Parallel Texts in Matthew, Mark
Mustard & Leaven
Matt 13:31-35 // Mark 4:30-34
// Luke 13:18-20
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is composed of five distinct rhetorical elements:
None of the synoptic gospels
records all of these. Matthew has the last four without the introductory
rhetorical questions. Mark has the first two, followed directly by the
narrator's summary, without the parable of the leaven. Luke has only the first
three. The quotation from Ps 78 is found only in Matthew.
The parallels between the various
synoptic versions of this material are extensive enough to make some sort of
literary relationship probable. That makes the editorial seams in each
evangelist's location of these verses all the more significant.
Themes, Seams &
Matthew provides the smoothest
transition from the preceding material. For he introduces
the parable of the mustard simply as "another" in a string
of parables presented by Jesus as he taught a crowd along the shore of the
sea of Galilee: the third straight parable invoking the image of a man sowing some kind of seed. The
parable on Matthew's string, however, introduces a new simile: a woman using leaven to make bread.
Matthew then concludes this scene with sweeping
Yet, surprisingly, this narrative
summary does not end Matthew's reporting of parables of Jesus. Rather,
he proceeds to present
Thus, there are two odd things about the
narrative structure of this segment of Matthew:
the global summary concerning
Jesus' general use of parables is located near the middle of the
string of seven parables in Matt 13 rather than at the end; &
the parable of the leaven is
reported with the seed parables before this summary rather than after
it with the other analogies for the kingdom of Heaven (treasure, pearl &
In Mark, the narrator's summary
actually concludes this segment on Jesus' parables. For, unlike Matthew,
Mark does not report any further parables in this context.
Moreover, before this summary Mark presents only parables using the
analogy of a man sowing seed. The absence of the parable of the leaven in
Mark 4 makes his three parable cluster more thematically coherent than the
parallel cluster in Matt 13.
Yet, Mark's transition between the
second & third parables in this cluster is logically disjointed. For
it is the third parable with the
sower motif (the mustard seed) that Mark, unlike Matthew, prefaces with
of rhetorical questions:
There is nothing strange about using such a rhetorical device to focus audience
interest on a proposed simile. It is, rather, the location of these
questions in the Markan narrative that is odd:
Mark has these
questions introducing only the last of three parables about
God's kingdom; &
the question of an appropriate
analogy is introduced right after a parable (the
harvest) in which Jesus proposes the image of seed being
sown as a simile for God's regime.
Matthew & Mark, Luke records the parable of the mustard seed in a
narrative context (Luke 13) far removed from his discussion of the parable
of the sower & the rationale for Jesus' use of
parables (Luke 8).
Like Mark (but not
Matthew), Luke introduces this parable with a pair
of rhetorical questions.
Like Matthew (but not
Mark), he pairs the mustard seed analogy for divine kingship with that of
Yet, unlike both
Matthew & Mark, Luke does not conclude this couplet with a sweeping
statement about Jesus' general practice of using parables in his public
Thus, Luke's version of these
parables has some features that resemble the parallels in both
Matthew & Mark but is quite independent of the presentation of this
material in either of the other gospels.
The odd thing about the Lukan
presentation of the parables of the mustard seed & leaven is not the mere
fact of Luke's deviation from the wording & narrative syntax of the other
synoptics. For Luke regularly demonstrates his freedom from the letter
of other gospel texts. Rather, it is the narrative context in which Luke
decided to insert this pair of parables that is strange. He appends these
parables to a healing story in which Jesus
rebukes the leader of a synagogue who challenged his cure of a crippled woman
on the sabbath. Luke concludes that story with the sweeping statement that:
Luke then introduces the parable
of the mustard as Jesus' direct response to these events ("He
said therefore..."). There is, however, no catchword or
thematic link between this parable & the narrative scene that precedes it.
Nor is there any obvious logical relation between public reaction to a
controversial miracle & the two parables that follow it (mustard &
leaven). Thus, the
grammatical connection that Luke makes between these pericopes involves a logical
Luke is the only synoptic
author who reports the cure of this crippled woman.
Moreover, from the viewpoint of either word association or story logic, the
context in which Matthew & Mark present the parable of the mustard seed is
far preferable to that chosen by Luke. So, Luke's reason for placing this pair
of parables here rather than where the other synoptic authors locate it is a
redactional mystery than cannot be solved by comparison of these texts alone.
Parable of the Mustard
This analogy for God's kingdom
focuses on the growth of a single seed into a mustard plant (Greek: sinapis).
There are several varieties of this herb (white, black, Indian). But
Jesus' exaggerated claim (in Matthew & Mark's versions of this parable)
that the mustard granule is "the smallest of all seeds" makes it likely that
the species envisioned here is Mediterranean black mustard (Latin: Brassica
nigra), whose seed is a dark reddish brown sphere measuring little more
than one centimeter in diameter.
Botanically speaking, a mustard
granule is not
the smallest of all seeds in the world. But while it is large enough to be
seen at some distance & even picked up between one's finger tips, it is
virtually weightless &, therefore, could be used as a proverbial metaphor
(like the English "featherweight") for something that was next to
Although mustard is a weed that
grows wild, it has been cultivated from ancient times for the pungent oil
produced when its crushed seed is mixed with liquid for use as a condiment or
a medicinal aid. Yet mustard is an annual plant that grows so fast that it is
the type of seed that most farmers would not deliberately sow in their
fields. A single mustard plant may grow to about 4 meters (15 feet) high in just
weeks & sprout many leafy branches that overshadow other slower growing
plants. To minimize this characteristic, mustard cultivated for its seed has to
be planted only in the drier summer months.
Since this parable focuses on the
natural shelter or shade provided by the plant's branches, however, it is more
likely it was the wild variety that Jesus had in mind. Before modern methods of
screening cultivated seeds, small amounts of miniscule mustard seeds would
inevitably be found among the seed of any other grain & thus sown along
with the desired crop when farmers planted their fields in the spring.
Jesus' parable focuses attention
not on the farmer's act of cultivation but rather on the symbiosis of wild
nature. For in the hot summer months of this relatively arid region, small
birds inevitably find welcome shelter in whatever shade is available, even if
it is just an overgrown weed like the mustard plant.
The sheer novelty of Jesus' choice
of a miniscule seed that automatically becomes a giant plant as an appropriate
analogy for God's kingdom is probably the reason for the permutations of detail
in the variant narrations of this parable in the gospels. Although all versions
make the same general point, none is identical. These differences in
detail are of great significance for resolving the synoptic
While the logical structure of each version of this parable is similar, the rhetorical elements vary in
length, form and imagery.
Note that Mark & Luke both share some
details with Matthew but not with each other. Matthew & Mark agree
(teal) in contrasting the size of the seed with
that of the full-grown shrub (details not mentioned by Luke). On the
other hand, Luke agrees with Matthew (tan)
in characterizing the mustard plant as a "tree" (dendron)
& locating the birds in rather than under its branches
(details not found in Mark).
What makes this pattern of variation surprising
is that Mark's description of the mustard plant is relatively realistic, while
the descriptions in Matthew & Luke are not. The image of a mustard tree
with birds "camping out" (kateskénósen) in its branches is
a surrealistic distortion of nature that only those who were not familiar with
mustard plants could accept without seeking further clarification.
The idea of "birds of the air" camping
in the branches of a tree was drawn, not from observation of any mustard plant,
but rather from descriptions of the giant cedars of Lebanon in Hebrew
||The LORD's trees are watered in abundance,
||the cedars of Lebanon which he has
||The birds build their nest in
||the stork has her home in the fir trees.
As the giant redwoods of the ancient Near East,
the cedars of Lebanon were noted for their size & durability. So the Judean
prophet Ezekiel chose the cedar as an appropriate metaphor for envisioning God's
restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile.
||"On the high mountains of Israel I will
||so that it may produce branches and bear
||and become a noble cedar.
||Under it all kinds of beasts will dwell
||and in the shade of its
all sorts of birds will nest."
Later Jewish apocalyptic imagination so magnified
the tree as a metaphor of a great kingdom that Daniel described the reign of
||"The tree which you saw, the great and
||whose crown reaches to the sky
||and whose branches cover the whole earth
||whose leaves are splendid and whose fruit
||and produces nourishment for all,
||under which wild beasts dwell
||and in whose branches nest the birds of
||You are that tree O king,
||since you have become glorious and strong
||your magnificence has increased
||and your dominion extends to the ends of
This tradition of describing a strong kingdom as
a tree with birds nesting in its branches has clearly influenced the
conclusion of Matthew & Luke's versions of the parable of the mustard. For
this parable was formulated as an analogy appropriate for God's own kingdom.
Parable of the Leaven
Like the parable of the mustard seed which precedes it,
the parable of the leaven stresses the
phenomenal growth of something that is initially small. But the only
verbal link between these parables is their use as analogies for the
"kingdom of Heaven" (God). The descriptions of mustard & leaven are themselves
"Leaven" (Greek: zúmé)
is raw sour-dough: a mixture of flour with a moist fermenting agent produced by
yeast organisms acting on the sugars in fruit or vegetable matter. Before
the modern development of stabilized dry yeast, a small amount of raw dough from
each day's batch of bread was put aside to start the next day's batch. The
on-going fermentation process in the leaven produces both the carbon-dioxide
that makes bread rise & alcohol that turns the dough sour.
Left unbaked for a long period of
time, however, leaven spoils. The annual purging of all leaven
from Jewish homes in preparation for Passover celebrations added to its negative connotations.
This practice was well known. So, the Jewish Christian apostle Paul could use leaven as a metaphor for corruption even in an argument designed
for gentile Christians:
||"Your boasting is not good.
||Do you not know that a
little leaven leavens the whole lump?
||Cleanse out the old leaven
||that you may be a new lump,
||as you really are unleavened.
||For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been
||Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival,
||not with the old leaven,
||the leaven of malice and evil,
||but with the unleavened bread of sincerity
Therefore, a parable that likened God's kingdom to
"a little leaven" was bound to startle any Jewish or early Christian
The dramatic imagery of this parable
is made even more striking by the amount of flour to which the housewife adds
the "little" leaven. Three cups (¾ lb.) of flour is enough to make a
loaf of bread large enough to feed ten or more adults. The three
"measures" (Greek: sata = Hebrew: seah) that the woman
uses in this parable, however, amounts to half a bushel (almost 18 liters) or
more than 30 pounds of flour. That would be enough to make at least 40
large loaves or sufficient bread to feed at least 400 people.
Needless to say, such exaggerated
imagery in the parable of the leaven, like that at the climax of the parable of
the sower (30 - 60 -100 times), was designed to leave the minds of 1st c.
Mediterranean peasants with the distinct impression that there would be a
super-abundant yield in due time rather than immediately. Had the
narrator intended to stress the speed with which leaven acts there would have
been no need to mention the volume of either leaven or flour.
Like the parable of the mustard,
therefore, the parable of the leaven stresses the contrast between a small
beginning and a great result. Neither the potential of the leaven to go
bad nor the length of time it would take for so much flour to rise is at issue
in the scene sketched by this parable. Rather, the author chose the
graphic images of leaven & mustard seed to illustrate God's kingdom because
of the innate characteristic of these particular pieces of organic matter to
spread dramatically & dominate all around them.
Echo of scripture?
On hearing the parable of the
leaven, a person who was well versed in Jewish scripture might recall
that, the story of the announcement of Isaac's birth mentions the same
exaggerated amount of flour as this parable. Abraham demonstrates
that he is a generous host to the strangers who suddenly appeared at his tent by
rushing to tell Sarah to prepare an abundance of food in these terms: "Make
ready quickly three measures (seahs) of choice meal, knead it, and make
cakes" (Gen 18:6).
Yet, as striking as the mention of
such a large amount of flour is, it is important to note that the two words,
"three measures," & the general image of a woman preparing to bake
are the only details that would suggest a link between Jesus' parable of
the leaven & the story heralding Isaac's birth. The narrator of the latter
stresses the urgency & haste with which Abraham & Sarah act. The
narrator of the parable makes no explicit mention of time. If Abraham
had instructed Sarah to take leaven as well as three measures of flour,
then some allusion to this story might have been intended by the author of the
parable. But, not only does Abraham not instruct Sarah to use
leaven, his insistence that she quickly prepare food for unexpected
visitors who are already on their threshold makes it highly unlikely that anyone
familiar with this story would have imagined her introducing leaven to prepare
this amount of dough. Leaven does not spread instantaneously. And the
guests arrived after noon "in the heat of the day" (Gen 18:1).
Even using a lot of leaven it would take much longer than the few hours left to
prepare the evening meal, to bake leavened "cakes" from half a bushel
Since the central element in Jesus'
analogy for God's kingdom -- the "little leaven" -- is not drawn
from the biblical story of Abraham any echo of that story created by the
parable's allusion to the same amount of flour must be regarded as secondary
& unintentional. The coincidental mental link between these passages
is created by fuzzy connections in the minds of readers with access to a
biblical concordance rather than in images clearly invoked by the author of the
parable. Moreover, neither Matthew nor Luke provide any hint that
the parable of the leaven was meant to be interpreted in terms of traditional
biblical imagery. So, any attempt to get some symbolic meaning from the
"three measures" of flour or other details in this parable amounts to
speculative allegorization by some later interpreter
rather than the authors of these gospels, much less Jesus or his original
For anyone interested in the synoptic
problem, however, the most important features of the parable
of leaven are the facts that:
it is recorded by both Matthew
& Luke but not Mark;
it is appended directly
to the parable of the mustard in both Matthew & Luke; &
its wording is almost
identical in Matthew & Luke
Obviously, any agreement in wording
or setting between the Matthean & Lukan versions of this parable cannot be
credited to the influence of Mark. Moreover, the reason for appending the
parable of the leaven to the parable of the mustard cannot be attributed to
common graphic imagery as with the three parables about seeds (the sower,
harvest & mustard).
For the parables of mustard & leaven have no common catchword other than the
analogy to the "kingdom" that would lead two authors writing
completely independently to recall the parables of mustard & leaven in the
same sequence. The gospel of Thomas shows that
these parables could & did circulate separately.
So their juxtaposition in two canonical gospels indicates the influence of some
common literary source.
That indication is strengthened by
the fact that the bulk of the wording of this parable (from "leaven"
to "all leavened") is almost identical in the Greek text of
Matthew & Luke. In fact, there is a greater verbatim agreement between
these versions of the parable of the leaven (13 straight Greek words with only
minor variation) than there
is in the parable of the mustard or any other pericope
in this sample synopsis. The extent of
this verbal parallelism is made all the more striking by the fact that the Lukan
literary context for this pair of parables is totally unrelated to
their literary context in Matthew. Thus, the parable
of the leaven offers a critical test of the adequacy of any synoptic source
Unlike the parables of the mustard
& leaven, the narrator's conclusion to this segment presents no major
surprises or problems for an interpreter on the synoptics. Yet there are
Matthew & Mark present a
summary statement about Jesus' teaching in parables at almost the same point
in their narratives. Luke has no parallel.
Matthew cites prophetic
warrant for teaching in parables (Ps 78:2). Mark & Luke do
Mark claims Jesus gave his
disciples private explanations of
all his parables. Matthew & Luke do not.
These observations must be covered
by any theory that a particular synoptic author redacted
the work of one or both of the others.
12 April 2008