Last week we started a three Sunday series entitled The Mystery of the Kingdom in which we are looking at some of the Kingdom Parables that Jesus used in his teaching. Last week we thought about how helpful it would be if we had a secret decoder of some sort that could help us understand the meaning behind these parables. They were baffling to the people who heard them straight out of Jesus’ mouth, so it isn’t surprising that they are baffling to us. Perhaps if we used something more relatable to describe how the kingdom works– such as the parable of the chewing gum and the toddler’s hair:
The kingdom is like a wad of chewing gum that once it falls out of a toddler’s mouth and into her hair it works its way through the entire head of hair bringing about much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Or (for pet lovers) The kingdom is like a cat (or dog) who begins to shed and soon, lo, the entire house is engulfed in fur, permeating even to every article of clothing of every person in the home.
Or (we might like this better) is the kingdom about an act of kindness or goodness or (positive) teaching that touches a life and later is passed on to another person where it ignites something and is passed on again in another way to another person and then another and another until that one act has permeated throughout and become a part of the exhibition of the kingdom in every place.
Perhaps you could come up with a parable of your own! Last week the parable we looked at was the parable of the sower. We explored the ideas of experts who offered us various ideas about this sower who sowed seed everywhere – on the hard-packed path, rocky soil, among thorns, and ultimately on good soil. We pondered what it would mean if God were the sower, Jesus were the seed, and that all people already have the seed of the Word planted in their hearts. We explored the good news within this Kingdom parable that even after a slow start where some seed does not grow, in the end an amazing harvest results as the Kingdom of God grows and grows. We closed with the reminder that no matter how unpromising the situation may look, we can trust God for the harvest is God’s and God is faithful.
Today we are introduced to two new, much shorter kingdom parables. One involving seed (again) and one involving yeast. These may seem straight forward at first – a seed is planted and grows and grows; yeast works its way through a batch of bread. Until you look a little closer and realize that something else is at work here. The mustard seed is small (but not the smallest seed there is) and it certainly grows, but more of like a weed than a majestic tree. And in scripture yeast is very often referred to with a negative connotation (Beware the yeast of the pharisees) – rather than positive, and the amount of flour this woman is using is enough to open a bakery. So again, it would be SO helpful if we had that secret parable decoder ring to help us figure it all out.
But since we don’t, let’s see what we can learn from the passages and from some expert commentaries, let’s combine that with what we already know about Jesus’ kingdom parables and then we’ll see where that takes us. I believe that we will find that God’s kingdom not only grows, but that it grows everywhere. That the kingdom of God is inseparable from us and we and all of creation (like it or not, worthy or not) are part of it.
Parable of the Mustard Seed:
The Mustard Seed! This parable is probably one of the most familiar because we equate it with another passage from scripture that says: “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” you can move mountains. (Matt 17:20) And here the parable tells us, the kingdom is like a mustard seed,…that grows into the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.” This seems simple enough – something small (the mustard seed) grows into something big (a giant shrub or tree). The kingdom of God therefore could be said to start as something small and even hidden (like a seed in the ground), which grows into something large. But like most of these kingdom parables, the interpretation may not be as straight forward as it first seems. In addition to the smallness of the seed it seems Jesus is also emphasizing how quickly this annual plant can grow reaching several feet tall in a matter of a few weeks. Perhaps he was foretelling how the Kingdom of God would similarly explode from the small group of 12 disciples. Then there is another subtle feature of the plant that Jesus may have been referring to. The mustard seed is also very invasive and is often classified as a weed because of its weed-like ability to spread. A typical mustard plant produces thousands of seeds: maturing, dropping seeds, and sprouting earlier than seeds of other plants, and requiring less water than most other plants for its seed to start germinating.
Rains also causes the mustard seed’s outer coat to become sticky allowing it to cling to birds and animals resulting in wide distribution. Along with this, mustard seeds have the ability to lie dormant for years and after times of drought, the mustard plant is usually the first to recover and can quickly dominate the ground when the rains return. Because of these characteristics the mustard seed was well known to be unstoppable to the crowd that was listening to Jesus teach that day. They knew that a mustard seed, once you got it in your garden was there to stay and would overtake everything. They may have even gotten a little chuckle out of the visual that Jesus offered because they knew the pharisees would not like it. For the pharisees often referred to a passage in Ezekiel which compares Israel to a massive, majestic cedar. They would have considered the reference to a mustard bush to be irreverent and irritating. But the mustard seed analogy speaks of the Kingdom of God spreading everywhere. It is an unrelenting, unstoppable force that begins as something small but will eventually fill all the earth.
We have a family favorite book, Dudley Bakes a Cake, by Judy Taylor. In this sweet book, a little mouse named Dudley sets out to win a cake contest at the fair because he really wants the grand prize, which is a shiny new bicycle. Dudley has never baked a cake before, but he is undeterred by this fact. He finds a recipe for which he has MOST of the ingredients. But when he mixes it up, he doesn’t think it looks like enough to make even a small cake, so he pours in an entire bag of baking powder (a form of leavening) and pops the cake into the oven to bake. After a while he goes to check on the cake and it has burst right out of the oven. Once he takes it out it continues to rise and rise until it is gigantic. Beyond his wildest imagination. It is so huge he has to use a wench to get it out of his little mouse house. Well it is big and it is beautiful and it wins Dudley the first prize in the cake contest. Could this be a parable of the kingdom? Could the interpretation be that the kingdom works its way through the world, like leaven through a cake and that it cannot be contained even by an oven or by our concept of what it should look like or be. That in the end it is so big and wonderful and beautiful that it exceeds our imagination?
Let’s look now at Jesus’s parable of the leaven or yeast.
Parable of the Leaven:
“He (Jesus) told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in (or hid) with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matt 13:33)
The usual interpretation of this parable is that the Kingdom of God starts out small and seemingly insignificant but eventually grows in importance. But we know from our closer look at other parables that things are not always as they seem. Remember that Jesus seemed to enjoy unsettling or surprising his listener’s. This particular parable would have been especially startling to his first century audience mainly because of the elements: yeast, the woman, the amount of flour, all would have been challenging.
Let’s start with the yeast. Yeast, when mentioned in Jewish tradition is most often related to corruption. At on point Jesus warns his disciples, “watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt 16:6) Commentators point to the unleavened bread of the Exodus which then became a part of the Passover celebration. The mention of yeast in relation to God’s Kingdom is startling and would have riveted his listeners’ attention. This could be Jesus’ intent as he uses these parables to introduce new principles of the Kingdom of God in which things are not as they seem nor as they have always been. So, perhaps this would be an announcement of shaking things up.
Next, it is shocking that the activity of God here is compared to the tasks of a woman. In first century Jewish society, it would be surprising to relate such activity to a class of citizens that were considered at the time to be second-rate. Yet, here the woman is portrayed as an agent of the kingdom. For us, this fits with our image of Christ as being inclusive in his treatment of all persons but would have been unsettling to his listeners of the time.
The third surprise of this parable is the amount of flour – “three measures,” which is a little over a bushel of flour. Something like 144 cups of flour. That is a ridiculously large amount of flour! Father Dominic Garramone (The Bread Monk) suggests that the message of this parable is that “the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who wants to do more than feed her family, she wants to feed the village, the world.” Again, a message of inclusion and vastness. The kingdom is not limited to first century Palestine, it is for the entire world.
Like the parable of the mustard seed, we get an image here of something that, once begun cannot be reversed or removed – something that permeates and grows and even invades. For once the leaven is in the dough it cannot be removed. We get an image of a kingdom that grows and grows and is found everywhere. We get an image of God’s Kingdom that it is unstoppable, filling the whole world. Then perhaps it is a reminder to us of Jesus description of himself. In John 6, Jesus tells the crowd surrounding him, “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life.” (John 6:32, 35)
The kingdom of God, my friends is unstoppable, pervasive, welcoming, inclusive, nourishing, joyful, great…and everywhere!
Friends, go now and flourish in the Kingdom of God. Allow the tiny seed of faith to grow and proliferate – allow the yeast of the kingdom to work all the way through your life and fill you with joy. Go now and know that wherever you go and in those you encounter – there is the kingdom. Go now in the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ and in the love of God and in the friendship and communion of the Holy Spirit.