The Kingdom Parables…Matthew 13 (Part 2)
By Jack Kelley
This is part 2 of a commentary on the Kingdom Parables of Matthew 13. (If you haven’t had a chance to read part 1 you may want to stop and do so now.) A parable, as you know, is a heavenly story put into an earthly context. The meaning of the Greek word for parable is “to place alongside” as in a comparison. This means that everything in a parable symbolizes something else. Correctly interpreting the symbols is the key that unlocks understanding.
I said last time that I believe the Kingdom Parables were given to expand the Lord’s comments on unforgivable sin from chapter 12. Since Jesus was speaking to Jews in Israel engaged in an agrarian economy it makes sense that we should try and replicate their perspective in understanding the symbols He used. His listeners were only familiar with their Scriptures so we’ll rely on the Old Testament as our theological guide and since most worked the land we’ll use our knowledge of agriculture to give us the proper social and historical context. Also, the Lord Himself explained the first 2 parables for us providing clues to help interpret the others, so let’s dig in. We’ll begin with parable number 3 since we covered the first 2 last time.
3) The Parable of the Mustard Seed
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it’s the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches. (Matt 13:31-32)
Here is one of the most apt descriptions of the Lord’s Kingdom on Earth. A small seed is planted that should grow into a large garden plant. But this seed grows into something it was never intended to be, a tree so big that birds come to perch in it. Some commentators equate this with the incredible growth of the church, but that violates both the agricultural context and the principle of expositional constancy I referred to last time. Mustard seeds don’t become trees, so something has gone wrong. And, as the Lord explained in His interpretation of the first parable, the birds represent the Evil One (Matt. 13:19). So this parable really predicts something quite different about church growth. Remember, the seed is His Word and the field is the world. He planted His Word in the world and as it grew it was perverted into something it was never intended to be; man-made bureaucracies so large that Satan could find a place there.
Well if this interpretation has merit we should find evidence in Scripture to support it. Let’s try Isaiah 29:13 for starters: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” In both Ezekiel and Jeremiah He laments that their worship has become so perverted as to make Him sick. (Jere. 6:16-21)
“But that’s the Old Testament,” you say, “Surely the Church is different.” Read 2 Cor. 10:13-15: “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising then if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness.” Just as the Lord is the same yesterday today and forever, so is man.
4) The Parable Of The Yeast
The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour (lit. 3 measures of meal) until it worked all through the dough (Matt. 13:33).
This parable is also interpreted by some as describing the way the Gospel has spread through out the world, but it’s really another way of saying the same thing as the previous one. Again our search for clues takes us to the only Scriptures they had, the Old Testament. The first one is in Genesis 18, where Abraham unexpectedly found himself entertaining three visitors. Even before he realized who they were, he had Sarah and the servants quickly prepare some food and drink as a sign of hospitality. As you read the passage note Abraham’s admonitions to hurry. You can’t hurry and bake bread unless you’re making unleavened bread, the kind without yeast. Otherwise it takes several hours. This quickly prepared meal became a tradition in the Middle East, known as the friendship offering, and was incorporated into the Temple Ceremony as the Grain Offering (the visitors turned out to be the Lord and 2 angels on their way to Sodom and Gommorah). Unleavened bread was prescribed for both offerings.
When the Lord mentioned the inclusion of yeast in the friendship offering to His Jewish audience, they realized once again that He was describing something that shouldn’t happen. This time the one in charge, the woman, was deliberately including an undesirable ingredient. But what’s the significance of yeast? Well in the Old Testament yeast can be seen as a symbol for sin (Exodus 34:25). Specifically it came to signify the sin of pride because of their similar properties. Yeast actually begins a corruption process when mixed with flour and water, causing the dough to swell as it ferments. Pride does the same to us, hence the adage, “swelling with pride.” By removing all the yeast from their households before Passover, Jewish families symbolically rid themselves of sin in preparation for celebrating their deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 12:15). The Lord Jesus, our Passover Lamb, took away our sin in preparation for our deliverance from Earth. Even most liberal Christian commentators today agree that every time yeast is used symbolically (except here, they say) it’s used to symbolize sin. Expositional constancy.
Using these clues, then, our adherence to both the context of the parable and the principle of expositional constancy requires an interpretation consistent with the parable of the mustard seed. While on Earth the Kingdom of Heaven will be infested with sin, often with the help of the very leaders sworn to protect and preserve it, something that makes it unsuitable for God. We can’t remove the sin from ourselves any more than the dough can remove the yeast from its midst.
The unpardonable sin is rejecting the Lord’s solution to our problem because by doing so we place ourselves beyond His reach. (His shed blood is the only sin remedy He has provided.) By rejecting His remedy we’ve also allied ourselves with God’s enemy Satan, because as the Parable of the Weeds (2) explained, there are only 2 sides to this battle and there are no neutrals. This has been true since the very inception of the Kingdom of Heaven in its Earthly phase, and will remain so till he removes us to our permanent place of residence. And that’s the topic of the next two parables. More next time.