Parables are what they are, parables. They are stories whose meaning is not in the story itself but alongside them. The word “parable” comes from two Greek words, “para” which means “beside, alongside” and “ballein” which means “to throw”. In other words the real meaning of the story is accompanying only the story, thrown or put along with the story.
How to Get the Meaning of a Parable
Who then decides the meaning of the story in a parable? The obvious answer is the one who gives out that story. That is why when the disciples asked Jesus the meaning of a parable, he gladly acceded because he knew what the meaning of his parable was. He did not say, It is up to you to interpret my parable. His answer rather showed that he knew the meaning and he wanted to express this meaning by the explanation of the parable he narrated.
In the same way when we want an explanation of the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, the only one who knows the real meaning of these parables is Jesus, the one who uttered them.
We cannot ask therefore, What is the explanation of the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven? Jesus did not give any explanation. There is none.
On the other hand there have been many explanations of these parables throughout the centuries. They are not the explanations of Jesus but they are explanations of men and women who profess some kind of relationship to him, a disciple, a minister, a leader in his church.
Two Kinds of Explanation
Basically there are two kinds of explanation of these parables given by these men and women. One set of explanation says that they describe how the church had small, insignificant beginnings symbolized by the smallest seed known to the Jews, the mustard seed, and the indistinguishable leaven of the dough, but which grew to a great organization eclipsing the Roman empire and the governments of the nations.
The other set of explanation sees the parables as pointing to the corruptions that would enter the church later on, the birds on the tree from the mustard seed symbolizing the corrupt church leaders and the leaven symbolizing the corruption which like the leaven could not be easily detected in the church and could not be taken out, since leaven is a symbol of corruption in the other passages of the Bible.
An Explanation According to the Spirit of Jesus
Now a question may be posed: Who can give an explanation of these parables according to the meaning which Jesus intended? The obvious answer is his Spirit who continues to live with us. And when we ask this Spirit, the wonder of it is that he gives different explanations to different people, according to their need.
Here then is my explanation according to the light the Spirit of Jesus gave me. This is not the only valid explanation. You may have your own explanation and it may just be as right as mine.
First of all in explaining something we have to give the context or the circumstances surrounding a passage.
In the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven there are two different contexts. In the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark they are within a group of parables given while Jesus was teaching from a boat. However in Mark’s Gospel the parable of the leaven is not given. In Luke’s narration these two parables are inserted in a story after Jesus cured a woman in a synagogue during a Sabbath. They are given by Luke after a demonstration of the power of the Kingdom of God by curing the woman who was bound by Satan for 18 years.
The contexts tell us that for Mark and Matthew these two parables are just part of the group of parables. They are therefore to be understood within that group of parables. But for Luke these parables tell us about the operation of the Kingdom of God.
Secondly, here Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God, not about the church. Jesus did not say, The church is like a mustard seed. But he said, The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The two, the Kingdom and the church, are different realities. So this parable does not refer to the church, its beginnings and spread, but to the Kingdom of God.
Thirdly, Jesus was talking about a seed. And in the preceding explanation he said that the seed is the word of God. So also we can safely say that the mustard seed represents also the word of God which is sown in the hearts of people. It grows there. Then you follow this with the parable of the leaven as the gospel writers arranged it that way. The leaven produces its effects on the three measures of flour.
There are commentators who point to the great quantity of these three measures of flour. How can a small leaven act on these three measures of flour? It is just too much for that small amount of leaven. Why did Jesus not just say, “a measure of flour”? Why did he specify “three”?
Our explanation is that the leaven here still refers to the word of God. This word of God mixes with our total personality, influencing its three components: body, soul, and spirit. We have here an indication that even Jesus knew that we are composed of body, soul and spirit, in contrast to the teaching of Aristotle and his followers who taught that we are composed only of body and soul.
Fourthly, Jesus was not referring to the rise of an organization or Christendom. He said that the kingdom of God is within us. Thus these parables refer to the action of the Kingdom within us. The kingdom grows within us, so that others can find shelter through our love for them.
In summary then we can say that these parables of the mustard seed and the leaven refer to the seed of the Kingdom of God which is the word of God planted in our heart and grows within us and influences our whole personality, transforming our body, soul, and spirit.
The Kingdom of God is like the mustard seed, an ever growing reality making us bigger and bigger in the sight of God and is like an unnoticed, but effective transforming agent, making us like God in our whole being: our body, soul and spirit.