Wheat, Mustard and Leaven
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
- While his workers slept, his enemy came and sowed
tares (cockle) wherever the wheat had been sowed, and then secretly went
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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.
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.
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
(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
Verses 31 and 32 Parable of the Mustard
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
(From: Homily Against Discord and Envy)
Further Reading: The Parable of the
Tares by J.C.Ryle.