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EASY TO BE HARD: Wrestling with Scripture #29

Last week we looked at the first of seven parables that Jesus began with the words “the kingdom of heaven is like …”  Although the comparisons seem simple on the surface, a quick study reveals interpretations vary widely.


Let’s look at two and wrestle with what we discover. Jesus follows the Parable of the Tares with two quick parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a person took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all the other seeds; but when it is fully grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches,” and “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13: 31-33).


The controversy begins almost immediately with what is meant by the kingdom of heaven—a phrase used only in Matthew, a book written with a heavily Jewish perspective—since the other Gospels use the phrase “kingdom of God.” Some suggest that the kingdom of God is in the hearts of believers while the kingdom of heaven in Matthew refers to a literal political kingdom when the New Jerusalem is established on earth during the millennial reign of Christ. Others insist they refer to the same thing, citing that in His discussion with the rich young ruler, Jesus uses both phrases interchangeably.


Although the OT rarely uses the word kingdom, God’s kingship is found throughout. He is the King of creation, sitting on a heavenly throne. He is the only true King of Israel with absolute rule over His chosen people, and His reign is eternal. In the Aramaic, the kingdom of God was a phrase that emphasized the activity of God ruling rather than the place in which He does it. Some suggest kingdom of heaven was substituted for kingdom of God in Matthew because of the Jewish reverence for His name which caused them to avoid speaking the name “Yahweh” out loud. Either way, the phrase clearly suggests that the Kingdom will consist of those who honor the King by acknowledging His authority and sovereignty and obeying Him with reverence and love.


So how is such a spiritual posture comparable to a mustard seed or to leaven? The most common interpretation is that these two short parables teach the same truth about the transformative power of faith and the exponential growth of the church. Proponents point out that a mustard plant is more a bush than a tree, so that it’s impossible—without supernatural intervention—to grow to a size that can provide nesting spots for birds. Likewise, they suggest that, from its modest beginnings, the Gospel would eventually spread out to encompass the entire world, offering believers a refuge and a home—and because the growth of the tree is external and visible, it represents evangelism, or outward efforts, to build the church.


In the same way, they see leaven, or yeast, invisibly but actively working and multiplying within the dough, as representing the power of the Holy Spirit expanding the church from the inside out. Others apply these parables to the personal growth of believers as a lesson to never underestimate the power of faith. Once rooted, it will grow in astonishing ways over time. After all, in Matthew 17:20, Jesus Himself told the disciples that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could move mountains.


An opposite interpretation is offered by those who insist the primary meaning must always honor Jesus’ teachings to His original audience and be taken in context with the surrounding narrative. They point out that parables are often grouped together by common themes, which would seem to be the case in these seven that compare the kingdom with a familiar agrarian activity or Jewish tradition.


They suggest the specific word pictures Jesus painted include negative symbols (birds and leaven) which would have resonated very differently with the people of His day. Familiar with squatty mustard bushes, they would have considered one growing to the size of a tree as an unnatural, possibly ominous mutation. In addition, birds were typically depicted as carrion creatures that gathered over the rotting corpses of war, and Jesus Himself had just explained that birds represent the devil in a previous parable.


 In similar fashion, leaven was a common symbol of sin. Consider that “three measures of meal” would have immediately reminded the crowd of Abraham telling Sarah to prepare bread with three measures of fine meal for his heavenly guests (Gen 18:6). Three measures (or an ephah) were also used as a meal offering to God—leaven, symbolizing sin, would never be included, and during Passover, all traces of leaven were removed from Jewish homes, reminiscent of why we offer communion with wafers or unleavened bread. Jesus Himself repeatedly warned His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisee. In addition, proponents point out the woman is hiding the leaven in the dough—making her furtive actions seem somewhat sinister.  


Rather than rosy metaphors about the future growth of the church, taken in their historical context, these parables would probably have been understood to echo the forewarnings issued in the Parable of the Tares about false doctrine and teachers leading people astray. By revealing that hypocrisy and legalism would arise inside the early church, Jesus is preparing His disciples for the difficulties and rejection that would confront their efforts to spread the Gospel.  Superficial growth would occur as people attached themselves to the church for various reasons, but without real faith and repentant hearts, they would eventually distort and warp Christ’s message. Although the tree would grow and the dough rise, satan would use heresy and deception to hinder God’s redemptive plan.


So, what are we to do with these opposing ideas? Scholars insist both can’t be right, because a Bible passage has only one true meaning. Perhaps we could consider that the main lessons Jesus taught to His first century audiences are layered—not with new meanings—but with new applications for the post-Pentecostal church. What if His original message, layered with fresh applications for each generation, is what makes the Bible a living and active Word, designed to provide new insights every time we take the time to wrestle with Scripture?


What do you think?



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