The Parables of Jesus - Lesson 11

By John Harrison

Parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven (Matthew 13:31-33)

Objectives: By the end of this lesson the learner will be able to:

  1. Describe important background information that will improve the readers' understanding of the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.
  2. List the major lessons conveyed by both parables.
  3. Determine applications of the major lessons to contemporary situations. O/H 1

Teaching Aids and Materials:

  1. Easy to understand Bibles for every student (CEV, RSV, NAV, NIV, NRSV, etc.)
  2. A chalkboard, marker board, or overhead projector.

Lesson Plan for Conducting the Class

Introduction: (about 8-10 minutes)

  1. Begin class by welcoming members and any visitors; make all necessary class announcements; songs.
  2. Lead the class in a prayer that will include asking for confidence to trust that God's future kingdom will be greater than what we can see of it now.
  3. Q: Last Sunday our assignment was to pray each day this week for a specific country where Christians had to face persecution. Who would like to share with the class what specific things you asked God to do for them? (Allow 2-3 learners to respond.)
  4. Q: If you were asked to describe the future kingdom of God based on what you can see of that kingdom in God's people today, what would you say it will be like? (Allow 2-3 learners to respond.)
  5. Share with the learners the lesson objectives. O/H 1
  6. Have someone first read Matthew 13:31-32. Matthew 13:33, the parable of the leaven, will be read later.

Learning Experiences: (about 20-25 minutes)

Part I: Background information for the parable of the Mustard Seed

This parable (more precisely a similitude) is also found in Mark 4:30- 32 and Luke 13:18-21. Explain to the learners that when Jesus used the introductory formula "The kingdom of heaven is like -". Jesus is not saying the kingdom is like a mustard seed. The comparison is between what the kingdom of God will finally appear as and what a mustard seed finally becomes after it has been planted. In the Mediterranean world, the mustard seed was thought to be the smallest of all the seeds. It is only about .075 inches in diameter. Yet, when it is planted in can grow into a herb that measures anywhere from 6 to 12 feet high (and on some occasions even as high as 15 feet!). Q: Look at Mark's version of this parable in Mark 4:30-32. What is different between Mark's description of what the mustard seed grows up into and Matthew's version? A: Mark's version says that the seed grows up into a shrub while Matthew's version says it grows up into a tree. Explain to the learners that Matthew (and Luke) are probably describing the plant as a "tree" because of the Old Testament imagery of an eschatological tree (a tree symbolizing events that occur in connection with God's activity in the world). Among later Jewish exegetes, passages such as Ezekiel 17:22-24; 31:6 and Daniel 4:12 that speak of a tree where the birds of the air nest, were interpreted to mean that in the future Gentiles would repent of their sins and come to worship Israel's God. Since only Matthew and Luke refer to a "tree", some commentators argue that early Christians exchanged Jesus' original "shrub" into a tree so as to make it symbolize and justify the church's evangelization of Gentiles. Now have someone read Matthew 13:33. This parable (again, similitude) can be found also in Luke 13:20, 21. Draw the learners' attention to fact that for such a small parable there are several unusual features within it. First, while it is true that the kingdom of God is not compared directly to leaven, it is compared with what happens when leaven is mixed in dough. This is unusual because God's kingdom is a positive image while leaven was used as a negative metaphor for that which corrupts (Matthew 16:6 and parallels, Luke 12:1; 1 Cor. 5:6-8; and Gal. 5:9). While in literature that dates after the New Testament leaven was used as a positive symbol, there is no example of such a use that predates Jesus. Second, not only is the kingdom compared to what happens with leaven but the woman is probably symbolic of God. Like a woman who uses leaven to spread into the dough, so God uses the kingdom to act in a similar fashion. We are used to thinking conceptually about God as "Father". This is one of the few instances where God is compared to a female. Third, the parable says that the woman "hid" the leaven in the dough. This is probably not coincidental. While it is pressing the detail too far to say, as some exegetes do, that the woman is up to something sinister, the hidden leaven probably symbolizes the hidden power of God's kingdom in the ministry of Jesus. In the parable of the Mustard Seed, the seed is also "hidden" in the ground through the process of sowing it, but that point is less emphasized. Fourth, the woman hides the leaven into an unrealistic amount of flour for one common woman to deal with for routine needs. While the NIV says "large amount", some translations will have "three measure" (RSV, NRSV). A "measure" (the Greek word used is saton) is equivalent to 36 liters or 144 cups. The woman used 432 cups of flour to make her bread! That's a large quantity of bread. Jesus is making the point that just as it seems unlikely that something as small as leaven has the power to produce such a huge quantity of bread, so it is not obvious that the power of God's kingdom, though it appears insignificant in numbers and power, will in the end appear as something enormous. Fifth, it is interesting to note that the parable does not conclude with the leaven mixed dough resulting in a large quantity of bread (though that is assumedly what would happen). As the parables stands, the focus is only on the dough being leavened throughout.

Part Il: Lessons from both parables

Q: What are the main symbols? A: The main symbols are the mustard seed and the leaven. The sower and the woman are secondary symbols but significant in their own right. Q: What main lesson does the parable of the mustard seed convey? A: When the kingdom of God is finally revealed, it will be significantly larger than what we see of it now. It may be necessary to stress to the learners that this is not so much a "parable of growth" as a "parable of contrasts". Jesus is not saying that the visible church will gradually grow until the end. All he is illustrating is that the size of the future kingdom is proportionately larger in contrast to what that kingdom looks like in the present world. Q: What main lesson does the parable of the leaven convey? A: The kingdom of God, though it cannot be seen, is an unstoppable force that God's power has initiated. It works through Jesus' ministry and will transform God's creation into something better.

Part lII: Contemporary Applications of the main lesson

It is more difficult to extract out of these two parables applications to life, since they are primarily designed to reveal information about how God's kingdom will finally appear. Both parables appear to be directed toward those who might be asking Jesus how the kingdom of God can be associated with his ministry. The kingdom is power and glory, but Jesus is a poor, itinerant, and unassuming prophet. Jesus gives two answers. First, "Despite the fact that you cannot see evidence of this kingdom in my ministry, I am planting the seed for that kingdom that will one day will be so large that will be a home for numerous people." Second, "The reason that you cannot see evidence of this kingdom in my ministry is because God has intentionally hidden the kingdom within it. But be warned, it cannot be stopped from producing what God has created it to produce." Q: If Christians were discouraged about the significance of their ministry for the kingdom, could either parable be used to encourage them? A: The parable of the mustard seed could remind them that their ministry is significant not because of its own size or strength. It is significant because it is representative of God's large and glorious domain that will be revealed in the end. The parable of the leaven could remind them that their ministry is significant because it belongs to something larger that cannot fail but will transform the world. Q: If a non-Christian argued that they see nothing in churches today that would make them want to be apart of them, how might you be able to respond in light of what you know from these two parables? A: These parables point to the truth that God will bring forth from what is not now glorious or powerful a people who will ultimately prevail over everything.

Application: (about 5-10 minutes)

  1. Distribute to the learners handout 1 "God's Kingdom: Now and Then". Tell them to list on one side of the column things that look weak in God's kingdom now and in the other column how that item will be made superior in the future kingdom. In this exercise you will want to see if they can distinguish between weaknesses in God's kingdom now and those strengths that will exist in the future kingdom. (For example: Right now those in God's Kingdom have bodies that decay and some are infected with disease. In the future kingdom there will be no decay of the body or any disease.)

Assignment: (about 2 minutes)

  1. Ask the learners to identify two to three things that non- Christians say indicates that God is not at work among his people. Be prepared next week to share your examples and what response you would make to them.

Lesson Wrap-up

Review the lesson objectives. Let them know the title of next weeks lesson: The Hidden Treasure and Pearl

Overhead 1

Class Objectives

    1. Describe important background information that will improve the readers' understanding of the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.
    2. List the major lessons conveyed by both parables. Determine applications of the major lessons to contemporary situations.

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