If you were here 2 weeks ago, you heard the reading from an earlier part of the 13th Chapter of Matthew, the parable of the sower. Today we continue to hear parables as Jesus teaches his followers about the ever-elusive, perplexing and mysterious Dominion of Heaven, or Kingdom of God. Because this Realm of God cannot be expressed in concrete terms, Jesus uses parables, which Biblical scholar C.H. Dodd defines as "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application to tease it into active thought”1 Today we hear a handful of very short parables, which come at us quickly – all giving insights into the Dominion of Heaven. I invite you to let them tease your mind into active thought:
[Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52]
If I were to ask you to fill in the blank after this sentence, what words or images would you use? The Dominion of Heaven is like… (blank). I would imagine there would be a variety of different answers. Some of you who’ve been paying attention might say Like a Mustard Seed, Like Yeast, Like a Pearl, and you would get bonus points for actually listening to the scripture. But I imagine that for many of us, the first things that come to mind when thinking about “The Kingdom of Heaven” are not seeds or grains or buried treasure, but rather pearly gates, heavenly banquets, angel choirs. That’s what we’ve seen in most artistic depictions, heard in many hymns, learned along the way. And yet each week in our prayers, we proclaim that we believe in the Kingdom of God not just as some place where we will go when we die, where we will be reunited with our loved ones, which is a very valid, true and comforting depiction, but when we pray we proclaim that the Dominion of Heaven is even more than that. Every week here at church, we pray the Lord’s Prayer – which includes the words, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Every week, we are praying for that Kingdom to come, and also proclaiming that it is already here, right here, right now, right in our midst.
Jesus talked about this Dominion of heaven more than he talked about anything else. It was his deepest passion, his favorite preaching topic, his very life. And in describing the Kingdom, the Dominion, the Realm of God, he did not use images we most often associate with our vision of heaven. Instead, he filled his stories with ordinary, everyday objects that his followers could relate to: A tiny mustard seed growing into a huge plant, a miniscule amount of yeast raising a large loaf of bread, a small pearl being of great value. I love these images. And why wouldn’t I? As a 5 ft 0 inch tall, or rather, short person, what’s not to love about stories where Jesus extols the virtue of small but mighty things making a big difference?
What I hear in these parables is a depiction of what today we might call “the butterfly effect.” You have probably heard of this - the concept that small changes can have large effects. It was a term originally used with weather prediction – using the example that something as major as a tornado on one side of the world could have been influenced by a something so minor as the flapping of butterfly wings on the other side of the world weeks earlier.
Probably looking back at our own lives, we ourselves have experienced this phenomenon. Perhaps it was a small word of encouragement from a teacher or mentor that made a huge difference in your life. Maybe it was a short paragraph or poem in a book you read that inspired you. Or even a class you attended that gave you insight, or an opportunity given you to try something new that you ended up loving.
The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast tell us that God uses small, unpredictable events to bring about the world that God desires. Father Dave Tomlinson, vicar of St. Luke's Church in Holloway N. London uses this example. He relates the story of Desmond Tutu walking through town in S. Africa during apartheid with his black mother, a mere domestic cleaning woman. They encountered a white man in long black cassock, who was Archbishop Huddleston, strolling by in all his splendor. As they passed him, the Archbishop tipped his hat to them, and something shifted in the 10 year old Desmond Tutu. In that moment he decided he was going to do something that was going to change this world. He took inspiration for his later extraordinary work from that simple gesture of a tipped hat. The butterfly effect: a tiny movement in a place long ago that would have mighty consequences decades later. 2
So just as the planting of a tiny mustard seed, buried deep within the ground, grows a large, sheltering shrub, or the mixing of a little yeast into flour raises a whole loaf, so do many of the seemingly insignificant events of life, or small apparently meaningless acts of grace, mercy and love have far reaching effects. They may produce abundant fruits for God’s Dominion that we might never ever see or know. Whatever we do in God’s service, even the smallest of acts, we are called to trust that God will somehow use them for good, for the work of building up the Kingdom here on earth.
After Jesus tells these parables to his followers, he asks them, “Have you understood all this?" and they answer with a confident, "Yes!" And we too might answer this question in the same way. Yes – we understand that little things make a difference. We understand that when we are discouraged, God calls us to keep going, because even the smallest acts can grow into something bigger, which may remain hidden, remain unbeknownst to us. Yes Jesus, we understand these parables perfectly.
But as I’ve said before, parables are not supposed to be easy to understand. They always have an unexpected twist that is meant to surprise us, to puzzle us, to “tease our mind into active thought.” Jesus tells parables to stretch us, to make us work, to get us to use our imaginations. So what else could these stories be telling us about God and the Kingdom?
For those of us listening to the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast today, they may make perfect sense to us. But those early followers of Jesus were probably pretty perplexed at some aspects of these stories.
When Jesus talked about the mustard seed being sown into the field, any of his listeners who were farmers, or who were devout Jews would probably have thought, “What in the world is he talking about? Who in their right mind would sow mustard seeds into their fields?” The mustard plant was a weed of disorder, and the Jewish people were an orderly people. Richard Swanson, in his book on the gospel of Matthew says "Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life." 3
In addition, when his Jewish followers heard Jesus talking about a the mustard tree as a place for birds to make their nests, their minds would have probably gone to the prophet Ezekiel who much earlier wrote about the tall cedars: “Under [the cedar] every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind” (Ez. 17:23). They were most likely left wondering: Why didn’t Jesus use the image of a cedar seedling growing, instead of a mustard shrub? Wouldn’t a majestic, strong, towering tree, like a cedar, be a much more apt depiction of God’s Kingdom than a chaotic, messy mustard weed?
Reverend Alyce McKenzie gives us this insight: Parables, rather than being simple stories with one point, are complex scenarios that can evoke all kinds of connections, not only with daily life, but also with other texts. So the humble mustard seed that becomes a shrub could make us think of God's care for us like a flourishing tree, or it could turn our minds to the fact that the mustard shrub is not going to be like the mighty trees or empires of former times, which grew through military power and violence. Though small and insignificant, the mustard seed is not to be underestimated. Its power to nurture and sustain far exceeds expectations. Mustard seeds are not just a phenomenon of the past; they are sprouting all around us. Jesus himself is a mustard seed, discounted and discarded, entombed in darkness, sprouting to new life, not only for himself, but for all of us who make our nests in his branches. The strange element here is the widespread, extravagant effect of the mustard seed/shrub compared to its being dismissed and discounted by the world. 4
The yeast parable would is also more complex than it first appears. The baker woman of Jesus’ time did not go to the store to buy the convenient package of date-stamped Red Star active-dry yeast that we have access to today. When she made bread, if she wanted to leaven it, she had to use an old piece of bread dough that had been placed in a warm, dark, moist spot and would have grown mold on it. This is what would have been mixed into the new dough to make it rise. And, for the Jewish people, it was actually unleavened bread that was considered holy. When they purified their household according to their laws, they had to get rid of anything leavened and discard it.
Yeast was not considered something good or positive. In fact, the rabbis of the time had a saying: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”, which roughly translated means “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Leaven, or yeast, was actually seen as a corrupting agent, as something rotten that would spoil everything, not as something good that would raise things up. And while our translation reads: “The dominion of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in”, biblical scholars have said that a more accurate translation of the verb would be hid, yeast that a woman took and hid. (The Greek word is egkryptō (en-krü’p-tō), where we get encryption means “to hide,” or “to conceal”)
So perhaps today when we say we understand these parables, we really miss some of Jesus’ main points. Yes, part of the Dominion of God has to do with little things making a big difference, but Jesus also seems to be saying that there is something sneaky, chaotic, and even subversive about this Dominion of Heaven.
It helps to put these parables into context, to understand that the gospel of Matthew was written about 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was written for a church in transition. The community was undergoing a transformation from a predominantly Jewish-Christian church to an increasingly Gentile church. This led to tensions among the people in that community, requiring Jewish-Christians to re-evaluate their beliefs, to be more flexible with their laws, to be more inclusive with the Gentiles and their customs. These parables challenged the early church community, and they are meant to challenge us today as well.
Our reading today ends with the words: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the dominion of heaven is like a householder who brings out of the treasury what is new and what is old.” Jesus seems to be calling for new understanding. He calls his followers then, and us today, to see a valuable crop in what others might call weeds, to see potential for growth concealed in those whom others would call corrupt or rotten. When Jesus dined and associated with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other outcasts, he was demonstrating that those rejected by society were worthy of his companionship, his forgiveness, his healing love, and that they were welcome in the Dominion of God.
The image of the mustard seed growing into a bush where all kinds of birds make their nests might sound beautiful and idyllic. But achieving this in real life is a chaotic and often disruptive process. We strive to be a church, a community welcoming all kinds of people to come and join, to make their nests here, as it were. But what happens in living this out is often like a mustard shrub: chaotic, unruly, disorderly. These parables challenge us, reminding us that the Kingdom of God is found in unexpected places, in unexpected ideas, in unexpected people. It calls us to look beyond differences and see into the heart of people.
A great illustration of this is in the newest Heineken commercial. Now I have to be honest with you –I don’t usually like beer commercials, and I’ve never before mentioned one in a sermon. But if you haven’t seen this, I have to recommend it to you. It begins by having 6 people reveal something controversial about themselves, and filming these revelations. Then the 6 are paired up: A climate change denier paired with an environmentalist, an anti-feminist paired with a feminist, a staunch traditionalist paired with a transgender person. They don’t know anything about each other as they are given the task of working together to construct a bar and stools. After working together, and sharing a little about themselves in general, they watch the original film clips made of themselves and learn for the first time that their partners’ worldviews are drastically different from their own. They are then given the choice of sharing a beer together, or going their separate ways. I won’t tell you how it ends, but even in watching people of different mindsets working well together, I see this commercial as a modern day parable for the Kingdom of God. I’ll show this on the projector after the worship service for anyone who wants to stay and watch. 5
And so, I invite you to let these parables take hold of your imaginations, to let them tease your mind into active thought. Let us trust that God works through each small word and deed that we offer in God’s service. And may we keep our eyes open for glimpses of God’s Realm, and our hearts open for opportunities for God’s Kingdom to take root and grow in the most chaotic of times, to be seen in the most hidden of places and to be found in the most unexpected of people in this world. Amen.
3Swanson, Richard. “Provoking the Gospel of Matthew” Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007.