Three parables of the kingdom of heaven

According to Matthew 6:33, “Seek first kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [material needs] will be added to you.” Simple enough in principle, but just what is this kingdom, and what does it mean to seek it first? Jesus explained the kingdom in a number of parables. Here are three from Matthew 13:24-33.

The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a man

Kingdom of heaven, man planting wheat

Wheat plant: notice the bending stalk.

A man sowed good seed in his field. Now, this parable comes right after Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower. It seems safe to conclude that the seed in both cases is the word of God. But this time an enemy came and planted weeds.

Most of the teaching I have encountered about this parable points out that the man sowed wheat and his enemy sowed tares, or darnel. As these two plants grow, they look very much alike, but while wheat is nourishing, darnel is poisonous. When the two plants ripen, the weight of the wheat causes the stem to bend over. Darnel, on the other hand, remains upright. When it’s easy to tell the two apart, it is possible to harvest and destroy the weeds and then go back to harvest and store the wheat.

But Jesus compared the kingdom not to the wheat, but to the man who sowed it. What do we see when we look at him?

  • The man has a sneaky enemy. Just as Satan entered the garden and corrupted God’s creation, he continues his attacks on God’s word. So the kingdom is under attack.
  • The man cares about the wheat and is unwilling to risk losing any of it. God’s concern for both his creation and his word is plainly evident throughout Scripture
  • The man is supremely patient and is quite willing to let the tares grow with the wheat until their two different natures become obvious. The devil has sown counterfeit word, counterfeit saints, counterfeit gospel. . . You name it; if God has created something, Satan has made a counterfeit. His counterfeits are everywhere. If anyone wonders why God doesn’t wipe them out, remember that Jesus is comparing his kingdom to this man.
  • The man will be ruthless to the tares once their true character is revealed. He will burn them up. Jesus came to destroy Satan’s works. His earthly ministry prepared the way for the final destruction that will take place at the end of time.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed

Kingdom of heaven, mustard seed

Mustard seeds--magnified, of course!

In Matthew’s telling of this parable, Jesus points out how small a mustard seed is. It grows very large. Therefore the most obvious interpretation of this parable is that small beginnings have large results. Let’s not stop with the obvious.

First of all, mustard, like wheat, is a seed. Nothing happens to it while it’s in a bucket of mustard seeds. Everything Jesus ever said about seeds in general apply here. The seed must be sown in order for it to grow. There, it dies. Part of any seed sown in the ground actually begins to rot from the moisture in the soil, but the life hidden in the seed also begins to soak up the moisture and becomes a new living being.

A seed sown in the ground is hidden. No one can see it at work. Actually, until the first tiny bit of green appears above ground, no one has any evidence that it is even there. This particular seed becomes a very large bush, and the birds build their nests in it.

Among the various cross references is Ezekiel 31:6, “All the birds of the heavens nested in its boughs, and under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth, and all great nations lived under its shade.” Here, and also in Daniel 4:12, the bird seem comparable to the nations. Birds come from all around and often migrate long distances. They are not only local birds.

Therefore, if the kingdom is like a mustard seed that becomes home for birds, it also becomes home for people from all around. Jesus taught that the kingdom is not just for the Jews, or just for a chosen few, but for anyone at all who comes to seek shelter.

The kingdom of heaven is exclusive only by excluding everyone who chooses not to become a part of it. No person in the kingdom has any right to seek to expel or exclude anyone else.

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven

Kingdom of heaven, leaven

Look how high up the bowl the grease is! Someone has faith the dough will rise.

I once heard a sermon on the radio from someone who insisted that Bible imagery must be interpreted the same way every place it occurs. Since leaven often stands in for sin, and since women were less highly regarded than men, he said that some wicked woman infected the kingdom of heaven with all this sin.

You can separate wheat from weeds if you wait long enough, but you can never separate leaven from bread dough once you have put it there. So I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t intend to paint such a gloomy picture of the kingdom of heaven! Besides, he respected women more than most people of his time. Leaven might be sin other places in Scripture, but surely not here.

I don’t know how women made bread in Jesus’ day, but I suspect that the basic principles were no different from today. When I bake with yeast, I don’t put the yeast directly into the flour. I dissolve it in water and add it along with other wet ingredients. It would make sense if the ancients used something like a sour dough starter.

Here’s what’s important: Once the yeast (or the baking powder for that matter) go into the dough, it looks no different than unleavened dough. Like the mustard seed planted in the garden, you can’t tell it’s there. You can’t see it at work. After a while, though, the dough has risen.

The illustration of leaven, therefore, has many of the same implications as the growth of the mustard seed, but there is this difference: The mustard seed growing into a mustard plant changes only whatever part of the garden it was planted in. It’s probably impossible to stir yeast in so that it is present everywhere in the dough, but by the time the dough rises, not a bit of the flour and other ingredients remain unchanged.

So back to Matthew 6:33, Jesus tells us to put our top priority on seeking a kingdom where

  • the king is patient and loving;
  • the king will utterly defeat the plans of the enemy;
  • small beginnings grow very large;
  • whoever will may come and find acceptance;
  • its inner workings are hidden from view; and
  • nothing that it touches can remain unchanged.

There are other parables of the kingdom, and other comparisons to learn from them. There is probably more about God’s kingdom in these three parables that I haven’t seen yet. But this is more than enough to boggle my mind for a while. I’ve gotta find that place!

Photo credits:
Wheat plant Some rights reserved by Garry Knight
Mustard seed Some rights reserved by Quinn Dombrowski
Dough ready for rising Some rights reserved by mia.judkinsi

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