Wheat, Mustard and Leaven

Ordinary 16A

Matthew 13: 24 43


Our Lord here continues a major block of teaching, which spans seven or eight parables over the period of a whole day. He has completed explaining the meaning to his disciples, of the Parable of the Sower. Townspeople have stayed gathered around nearby, and Jesus decides to continue.

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 24 30 The Wheat and the Tares

In this parable, our Lord makes the following points, (which we have drawn largely from Ronald Cox and Albert Barnes):

  • The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. The field represents the world in which the gospel is preached. The good seed, the truths preached by our Lord, his apostles and those whom they instruct.
  • While his workers slept, his enemy came and sowed tares (cockle) wherever the wheat had been sowed, and then secretly went his way.

Barnes comments:

  • While men slept, his enemy came, etc. That is, in the night, when it could be done without being seen, an enemy came and scattered bad seed on the new-ploughed field, perhaps before the good seed had been harrowed in.
  • Satan thus sows false doctrine in darkness. In the very place where the truth is preached, and while the hearts of people are open to receive it, by false but plausible teachers, he takes care to inculcate false sentiments. Often it is one of his arts, in a revival of religion, to spread secretly dangerous notions of piety. Multitudes are persuaded that they are Christians, who are deceived. They are awakened, convicted, and alarmed. They take this for conversion. Or they find their burden gone; they fancy that they hear a voice; or a text of Scripture is brought to them, saying that their sins are forgiven; or they see Christ hanging on the cross in a vision; or they dream that their sins are pardoned, and they suppose they are Christians. But they are deceived. None of these things are any conclusive evidence of piety. All these may exist, and still there [may] be no true love of God, or Christ, and no real hatred of sin, and change of heart. An enemy may do it to deceive them, and to bring dishonour on religion.
  • Sowed tares. By tares is probably meant a degenerate kind of wheat, or the darnel grass growing in Palestine. In its growth and form it has a strong resemblance to genuine wheat. But it either produces no grain, or that of a very inferior and hurtful kind. Probably it comes near to what we mean by chess. It was extremely difficult to separate it from the genuine wheat, on account of its similarity while growing. Thus it aptly represented hypocrites in the church. Strongly resembling Christians in their experience, and, in some respects, their lives, it is impossible to distinguish them from genuine Christians, nor can they be separated until it is done by the great Searcher of hearts at the Day of Judgment. An enemy, the devil, hath done it. And nowhere has he shown profounder cunning, or done more to adulterate the purity of the gospel.
  • And went his way. There is something very expressive in this. He knew the soil; he knew how the seed would take root, and grow. He had only to sow the seed, and let [it] alone. So Satan knows the soil in which he sows his doctrine. He knows that in the human heart it will take deep and rapid root. It needs but little culture. Grace needs constant attendance and care. Error, and sin, and hypocrisy, are the native products of the human heart and, when left alone, start up with deadly luxuriancy.
  • When the wheat had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared.

Barnes comments:

They had grown with the wheat, but so much like it as not to be noticed, till the wheat began to ripen. So, true piety and false hopes are not known by professions, by "blades," and leaves, and flowers, but by fruit.

  • The owner's servants naturally remark that he would have only given them good seed to sow: how come the field is infested with weeds! Concerned, they offer to go and eradicate the tares.
  • The owner however, though equally alarmed, is most concerned about the best way to care for the wheat.

Barnes comments:

They so much resembled the true wheat, that even then it would be difficult to separate them. By gathering them, they would tread down the wheat, loosen and disturb the earth, and greatly injure the crop. In the harvest it could be done without injury.

  • The owner decides therefore to let both grow together.

Barnes comments:

They would not spoil the true wheat; and in time of harvest it would be easy to separate them. Our Saviour teaches us here,

(1.) That hypocrites and deceived persons must be expected in the church.

(2.) That this is the work of the enemy of man. They are not the work of Christianity, any more than traitors are of patriotism, or counterfeiters are of the proper effect of legislating about money. They belong to the world; and hypocrisy is only one form of sin. The Christian religion never made a hypocrite; nor is there a hypocrite on the face of the earth whose principles and practice it does not condemn.

(3.) That all hope of removing them entirely would be vain.

(4.) That an attempt to remove them altogether would injure real Christianity, by causing excitements, discord, and hard feelings even among Christians.

(5.) That he will himself separate them at the proper time. There is no doubt that it is the duty of the church to attempt to keep itself pure, and to cut off gross and manifest offenders, 1 Cor 5: 4, 6. He refers to those who may be suspected of hypocrisy, but against whom it cannot be proved; to those who so successfully imitate Christians as to make it difficult or impossible for man to distinguish them.

  • Our Lord rounds off this parable by explaining that at the time of harvest, the tares will be destroyed and the wheat taken into his care, where it will be free from further harm.
  • Jesus presents two more parables before he explains this one.

Verses 31 and 32 Parable of the Mustard Seed

  • The kingdom of heaven is like mustard seed, among the smallest of seeds but which grows into a bush large enough for birds to build safe nests in. The scholars perceive two dimensions which reflect the truth of this parable:

a) In the growth of the Church (Dummellow)

Insignificant in its beginnings, founded by a supposed criminal in an obscure province, directed by twelve Galileans of little wealth or education, the Christian movement rapidly expanded into a world-wide Church, so powerful as a bond of union, that the Roman empire itself sought to strengthen itself by its alliance, so strong to succour the oppressed, that the poor and lowly took refuge under its protection, so majestic in its ordered stability that the rude barbarians who conquered Rome submitted to its sway.

b) In the spiritual growth of new members (Barnes)

Young converts often suppose they have much religion. It is not so. They are, indeed, in a new world. Their hearts glow with new affections. They have an elevation, an ecstasy of emotion, which they may not have afterwards   like a blind man, suddenly restored to sight. The sensation is new, and peculiarly vivid. Yet little is seen distinctly. His impressions are indeed more vivid and cheering than those of him who has long seen, and to whom objects are familiar. In a little time, too, the young convert will see more distinctly, will judge more intelligently, will love more strongly, though not with so much new emotion, and will be prepared to make more sacrifices for the cause of Christ.

Ronald Cox adds:

  • The Mustard Seed tells them that the kingdom will not arrive in a blaze of glory, as the Lord gave the law on mount Sinai. It will have small beginnings, hidden and almost unnoticed, like his birth at Bethlehem; it will grow up in a world that does not suspect what is going on, like his life at Nazareth; but it will grow; and so great will it grow that all can find shelter in it (an allusion to the call of the Gentiles)

Verse 33 Parable of the leaven

  • The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a baker mixes in with flour so that you can't see it, and puts it away until the whole lot rises.

Barnes comments:

This, here, means the same as in the last parable; perhaps, however, intending to denote more properly the secret and hidden nature of piety in the soul. The other parable declared the fact that the gospel would greatly spread, and that piety in the heart would greatly increase. This declares the way or mode in which it would be done. It is secret, silent, steady; pervading all the faculties of the soul, and all the kingdoms of the world, as leaven, or yeast, though hidden in the flour, and though deposited only in one place works silently till all the mass is brought under its influence.

Ronald Cox adds:

Whereas the mustard seed absorbs and takes in from outside, the leaven is an energy that radiates from within; it is a spiritual force that influences, not by force of arms from without, but by enlightening the minds, and transforming the lives of men. The Jews thought of the kingdom as coming in such splendour that it could not escape notice; it would be so obvious and compelling that there would be no need for personal effort.

Verses 34 and 35 Prophecy and the Parables

  • Jesus carried out all his teaching at this time in parables according to the prophecy of Asaph:

"I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter things which have been kept
secret from the foundation of the world."
(Psalms 78: 2 and 3)

  • Jesus taught as did that prophet, Asaph, in parables. The words of Asaph described the manner in which Jesus taught, and in this sense it would be said that they were fulfilled. (Barnes)

Verses 36 43 Parable of the Tares explained

Jesus dismissed his group of listeners and went into the house. In private the disciples asked for an explanation about the parable of the wheat and tares.

Adam Clarke opens his commentary on this situation with these words:

Circumstances of this kind should not pass unnoticed: they are instructive and important. Those who attend only to the public preaching of the Gospel of God are not likely to understand fully the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. To understand clearly the purport of the Divine message, a man must come to God by frequent, fervent, secret prayer. It is thus that the word of God sinks into the heart, is watered, and brings forth much fruit. (Excellent advice for 21st century Christians!)

Ronald Cox adds his scholarly interpretation:

This parable is familiar to us as the Cockle. It is known to readers of the Authorized Version as the Tares; and that is how Monsignor Knox translates it. The Greek word is Zizania, corresponding to the Hebrew Zunin, a noxious, narcotic weed indistinguishable from wheat until the ears are formed. Its botanical name is Lolium Temulentum, and its closest relative in this country is Darnel. This weed best fits the details of the parable, and its application by our Lord. It is meant to correct the false Jewish idea of a kingdom consisting solely of holy members; there was to be no room for sinners in their earthly millenium. The main error in this Jewish picture is the failure to distinguish between the church on earth, and the blessed in heaven; between the first coming of Christ to redeem mankind, and the second coming, at the end of the world, to judge them. So, our Lord's chief lesson is that both good and evil men will exist together in the kingdom, and often be indistinguishable from each other.

It is a solemn warning to the apostles not to expect opposition and danger only from without, but even from within the fold; the presence of Judas among them must not shake their faith; the Master has forewarned them in this parable. Also they are told that the real enemy of the kingdom is the devil; a much more subtle and dangerous foe than Rome. He does not sleep; he is out to destroy, and his activity is so secret and cunning that it goes long unrecognised. Since it is so difficult to know who are under his influence, it would do more harm than good to try and exterminate them. Virtue is to be practised in patiently enduring evil, and in trusting to God's providence; at the end he will vindicate his faithful followers. Their work is the salvation and sanctification of men, not their destruction.


A sermon from around AD 320 given by St Aphraates (known as The Persian Sage) helped to explain the importance of the parables to the Church under persecution in Syria:

Dearly beloved, it is not enough to read and to study the sacred scriptures, we must fulfil them also. For to me it seems that if anyone is involved in contentions and in quarrels, his prayers are not acceptable, his supplications are not answered, his gift rises not upwards from the earth; and neither does the giving of alms avail him for the forgiveness of his sins. And wheresoever there is no peace and tranquillity, the door is left open to the Evil One. Where correction and right order are also absent, then the Christian manner of living, and earnest striving after righteousness, are also absent. Then the wheat is mixed with the tares, thorns flourish, the disorderly multiply, mockery is everywhere, there is neither correction nor amendment of life, nor any right order. The salt then loses its flavour, men's minds become obscured, and the body walks clothed in darkness. The ordinary things of life are thrown into confusion, and there is peace neither for the one coming, nor for the one going. Such are the fruits of discord. In times such as these, those who are worthy reveal themselves, those who are truly wise are now seen to be so, the good are shown forth, they who follow after peace, who foster tranquillity among men. Their reward is enduring, and their fruit abundant. These are the men who set up a defence and stand in the gap before me, that I may not destroy the land (Ezek 22: 30), who give themselves to toil on behalf of the people, and receive their reward with the good and faithful servants of holy memory.

(From: Homily Against Discord and Envy)

Further Reading: The Parable of the Tares by J.C.Ryle.

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