Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52



This is a collection of five or six parables (depending on how we count verses 51-52) of the kingdom of heaven. These parables do not describe the kingdom in a systematic way, but show us a series of snapshots taken from different perspectives. No single picture is definitive, but each provides a glimpse that adds to our understanding.

These are parables of the Kingdom— each including the words, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like.”“Kingdom of Heaven” is synonymous with “Kingdom of God.” Matthew uses the former out of a respect for the holiness of God’s name.

There is a pairing among these parables:

• The Parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast contrast small beginnings with their great effects, emphasizing the power of God’s action. They are addressed to the crowds.

• The Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl have to do with objects of great value which spark great commitment. They are addressed to the disciples.

• The Parable of the Net and the Parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30—last week’s Gospel reading) emphasize the present openness of the kingdom to all who would enter and the great judgment to come in which the bad will be separated from the good.


31He set another parable before them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; 32which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.”

33He spoke another parable to them. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, until it was all leavened.”

“He set another parable before them” (v. 31a). Both the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven contrast the smallness of the kingdom with the greatness of its effects.

What could be less significant than a baby in a manger—or little Israel, a vassal of mighty Rome—or a Jew from Nazareth and a handful of not-very-promising disciples— or a cross?What could be less significant than a little village church, tall steeple notwithstanding—or a tent-revival with sawdust strewn to cover a mud floor? What could be less significant a half-dozen barely-under-control children in a Sunday school classroom—or a lanky, unschooled boy walking down the aisle to give himself to Jesus? What could be less significant than a missionary couple living their lives among native people half-a-world from home? What could be less significant than the average preacher preaching the average sermon to the average congregation—or a loaf of bread and a cup of wine (or pseudo-bread pellets and little plastic cups of grape juice)? What could be less significant than an anthem by a dozen untrained voices accompanied by a slightly out-of-tune piano? But these are all parts of the kingdom, and you can never tell what power is hidden in their midst.

We expect to find the kingdom in cathedrals and mega-churches —in massed choirs and pipe organs—but these parables suggest that the real kingdom-power is to be found in the humblest places among the least likely people—a cup of cold water given to a beggar—a soup kitchen in a church basement—church folk visiting a shut-in—a nun walking the streets of Calcutta—two young American women showing the Jesus film in Afghanistan. These look like nothing, but Jesus promises that there is veiled power here.

And, over the past two millennia, we have seen the proof. Today, the Roman Empire appears only in history books and crumbling ruins, but people sing praise to Jesus all over the world. The Thousand-Year Reich lasted only a decade, but the church keeps marching on. Communism spent the better part of a century trying to kill the church, but then Communism collapsed—and Christians are building churches on its ruins.

Not that the church and the kingdom are synonymous—but the church is a manifestation of the kingdom. Not that we should expect the kingdom to conquer all—”the kingdom’s form is perpetually little, always seed-sized, divinely designed to be a treasure in earthen, not golden, vessels so that the exceeding greatness of the gospel’s power might always be God’s, not human beings’ (2 Cor 4:7)” (Bruner, 504).


“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds” (vv. 31b-32a). The mustard seed is tiny, but is not, in fact, the smallest of all seeds. Its small size is proverbial. Bible bookstores sometime offer clear pendants with a mustard seed embedded inside as a reminder of Jesus’ mustard seed promise, so it is easy to see exactly how small a mustard seed is.

“But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs” (v. 32b). This parable offers hope, promising great outcomes from small beginnings. Jesus intended to encourage the first disciples, who faced daunting odds, and this parable continues to encourage disciples today. Most of the church’s work gets done in inauspicious circumstances. Our mission seems overwhelming, and our resources seem too few. But Jesus promises that God’s power makes everything possible.

Indeed, the beginnings were small. By Matthew’s time, the disciples had encountered serious opposition. It did not appear that the small movement of Christ’s followers stood a chance against the forces arrayed against it—but look out! God uses that which seems foolish to shame that which seems wise. God uses that which seems weak to shame that which seems strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).

“and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches”(v. 32c). The shrub that grows from the tiny seed is great by comparison with its beginnings, but Jesus surely has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek to call it a tree. The mustard shrub typically tops out at 8 or 10 or even 12 feet— hardly comparable to the mighty cedars of Lebanon, with which Israel prefers to liken itself. Why would Jesus not compare the kingdom of heaven to a great tree instead of a shrub? If he is contrasting a small seed with a great tree, why not pick a truly magnificent tree?

Perhaps the best clue comes from the church that has developed over the centuries. The church is, indeed, a far cry from its beginnings, extending into every nation on the face of the earth. It has grand cathedrals and occasionally wields real power, but for the most part the church manifests itself in modest ways—more like a mustard shrub than a towering cedar. Perhaps the lesson of the mustard shrub is that Christians should live expectantly, knowing that God brings great things out of small beginnings—that we should not expect the kingdom to be great as the world counts greatness.

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven encourage Christians to exercise faith and patience. God is less likely to sweep through the world like a conquering hero on a handsome steed and more likely to be found as a still small voice. In most cases, Christians will see only small evidences of progress—a couple married at the church altar—a child baptized—a youth group engaged in activities that look more like entertainment than serious discipleship activities. But in God’s hands, these small beginnings have the potential to grow so large as to shift the world on its axis.


“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast” (v. 33a). Like the mustard seed, leaven is small relative to the flour that it leavens. Like the mustard seed, yeast holds great potential within its tiny proportions. This translation uses the word “yeast,” but the people of that time and place were seldom privileged to have pure yeast. Instead, they kept a lump of leavened dough from the last batch to leaven the next batch.

“which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, until it was all leavened”(v. 33b). Three measures of flour are enough to bake bread for 100-150 people. The point is that even a tiny quantity of leaven has power to affect a large quantity of flour. So it is with the kingdom of heaven. We who live under Christ’s rule seem unimportant—but watch out! By Christ’s power, we make a huge difference!

This parable encourages us, not to seclusion, but to involvement in the world. Leaven can do its work only when mixed into a large quantity of raw dough. Otherwise it is useless. So it is with those who would serve Jesus. He calls us to go into all the world, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching (28:19-20).

In this parable, Jesus speaks of leaven in a positive way. Jewish people often used leaven as a metaphor for evil or impurity (Matthew 16:6; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8), and were required to remove all yeast from their homes in preparation for the Passover. Perhaps Jesus intends this positive reference to startle listeners into listening.


44“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.

45“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, 46who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl are both parables of discovery, joy, and action. The merchant is actively looking for pearls, while the other man just stumbles onto treasure in a field. Both, however, recognize the overwhelming value of their discovery, and sell everything so that they might buy it. In neither case is there any hint of sacrifice—of giving up something precious—of having to make a difficult decision. Neither is sad to sell everything, because they are overwhelmed with the joy of discovery and the prospect of possessing such treasure. They are like the disciples, who left everything to follow Jesus (4:18-22; 19:27-30)—and Paul, who regarded all else as loss “for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). They are unlike the rich young ruler who “went away grieving,” because he could not bear to part with his many possessions (19:16-26).

There are two lessons to be learned here:

• One is the demand that the Gospel places on us. Grace is not free, but requires response. We cannot vacillate —try to serve two masters (6:24). Neither man would have gained the treasure had they refused to pay the price. Indeed, this chapter starts with the Parable of the Soils (13:1-9), in which the seed finds no lasting root in three of four soils. Jesus says, “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21).

• The second is that joy, not duty, drives these men to act. They do not sell everything to buy the treasure because they ought to do so, but because their hearts demand it. In presenting the Gospel, we would do well to emphasize joy—to proclaim Good News instead of bad. Condemnation convinces few people. Calls to duty often fall on deaf ears. Calls to joy, on the other hand, make us want to respond.


“the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field” (v. 44a). It was not uncommon in that time and place for people to bury valuable possessions, because there were no secure banks to safeguard valuables. Small villages could not prevent looting by brigands, and soldiers were free to take what they needed. Burial provided the best security, but provided no guarantees. A person might die, taking the secret of the treasure to his or her grave. People might leave home and find themselves unable to return. Jewish Rabbinic law provided that “These finds belong to the finder—if a man finds scattered fruit, scattered money…these belong to the finder” (Barclay, 94).

There is also a hidden quality to the kingdom of God. Jesus thanked the Father “that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants” (11:25). He told the disciples, “To you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not given to them” (the crowds) (13:11). “Then he commanded the disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ” (16:20).

“which a man found, and hid” (v. 44b). Perhaps this was a passerby who just happened to see something that nobody else had noticed. Perhaps it was a farm worker, employed by the farmer, whose plow turned up a buried treasure.

Even today, people discover hidden treasure and purchase the property before others can discover the treasure and bid up the price. Gold and oil come immediately to mind, but some treasures are hidden in plain view.

“In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field” (v. 44c). Savvy people will still purchase a farm after realizing that the asking price has not taken into account the value of a stand of walnut trees—trees that can be worth many thousands of dollars. Others purchase control of a company after determining that the breakup value exceeds the cost of the shares.

We should not allow ourselves to be distracted by asking whether this man should have revealed the treasure to the owner of the field. This is a simple story with a simple point— the kingdom has exceedingly great value—and we do nobody a favor by complicating it.


“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls” (v. 45). Pearls were highly prized in that time and place.  The best pearls were worth extraordinary sums of money.

“who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (v. 46). Merchants buy to sell, but we get the sense, in this short parable, that this merchant wants this pearl for the pleasure of possessing it. Circumstances might force him to sell, but we expect that he will pursue even a profitable sale with reluctance.


47“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet, that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind, 48which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach. They sat down, and gathered the good into containers, but the bad they threw away. 49So will it be in the end of the world. The angels will come forth, and separate the wicked from among the righteous, 50and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”

“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet” (v. 47a). This parable makes essentially the same points as the Parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30). The lessons are that:

• Judgment belongs, not to the disciples, but to God.
• Judgment will come.

“that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind” (v. 47b). In this parable, a dragnet scoops up all sorts of fish, both good and bad. Lev. 11:9-12 prohibits the use of sea creatures without scales or fins, so the fishermen would discard unusable fish. In villages around the Sea of Galilee, fishermen sorting their catch and discarding unwanted fish would be a common sight.

“when it was filled, they drew up on the beach. They sat down, and gathered the good into containers, but the bad they threw away” (v. 48).

“When it was fulfilled” in this verse corresponds to “the end of the world” in the next verse.

They sat down to separate the good and bad, because this was work worthy of careful attention to detail.  They wouldn’t want to include a bad fish in the good fish pile––but neither would they want to throw away any good fish.

Keep in mind that Jesus using a metaphor (good and bad fish) to stand for something far more important (faithful and unfaithful people).

“So will it be in the end of the world. The angels will come forth, and separate the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (vv. 49-50).  This parable encourages disciples to take an open approach to evangelism (Long, 158).  It is their duty to bring people in rather than keeping them out.  The Pharisees took the opposite approach, serving as gatekeepers and judges.

An open approach gathers undesirables as well as desirables into the net, but this parable tells us that this is God’s way.  Some undesirables will grow into genuine kingdom people, and some who seemed promising in the beginning will betray God in the end.  God does not make us responsible for keeping out riff-raff, but delegates the separation of the evil from the righteous to the angels at the end of time.

This parable is not a call to overlook grievous sin. A few chapters hence, Jesus will establish procedures for reproving sinners and for excommunicating them if they fail to mend their ways (18:15-20).


51Jesus said to them, “Have you understood all these things?”

They answered him, “Yes, Lord.”

52He said to them, “Therefore, every scribe who has been made a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a householder, who brings out of his treasure new and old things.”

“Have you understood all these things?” (v. 51a). Understanding is important in this Gospel, and was raised earlier in this chapter (13:10-17). “To ‘understand’ …is an essential quality of authentic discipleship” (Senior, 158).

“They answered him, “Yes, Lord” (v. 51b). The disciples’ bold “Yes,” however, leaves us wondering. The kind of question that Jesus asked usually gains an affirmative response. The disciples, however, understand in part. Only after the resurrection will their eyes really be opened.

“Therefore, every scribe who has been made a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a householder” (v. 52a). Jesus compares his disciples to scribes—those qualified to teach the meaning of scripture. “Matthew may be thinking of Jesus’ disciples, like other scribes, as endowed with wisdom, authority, the right understanding of the law, and perhaps some measure of prophetic inspiration” (Blomberg).

“who brings out of his treasure new and old things” (v. 52b).  Scribes train for the kingdom of heaven by studying scripture.  The image is of a reverent and disciplined person, carefully attending to the Word of God.  This is what Matthew expects of disciples.

The old things come from their Jewish heritage, and the new things are the expanded understandings drawn from Jesus’ teachings.

Note that Jesus disparages neither old or new things.  Both the Jewish heritage and the expanded understandings are treasures.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan