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Monday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time. The reading is from Gospel of Matthew 13:31-35.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed – Matthew 13:31-32

He [Jesus] proposed another parable to them.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field.

It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’

The Parable of the Yeast – Matthew 13:33

He [Jesus] spoke to them another parable.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.

The Use of Parables – Matthew 13:34-35

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world].

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast illustrate the same point: the amazing contrast between the small beginnings of the kingdom and its marvelous expansion.

Here is the Marcan version.

The Mustard Seed – Mark 4:30-32

He [Jesus] said,

“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it?

It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.

But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.

Here is Luke’s version.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed – Luke 13:18–19

Then he [Jesus] said,

“What is the kingdom of God like? To what can I compare it?

It is like a mustard seed that a person took and planted in the garden. When it was fully grown, it became a large bush and ‘the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches.’

The Parable of the Yeast – Luke 13:20-21

Again he [Jesus] said,

“To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?

It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed [in] with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.

In the three gospels we find

  • “It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’” (Matthew 13:32)
  • “It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” (Mark 4:31-32)
  • “It is like a mustard seed that a person took and planted in the garden. When it was fully grown, it became a large bush and ‘the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches.’” (Luke 13:19)

The above verses seem to be echoes of verses in Daniel.

  • “These were the visions I saw while in bed: I saw a tree of great height at the center of the earth. It was large and strong, with its top touching the heavens, and it could be seen to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, providing food for all. Under it the wild beasts found shade, in its branches the birds of the air nested; all flesh ate of it. (Daniel 4:7–9)
  • The tree that you saw, large and strong, its top touching the heavens, that could be seen by the whole earth, its leaves beautiful, its fruit abundant, providing food for all, under which the wild beasts lived, and in whose branches the birds of the air dwelt—you are that tree, O king, large and strong! Your majesty has become so great as to touch the heavens, and your rule reaches to the ends of the earth. (Daniel 4:17-19)

In these versed in Daniel, the birds nesting in the tree represent the people of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. In Ezekiel too we have similar verses.

  • On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it. It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. Every small bird will nest under it, all kinds of winged birds will dwell in the shade of its branches. (Ezekiel 17:23)
  • In its branches nested all the birds of the sky; Under its boughs all the wild animals And in its shade dwelt all the mighty nations. (Ezekiel 31:6)

Except in this Q parable found in Matthew and Luke,

  • He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)
  • “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed [in] with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.” (Luke 13:21)

and in

  • Then they understood that he was not telling them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:12,)

yeast (or “leaven”) is, in New Testament usage, a symbol of corruption.

  • Jesus said to them, “Look out, and beware of the leaven* of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:6)
  • “How do you not comprehend that I was not speaking to you about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 6:11–12)
  • He enjoined them, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15)
  • Meanwhile, so many people were crowding together that they were trampling one another underfoot.a He began to speak, first to his disciples, “Beware of the leaven—that is, the hypocrisy—of the Pharisees.” (Luke 12:1)
  • Your boasting is not appropriate. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough? Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6–8)
  • A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. (Galatians 5:9).

Three measures mentioned in this parable is an enormous amount, enough to feed a hundred people. The exaggeration of this element of the parable points to the greatness of the kingdom’s effect.

Jesus spoke to them only in parables

  • All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, (Matthew 13:34)
  • With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private. (Mark 4:33-34)

Please refer to my article “Jesus Explains the Purpose of Parables,” for more insight.

Some textual witnesses read “Isaiah the prophet” for “the prophet” in

  • to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world].” (Matthew 13:35)

The quotation “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world].” is actually from Psalms.

  • I will open my mouth in a parable, unfold the puzzling events of the past. (Psalms 78:2)

I will open my mouth in a parable,” corresponds to the LXX text of the psalm. The psalm’s title “A maskil of Asaph.” ascribes it to Asaph, the founder of one of the guilds of temple musicians. He is called “the prophet” or “the seer” in

  • King Hezekiah and the princes then told the Levites to sing the praises of the LORD in the words of David and of Asaph the seer. They sang praises till their joy was full, then fell down and worshiped. (2 Chronicles 29:30)

but it is doubtful that Matthew shunned that; for him, any Old Testament text that could be seen as fulfilled in Jesus was prophetic.

A note on Mustard in the teaching of Christ

The people whom Jesus addressed during his life time were mainly rural folk who would have had enough knowledge of plants to understand the substance and nuances of Jesus’ teachings that involved plants.

Jesus taught profound spiritual truths to simple folk through parables, using relevant and familiar examples from everyday life. The mustard plant, mentioned in the three Canonical gospels and in the non canonical Gospel of Thomas is one of these examples.

The term “Mustard” is used to describe several plant species in the genera Brassica and Sinapis whose small mustard seeds are used as a spice and, by grinding and mixing them with water, vinegar or other liquids, are turned into the condiment known as mustard or prepared mustard. The seeds are also pressed to make mustard oil, and the edible leaves can be eaten as mustard greens.

According to Theophrastus and Pliny, mustard was grown in gardens and did not need any cultivating, as it sprouts all by itself.

Some suggest that Salvadora persica (Arak, Galenia asiatica, Meswak, Peelu, Pīlu, Salvadora indica,or toothbrush tree) is a species of Salvadora, also known as “mustard tree,” is the mustard meant in the bible because the Arabs are reported to call this tree chardal and the Hebrew equivalent is also chardal.

Salvadora persicais a popular chewing stick throughout the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the wider Muslim world. It is often mentioned that the Prophet Muhammad recommended its use. He is quoted in various Hadith extolling the twig’s virtues.

But this plant cannot be the mustard mentioned in the canonical gospels becuase Salvadora persica is a shrub unlike any member of the mustard family; it is never cultivated; found only in deserts; and the fruits are large.

So, the most probable contenders are plants of the Brassicaceae, a medium-sized and economically important family of flowering plants (Angiosperms), that are informally known as the mustards, mustard flowers, the crucifers or the cabbage family. Varieties that we normally come across are black mustard (Brassica nigra), Mild white mustard (Sinapis hirta), the white mustard (Sinapis arvensis or Sinapis alba), and Indian mustard (Brassica juncea). All these plants have small seeds.

So the logical conclusion arrived by many experts is that the parable points toBrassica nigra.

The seeds of both black and white mustard are similar in size – about 1.0 to 3.0 mm (1/8 inch) making them the smallest seed that can be planted in the ground. This clearly indicates that Jesus was comparing the mustard seed to other seeds that were commonly grown. Though there might have been numerous other plants with smaller seeds familiar to his listeners, there were only a few plants which grew large and rapidly in one season as a mustard, characterized by rapid germination of the seed. Mustard sowed one day would germinate and begin sprouting the next day.

From a botanical point of view, a grown black mustard would still be a herb. Trees in most parts of the Holy Land do not attain a large stature. The black mustard plant itself can grow from two to eight feet tall and could be considered a shrub. Wild mustard plants that grow over ten feet tall have been noticed near the Jordan River.

It has also been noticed that the stem of mustard plants becomes dry and wood-like, which gives it the look of a tree.

Black mustard is an exceptionally large mustard plant. But is it strong enough for birds to perch on them?

The answer can be found in Mark 4:32,

  • “But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”

Almost all the versions of the gospel say that it becomes the largest of (garden) plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade. They do not say that the birds can make nests in the branches; but say:

  • can dwell in its shade
  • can make nests in its shade
  • can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE
  • will be able to perch in its shade
  • may lodge under the shadow of it
  • so that under its shade the fowls of the heaven are able to rest

and so on.

To summarize, the features of the mustard plant emphasized by Jesus in the Parable of the Mustard Seed are the small size of the mustard seed, the large size of the mustard plant in relation to the seed, and the rapid growth of the plant from germination onwards.

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