The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven
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Today’s reading is from Matthew 13. Moira.
Moira: This is from the English Standard Version, and it’s Matthew 13:31–35, The Mustard Seed and the Leaven.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Matthew 13:31—35 (ESV – ESVUK)
Paul: Moira, thank you. Have you ever experienced a surprise birthday or anniversary party? The time when it’s all quiet, and then the lights are switched on, the party poppers start popping, and everyone leaps out from behind the sofa to shout, “Surprise!” Well, I haven’t, but I’ve seen enough of those sorts of parties on TV at least, to know that they’re not really my sort of thing. The element of surprise is the thing that the two parables here, the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven or the Yeast, might be more famous for Jesus’ original listeners.
We’re in a series about Jesus teaching in Matthew 13 entitled Parables of the Kingdom. They’re a collection of stories, parables that Jesus told to explain what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus was forever talking about the kingdom. It was the first thing that he said when he came to the fore at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” The new reign of God the Jewish people were expecting was that God would come dashing in triumphantly, wiping out the Romans, thus giving back the land to the Jews that they believed was their divine right. Then as part of the package, would be the day of judgement when their God was expected to throw out all of these horrible, hated enemies, give them back their land and replace that earthly kingdom with the one where they would rule supreme with God: that would show the world that God was on their side. When Jesus started talking about the kingdom of God, his listeners perhaps had more of a clue about what they might understand it to be. As we saw last week, we often think of the kingdom of God as something that’s off in the distance somewhere, similarly to the Jewish thought, “God’s going to come one day and judge the whole world, and take everyone who decides to follow the Messiah Jesus to safety.” What if God was waiting? What if God was offering an element of surprise into the bargain? What if God was using Jesus as the next step in this development of this new kingdom? What if, in the end, it wasn’t what was expected at all?
Today, we’re going to be looking briefly at these two parables, very short parables that are set together about the mustard seed and the yeast. It takes a little bit of understanding, but the element of surprise, I think, is key that no one was expecting, the first listeners of Jesus weren’t expecting. Let’s take the mustard seed. For example, the New Interpreter’s Bible notes that the mustard seed turns into a tree, and says that it turns into a plant of good stature, perhaps 9 or 10 feet high, but it’s not, apparently, actually a tree. After that snippet of information, it goes on to say that Jesus called it a tree because trees in the New Testament symbolized power and kingdom and empire, particularly in Jewish apocalyptic or end-times literature, such as Daniel 4 and Ezekiel 17. First century listeners would be excited about this news of the kingdom that Jesus was bringing.
The other thing to notice about the mustard seed and the tree it grows into, is its inordinate size differential. How hard it is to pick out a tiny mustard seed from the packets and then to see it into this huge tree of 10 feet high, perhaps even larger, that it grows into. You can’t help but think, “Gosh, that’s impressive. All that from a tiny, minuscule, micro size, and that seed has a power to turn into something inordinately bigger to how it started life.” When you consider it, that’s the amazing thing about any and every seed. Within its tiny shell, it has every single thing it needs in order to grow, everything for its whole life ahead, and for it to produce fruit that will have seeds in it too, so it keeps going on to the next generation. Quite amazing. Quite astounding, but, of course, for it all to grow, it must be planted. That’s the work of the sower. The sower or the farmer has to wait patiently for it to grow. It has to be in the right soil, receive the right nutrients, as the Parable of the Sower, and to an extent, last week’s Parable of the Weeds, point out.
I’m sure we’ve already said this recently, but those vegetable growers amongst us will know that it takes time for seeds to grow and longer for them to produce their produce. Valma gave me some tomato plants, tiny little tomato plants, which I guess she grew from seeds at the beginning of the year. Only in the last two or three weeks have they started giving me edible fruit. Here I’ve got a lovely tomato, and I’ll have this one for my lunch. This rather beasty one needs a bit more work on it to redden, so I’ll stick that in the window. If I’d spent ages just looking at it, willing to grow, it wouldn’t. It takes time, and it takes effort, doesn’t it? To grow things. I’ve watered it, I’ve Tomorited it, and I’m getting my harvest at last. If we just had spent hours watching it, I wouldn’t see it grow at all, but when the tomato plant gets going, it just happens, doesn’t it? It grows pretty quickly. I think that’s the message that Jesus was trying to get across, the kingdom was different from the one that was expected by everyone else. The kingdom was growing slowly and quietly, and without anybody really noticing at all, not like an earthly empire. Until there it was, “Ta-da!” Strong as a mustard plant that would have big branches enough for birds to nest in them. Wow.
Even the birds have something to say according to some theologians. As we’ve already mentioned, the Jewish people thought that God’s kingdom would be just for them. One interpretation is that the birds sitting in the trees in this story is from apocalyptic Jewish tradition, might mean that non-Jews, or Gentiles, would be invited to come to be part of this new kingdom. What a massive surprise that would be to everyone listening to Jesus then. Yes, Jesus was saying his kingdom is for everyone.
Back to the mustard plant itself. If it’s an image of the kingdom of God, this mustard plant, well, why wouldn’t Jesus perhaps use a larger tree, maybe like an oak or a cedar? Why should it be best found in a herb garden? I wonder. I wonder whether the normality of a mustard plant or a mustard tree in the time and location of Jesus is part of understanding the parable. A mustard tree is pretty normal there, with nothing more exciting or ordinary, but then somehow, the kingdom of God will come from something like it, something perhaps normal. The birth of a baby. In the same way as no one would expect the Son of David, to come into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, rather than a warhorse, or a king whose attitude was meekness, rather than power craziness. The Kingdom can be represented better by something that’s just normal, just happening, quietly growing in its own space, just mulling itself over. It’s there, unnoticed by most, quite unobtrusive, not what we always expect from the creator of everything, but nonetheless, the God of surprises.
Perhaps this quietly growing seed that nobody takes notice of is part of our Christian experience and growth. When do we notice that God is doing something around us? When are we, perhaps, too busy to watch to see what God is doing? To put it another way round, what small things do we plan to do for the kingdom of God, only to think to ourselves, “Well, that’s nothing in comparison to the work of Billy Graham or Greenbelt or New Wine or those big Christian influences.” Yet nonetheless, the little work might go unnoticed by many, but not by God. Let’s face it, we never know, what we think is tiny in ministry, like a tiny mustard seed, can turn out to be something magnificent in terms of the kingdom.
Few people, for example, I think, would have heard of Mordecai Ham. He was the preacher whose words convinced Billy Graham that Jesus was Lord. Fewer people still will know the name Pearl Goode. She was a prayer warrior who travelled tens of thousands of miles to wherever Billy Graham was preaching, only to hole up in a motel and pray for him as he spoke at his gatherings. Small beginnings, huge outcomes.
Let’s never, ever believe that our insufficient or insignificant work of God for His kingdom is a waste. It’s not. You might never know the bigger picture or what small impact or action or word at the right time might mean to somebody. The question for us where we are at Main Street is always, if our congregation wasn’t here, who would lament its loss? If we weren’t here, who would lament its loss? Apart from ourselves, perhaps. I must say, over recent weeks, wandering on along the markets on Thursdays, dozens, literally dozens of folk, have asked when our coffee mornings will reopen on Thursdays. They miss the decent coffee. They miss the ambience of God’s Spirit in our church building. They’re lamenting its loss.
Before we go on to talk about the next parable, let’s just take a step forward into verses 34 and 35, where Jesus says, “All these things Jesus said to the people in parables. Indeed, he said nothing without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, ’I will open my mouth in parables. I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’” That’s from Psalm 78:2. The interesting thing I noted about Psalm 78 is that in the ESV, the English Standard Version, that Moira read from, is that Psalm 78 is headed, “Tell the Coming Generation”. There is nothing to do with the smallness of God’s kingdom or the hiddenness of the yeast in the next parable, but rather truths of what God has done for his people in time, throughout time, so it’s big. This seed might stand for something about handing on his message, its DNA, its fruit, to another generation. I’m sure that’s the same for many of us who pray for our children, your children and loved ones to know the reality of Jesus in their lives, in our lives. Mustard seeds, it seems to be about the quiet innocuous growth that occurs, doing its own thing until it’s grown up. The kingdom, Jesus is saying, is here, but perhaps we don’t recognize it. You don’t recognize Jesus. It’s here in me, and it’s about to grow exponentially is what Jesus is saying. Just you watch and be surprised.
We come to the next tiny little parable about yeast. What can be surprising about that? If you look at it from a first-century viewpoint, again, Jesus’ original listeners, three surprising things come to light.
Firstly, why yeast anyway? The surprising amount of the stuff, followed by the hiddenness of it all. Let me explain. Yeast is not something that the New Testament speaks particularly positively about because yeast or leaven is almost always spoken of as a symbol for corruption. For example, when Jesus talks about the yeast of the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 16:6. It would be surprising for anyone to talk about yeast as something positive. This is a surprising parable by Jesus to those listening. As we know, most bread in the Middle East in the time of Jesus was unleavened. It didn’t have yeast in it to make it rise. It was flatbread. It takes time to find yeast, to put it in the bowl, to prove with the flour, and then in the oven to kill the yeast bacteria that makes it all grow into the fluffy bread that we all know and eat in the UK.
Yeast wasn’t known as a positive thing. I’d suggest is an interesting and even brave thing for the lady mentioned in the parable to put in any yeast at all. In fact, the ESV, the King James version, and the RSV say that she hides the yeast in the flour. She hides it. Just like I was talking earlier about hiding the mustard in my cheese scones. She hides it in the flour. Perhaps, it’s not a surprise that something that corrupts should be used at all in the bread-making process in this parable, but then it had to be hidden. Surprise! A different type of bread to what’s expected.
Of course, the yeast in the flour can’t be hidden for long. As it proves, the truth will out, the dough will rise. I guess in Jesus’ Kingdom terms, the kingdom will grow, but no one knows about it until there’s no stopping it. Miracles, amazing teaching from Nazareth where nothing good comes from. Surprise! Then there’s one final surprise which we don’t really know about unless is explained perhaps to us.
The quantity of flour that Jesus talks about is actually a huge amount, three measures. In its equivalent today, it will be about 16 pounds or seven kilograms of flour. One estimate I read is that this would be enough bread to make for about 150 people. This parable is about the surprising extravagance of the kingdom of God, and that it’s for everyone. Maybe that’s the point of this particular parable and not about the development of Christianity throughout the world as perhaps we might interpret it today. Just that it is extravagantly universal, something that would have been unheard of back in Jesus time, another surprise. This would certainly fit with other parables of extravagance. The Parable of the Sower, reaping 30, 60, or even a hundred times. The Parable of the Great Feast where everyone is compelled to come in, or the Parable of the Net where everything is brought in all at the same time for it to be sorted. Even the Parable of the Lost Son, who’s father throws a massive great big party when the undeserving prodigal returns empty-handed, having squandered his inheritance.
Kingdom parables are designed to help the hearers question the story, look for the intriguing bits, and seek the hidden message. They were designed for those first-century heroes who needed to know that God’s kingdom was not only for those who deserved or assumed it would be theirs. It seems that on further looking, the kingdom parables were about what God’s kingdom was like then and in the future too. Why should it not be the same for us?
With Jesus, the coming of the kingdom took another step in the right direction. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the whole world was offered the chance to be part of it. The return of Jesus has not happened yet, and so the kingdom still grows quietly, secretly, in all its own little ways and in all different sorts of forms, but one day it will be seen in all its full magnificence. For us, for you, and for me, don’t ignore your work for the kingdom of God however insignificant you think it might be. You may never know its impact, but God does. He knows the impact that it has and that it will have in all its finery and its eternal blessing.
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Scripture quotations marked ESV on this page and in the audio are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked ESVUK are from the Anglicised edition.