Last week we began our study of the parables of Jesus in Matthew 13. We learned that Jesus often spoke in parables because he was trying to help his disciples dig deeper to discover the truths contained in them. Some people have no interest in learning from Jesus and won’t put in the effort to understand, but for those who are willing to invest some time and energy into understanding them, the parables are a rich source of wisdom and insight.
Part of what makes the parables so enduring is the fact that pictures stick with us. If we can visualize something we are more likely to remember it. Parables can also help us to understand by comparing something confusing to something we know well. Jesus was a master at doing this. This morning we are going to look at three different word pictures Jesus used to describe the Kingdom of God. Each one was a picture his original audience would have understood well, but like us, they were challenged to wrestle with the truth behind the images. This morning we are going to try to draw application from these stories for ourselves—as these truths are just as relevant today as they were when Jesus originally gave them.
The Wheat and the Weeds
The first parable Jesus gives is found in verses 24-30.
24 Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. 25 But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. 26 When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew. 27 “The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’ 28 “ ‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed. “ ‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked. 29 “ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30, NLT)
One of the challenges of understanding the parables is that they were told to people who lived in a different climate, culture, and time than the one in which we live. As a result, we sometimes have to put ourselves back into that setting before we can really begin to understand the parable.
We certainly understand the frustration of weeds today, just as Jesus’ original audience did. Despite our best efforts and modern herbicides, weeds continue to be a problem for us. But Jesus was probably referencing a very specific problem that wheat farmers had in that region, namely the weed called the bearded darnel—and that specific problem which was well-understood to his original audience is foreign to us.
The bearded darnel is a weed that looks exactly like wheat when it first begins to grow. Even a trained botanist would have trouble distinguishing the two. It is only when the bearded darnel reaches maturity that it becomes distinguishable from good wheat. The problem with the darnel is that its root system entangles itself with the roots of the wheat. So if you were to try to uproot the bearded darnel, you would also destroy the wheat around it.
This was a problem that was very familiar to Jesus’ hearers in the first century. They would have immediately had a picture of exactly what Jesus was talking about when he began the story. The solution to the problem of bearded darnel was to harvest both the wheat and the weeds together and then to meticulously separate the wheat from the darnel. This was important because eating the grains of the bearded darnel would make you sick—it also tasted bitter. So leaving any remnants of the darnel behind would spoil the whole grain harvest.
So to imagine someone coming into your freshly planted field and intentionally planting such an invasive and destructive weed would be terrible, if not unheard of. Apparently this kind of thing happened—often enough that there was a Roman law that laid down penalties for planting weeds in the field of your enemy.
What’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t immediately explain the parable. He simply said that the Kingdom of Heaven was like this experience that everyone could relate to. Most of the crowds who were gathered with Jesus were never given any further explanation. They were left to wrestle with the meaning of this parable on their own. Fortunately for us, after they had left the crowds, his disciples asked him to explain what he meant. We find his explanation in verses 36-43.
36 Then, leaving the crowds outside, Jesus went into the house. His disciples said, “Please explain to us the story of the weeds in the field.” 37 Jesus replied, “The Son of Man is the farmer who plants the good seed. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. 39 The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels.
40 “Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand! (Matthew 13:36-43, NLT)
Jesus explains the symbolism of the story. He said that He is the farmer and that the field represents the world. The good seed represents the people of the Kingdom of God and the bad seed symbolizes people who oppose God. The harvest is the end of the world.
So, now that we have the symbols explained to us, what is the significance of the parable? The significance is that there are many people in the world, and we cannot easily identify who are the people of God and who are not. There are some who may look like wheat, when in fact they are weeds. We won’t really know the true identities of people until the harvest, when Jesus comes back and judges everyone rightly.
This teaches two things: First is that we shouldn’t be quick to judge others. It is tempting for us to make snap judgments about other people based on very little information. God is the only one who can truly judge hearts. This doesn’t mean we should compromise on the nature of sin, but it does mean we shouldn’t claim to know a person’s heart. It will only be revealed when God Himself judges.
The second thing it teaches is that we must be careful. Just because people are part of our local church doesn’t necessarily mean that they are followers of God. In every church there are weeds amongst the wheat.
This means it is easy to be led astray. Just because someone claims to be a Christian, or even if they sound like, or even act like a Christian, it doesn’t mean that we should blindly follow them. We need to examine everything we are taught against God’s unchanging Word. The only way we can be certain that what we are being taught is right is to check it out for ourselves. This is why we as a church work so hard to teach people how to read and understand the Bible, and why we encourage you to read the Bible for yourself. It is the only way to ensure you are not being led astray.
We must remember that there may even be weeds who are Christian leaders! Just because a person stands behind a pulpit, or uses big words, or has a bunch of fancy degrees, doesn’t guarantee they are teaching the truth. It’s important to learn from those who have studied more deeply than we have, but we must never blindly accept what others tell us the Bible teaches—we must check it out for ourselves.
Mustard Seeds and Yeast
The second two parables Jesus shares in this passage are about food (which is always an effective image!). The first is about a mustard seed.
31 Here is another illustration Jesus used: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32, NLT)
Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed: it starts small, but will grow into something massive—something that is steadfast, immovable, and benefits those around it.
Now some people have argued that Jesus is mistaken in saying that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, and thus the Bible can’t be trusted. The mustard seed is not the smallest seed we know of. There are other plants with even smaller seeds. I suspect Jesus knew that (after all, He created them!) but we need to understand that Jesus wasn’t speaking as a botanist, he was making an analogy his audience would understand.
Mustard seeds were the smallest seeds planted for crops in that region, and as a result, the term “as small as a mustard seed” had come to mean something almost imperceptibly small. If a person cut themselves, but weren’t hurt badly they might say that they only bled a drop the size of a mustard seed. Jesus was using an analogy of something they all recognized as incredibly tiny, and showing that even though it starts small, it becomes something great, strong, and immovable. This, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
He also compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast.
33 Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” (Matthew 13:33, NLT)
Yeast is something that is familiar to anyone who has ever baked bread. It is the magic that makes bread so delicious. Yeast is a tiny fungus that thrives on sugars. As it consumes sugar it releases carbon dioxide, and when yeast is introduced into dough it begins to break down sugar in the dough and the carbon dioxide it releases causes the dough to rise, making the resulting bread light, airy, and delicious!
Jesus is saying that just as a tiny organism like yeast can have such a profound impact on something as large as a family-sized amount of dough, so the Church can and will have a profound impact on the world. It can, and should, change the world from the inside out. The process is slow and almost imperceptible, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working. Jesus is encouraging believers not to give up, even when we feel overmatched, or even when it seems like our best efforts are getting little return. He wants us to remember that just like the mustard seed and yeast, small things can eventually make a huge impact.
There is one other important element we must understand as we look at the parable of the yeast. Every other time yeast is used in scripture as an illustration of something (and it is used quite often), it is symbolic of the pervasive nature of sin. Yeast symbolizes the fact that a little compromise with sin will eventually work its way through our entire lives.
This fact has led some to conclude that Jesus’ parable of the yeast was not referring to the positive effect the Church can have on the world, but rather the negative effect the world can have on us. But both interpretations are valid. Both are truths contained in scripture. So once again, we must be on guard against the influence of the world, we must remember that the little things matter—a small compromise now can lead to major consequences down the road. At the same time, we must also work to be yeast to the world around us—we should allow God to penetrate every area of our lives and change them from the inside out. As God transforms us from the inside out, we will find that we have the same effect on our society. Like a little yeast working its way through a whole batch of dough and changing it for the better, Christians who are being transformed by Jesus will slowly but surely transform the world around them.
As is the case with all of Jesus’ parables, these three parables have much to teach us and are immensely practical. There are several lessons I think we should learn from this passage.
First, we must guard against false teaching. Satan has planted all sorts of seeds of deceit and falsehood in the world around us, and it is easy for us to be led astray and into ungodly beliefs and actions if we don’t think critically.
We need to examine what we are being taught carefully. That means we should listen carefully to what pastors, Sunday School teachers, and Bible study leaders teach to make sure it lines up with scripture, but we must also realize these are not the only places we are taught. These are not the only people who influence our thinking and beliefs. Other people who claim to be believers may try to convince us of something that isn’t biblical as well. This does not mean we should become the spirituality police, attacking and critiquing every little thing others say, but it does mean that we should listen carefully and check what others say against what the Bible says.
But we do not only receive false teaching in the church, it is all around us. We need to learn to think critically about the TV shows and movies we watch, the books we read, and the web sites we frequent. All of these things subtly influence the way we view the world. We need to be people who read critically and learn to ask what is being taught in a given movie or show or article. Just because something is billed as a Christian book or movie doesn’t mean we should suspend careful evaluation. Be discerning in the things you allow to influence you; if you do not guard against false teaching, it will quickly creep into your life, with destructive consequences.
Second, God will not allow evil forever. One of the biggest criticisms people have of Christianity is the existence of evil in the world. People argue that if God were really good, He wouldn’t allow these bad things in the world. But the parable of the wheat and the weeds reminds us that the reason God allows evil to persist right now is because the time is not right to remove it yet. God will not allow evil to go unpunished. There will be a reckoning for all people one day. But God knows that trying to remove the weeds before the harvest would prevent the good seed from growing to its full potential, so he allows it to persist for now. How and why does God do all of this? I don’t know. But I do know this: there is coming a day when God will punish and eradicate evil. He is not asleep, He is not absent, He is not uncaring; He is simply waiting for proper time to come.
Third, we should carefully examine our own hearts. The parable of the weeds reminds us that the wheat and the weeds look very similar. They even grow in the same field. I think this reminds us that we must not be complacent when we look at our own hearts. It is tempting to think that because you go to church or Sunday School, or you know all of the words to the choruses and hymns we sing at church, or because you know a bunch of facts about the Bible that you are the wheat. But just because you find yourself in a wheat field, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wheat.
What I’m trying to say is that there are many people who play the game of Christianity. They look and act and sound like Christians. They hang out with Christians. They can convince everyone around them that they are true Christians. But outward appearances can be deceiving. God will not be fooled by our outward appearances. He will look at our hearts. Ultimately that will be the determining factor when the harvest comes.
So be honest with yourself—who or what are you seeking? Are you striving to draw ever closer to God? Or are you simply going through the motions? Are you chasing after the things of God or the things of the world? How you answer those questions will give you some insight into whether you are wheat or a weed.
Finally, we need to remember the power we have at our disposal. The parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast remind us that we can have a tremendous impact on the world around us even when it doesn’t seem like much is happening. Often that impact happens a little bit at a time, but when we look back we can see just how much God has used us. But that only happens if we are faithful to Him.
The fact that every other time the Bible talks about yeast it represents sin should remind us of a very important truth. What we cultivate is what will grow. If we cultivate faith in our lives, our faith will grow ever larger, but if we cultivate an attitude of sin and rebellion, that is what will grow. So the question is what are you cultivating in your life? What kinds of seed are you planting? Realize that you are developing habits whether you try to or not. What will the habits you’re building lead to? Remember that a little bit of yeast eventually works its way through the whole batch of dough. Stephen Covey stated it eloquently:
Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.
Farming is hard work. Good crops don’t just happen. Good harvests only come as a result of doing the right things and putting in the effort ahead of time. Jesus reminds us that there is coming a harvest someday soon. So do what’s needed now to ensure you won’t be disappointed come harvest time.