“Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.’
Again he asked, ‘What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.’“ (Luke 13:18-21)
Again and again, Jesus returned to the theme of the Kingdom of God, and suggested different ways of understanding it. Here he offers a balanced pair of explanations: the first relating to the husbandry work of a man and the second to the catering work of a woman. “A man took… a woman took.” Maybe the stress is on the universality of the gospel: This is for everyone!
In any case,these sentences both suggest something small -almost insignificant in appearance- that nonetheless has a mighty impact.
The mustard seed, for example, we are elsewhere told (Mark 4; Matt 13) is the smallest of seeds, and yet once buried in the soil, eventually produces a mighty tree capable of sheltering wild life.
And the smallest bit of yeast can be patiently worked into a huge amount of dough, eventually changing the character of the whole.
So both pictures suggest the growth of the kingdom of God from tiny beginnings to worldwide size.
Is all as it seems?
Is there any significance to the idea of the nesting birds, for example? Some commentators have connected the mention to Old Testament texts which emphasize the universal reach of God’s empire, such as Daniel 4:12.
“Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.”
Others have suggested that the birds represent Gentiles seeking refuge with Israel or the “sinners” and tax collectors with whom Jesus was criticised for associating.
It’s a rather lovely concept, which I’m loth to forego!
But a real mustard tree doesn’t grow that way! I know this, because when I was a tender seventeen year-old doing Latin A Level, we had to plod wearily through Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, where he states that “mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
So some have identified a subversive and scandalous element to this parable, in that the fast-growing nature of the mustard plant makes it a malignant weed with dangerous takeover properties!
But the point is that a real mustard plant is unlikely to attract nesting birds. So is Jesus deliberately emphasizes a notion of astonishing extravagance in his analogy?
Is he telling a joke which we have missed?
He could, after all, have chosen a genuine tree for the parable! Maybe the mustard plant demonstrates that though the kingdom appeared small like a seed during Jesus’s ministry, it would inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some would find shelter in and others would find obnoxious and try to root out!
And the second sentence, about leaven or yeast, is also capable of a double-edge. At first, as you read it, it would appear to share the meaning of the preceding picture, namely the powerful growth of the Kingdom of God from small beginnings.
That is to say, the final outcome is inevitable once the natural process of growth has begun.
However, in the chapter just gone (Luke 12), leaven symbolises evil influences. And a few have read this present sentence as reflecting future corrupting influences in the Church.
I think that’s unlikely, because the point of the parable is clearly positive. But it fascinates me that both halves of this pair of word-pictures refer to something possibly subversive: the pervasive quality of mustard, invading the whole garden; and the secret quality of the yeast’s work, changing the whole lump from the inside out.
In fact, think of that word “subversive.” It is a negative term, by and large, meaning “tending or intending to subvert or overthrow, destroy, or undermine an established or existing system, especially a legally constituted government or a set of beliefs.” (That’s from Dictionary.com)
But, as they say, one man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter”. What if the “legally constituted government” is immoral and deeply oppressive and it’s right to seek its overthrow?
I’m not talking here about human political regimes but about the forces of good and evil. Isn’t this how Jesus saw the system of the world under Satan? Remember his saying: “The prince of this world is coming, and he has no claim on Me.” (John 14:30) He classified Satan’s hold on the world as that of a “prince” with whom he had absolutely nothing in common and with whom he was locked in conflict. Two kingdoms at war.
This week, I’ve been doing a magazine article on the subversive nature of salt. It’s the same concept in Matthew 5. If we are “the salt of the earth” then we operate quietly, invisibly, discreetly, like yeast in the dough, like a seed planted in the soil, to effect change. And the kingdom that is coming is radically opposed to the kingdom that is. The one is anathema to the other.
Is Jesus telling us to be secret agents?
Thankfully, our present mission of kingdom activism has an assured outcome, as we await the final scene of the play:
Rev 11:15: “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ “
Lord, teach us about kingdom life; and how we should live and act now, in a culture that often seems alien and totally antagonistic towards the things we value and cherish.
And as we acknowledge that differentness, we also acknowledge that you have sent us into the world, to penetrate every corner and to effect change and to announce kingdom life.