- In interpreting this text, we must take a humble and respectful attitude because, unlike many other parables, Jesus never actually explained these two. But in order to make the best interpretation possible, it is important to understand what the original listeners heard when they listened to Jesus. In these parables, Jesus uses a number of terms that had a certain connotation for the Jews, and it is clear in three different places that Matthew is addressing Jews in this text:
- In this text, it appears in three places that Matthew’s readers were Jews. Among the Jews at the time of Jesus there was great expectation that the Messiah would soon come and establish the kingdom of God on earth. Matthew is trying to show his Jewish readers that the kingdom of God, instead of coming immediately all at once, “grows” like leaven in a dough or like a mustard seed that becomes a tree.
- A second indication of Matthew’s Jewish audience is that Matthew chooses to write “the kingdom of heaven” instead of “the kingdom of God,” because Jews did not pronounce God’s name.
- A third hint that Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience is the fact that Matthew strangely writes that the “garden plant” mustard seed is planted in a “field”. Surely a garden plant should be planted in a garden, not in a field. According to Donald A Hagner, it was a rabbinic teaching that Jews were not allowed to plant mustard seed in their garden and thus had to plant it out in the field if they wanted a mustard tree. Luke’s Gospel, which was probably written primarily to Gentiles, uses the word “garden” instead of the word “field” in its text on the same parable, and Mark’s Gospel, which was probably written to both Jews and Gentiles, writes neither.
- The concept of “field” can also symbolize that God’s kingdom will not grow large in God’s “garden”; Israel, but instead will grow large among the Gentiles, outside the garden. The symbolism fits well with Matthew’s otherwise strong emphasis on the kingdom of God spreading among all peoples, not just among the Jews. It is probably safe to assume that the Jewish audience who heard the parable and those who later read Matthew’s Gospel reacted strongly to the fact that the kingdom of God was planted out in the field.
- The mustard seed was the smallest visible seed in Palestine at the time and had also become a proverb for smallness. It is therefore not very far-fetched for Jesus to use the mustard seed to illustrate the small beginnings of the kingdom of heaven. Today, thanks to science, we are well aware that the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds, but it was not Jesus’ purpose to describe an accurate scientific truth. Jesus wanted to highlight the exaggerated contrast in order to create a reaction in the audience. Similarly, the parable of the birds nesting in the tree is not an entirely accurate scientific description because birds nest in the spring and the mustard seed has not yet grown that large.
- Jesus’ talk about the birds of the air nesting among the branches is astonishingly similar to the vision described by the prophet Daniel in his fourth chapter, where the birds represent pagans. Since Jesus, Matthew and the Jewish audience and readers were all well aware of Daniel’s vision and knew that the birds in that vision symbolized Gentiles from all nations, it is not a stretch to think that they all understood that it was Gentiles who will be able to nest in the kingdom of God. Add to that the fact that the mustard seed was planted outside the “garden” and it is hard not to conclude that the kingdom of God will be planted outside of Israel and grow larger there than it was in Israel. It is also consistent with the historical fact that the church/kingdom of God began on a very small scale and later grew enormously outside Israel proper and soon among all the peoples of the earth. My interpretation is that both of these parables symbolize the expansion of the church.
- If “field” was a controversial image for the Jews in verse 31, the word “leaven” was also a loaded and controversial word. Leaven often symbolized evil in the Old Testament and was also not to be used during the celebration of Passover. Even in the New Testament, leaven is used as a symbol of something negative when Jesus warns against the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
- It is not a small amount of dough that Jesus is describing, for it makes 50 kg of bread, which is enough for a feast. So again we see that Jesus starts with something vanishingly small to describe the small beginnings of the kingdom of God but takes on large measures to describe the results of the kingdom of God. This is one of the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” that non-Christians do not understand. At first, the kingdom of God may be considered insignificant and not worth noticing, but in time it will grow stronger and bigger than anyone could have imagined.
- If the parable of the mustard seed describes the great growth of God’s kingdom, the parable of the leaven also describes the transforming power of God’s kingdom. The dough not only grows larger, it becomes fully infused with leaven. Not only will the kingdom of God grow large, but, like the leaven that permeates the whole dough, it will also permeate the whole of society.
- Now that 2000 years have passed since Jesus told these parables, one must ask if the passage of time has confirmed Jesus’ words? My simple conclusion is that the kingdom of God has grown immensely from a collection of fishermen from the Galilean countryside to the largest religion the world has ever seen with over 2 billion believers from virtually every nation in the world. So in terms of size and numbers, Jesus’ parables match up very well with what the world looks like today, although of course there is still much to be done. Missionary organisations around the world are working to bring the gospel to all the peoples of the world once and for all.
- Has the kingdom of God permeated society? It is clear that the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” has been influenced by the Ten Commandments. In most European countries there are political parties with a Christian basis. Churches and missionary organisations are active not only in spreading the message of salvation but also in promoting human rights, agricultural reform and better health care worldwide.
- What are the implications of these parables for us today? Well, we too must work for the spread of God’s kingdom even if we do not see immediate results and even if we have to suffer for God’s kingdom.