and reaching others. Like Christ, we get out and teach, influencing the world around us without letting it influence us. Put your confidence in God and His unshakable kingdom. Have faith and share faith. And try to help as many as possible be ready for the harvest.

lesson by Robert Smelser