The Kingdom Is Like...
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-53
The other ministers in the town where I worked and I gathered for our monthly meeting. We began to talk about our practices related to celebrating communion. We weren’t really talking about theological differences, but the nuts and bolts issues. “How do you serve?” Eventually we got around to talking about the bread – and that led us to a theological battlefield. Several of us used everyday bread—specifically loaves of bread. Others used unleavened breads exclusively. One of the “unleavened bread” advocates said that using unleavened bread was the Biblical tradition, because that’s what Jesus would have used as he celebrated the Passover with his disciples. I commented that the second parable, the parable of the yeast leavening the dough, was a positive image that allowed for us to use the bread that is common and familiar to us.
The next time we gathered, one of the ministers started the meeting by handing out a seven page paper. He declared to us (and, maybe particularly to me,) that the parable I had cited was about the contamination of God’s kingdom. It was a negative parable warning people about something destructive entering God’s realm. “Anytime you have a story about yeast and a woman you know that something is wrong!”
I had never heard such an interpretation. It was, I am sure, partly a personal attack on me as a clergy woman. But, it was also a firmly held understanding of the Biblical text. Recent main stream Biblical interpreters agree – to an extent. Yeast was a symbol of impurity. (They are silent about a woman being involved!)
But, even if I accept such a statement, I still don’t understand what Jesus was saying in this parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” The other minister read this parable as a warning about all the evil doers who corrupt God’s realm – including women. Is it just bias that leads me to hear this as a positive parable? If Jesus was speaking about the influence of evil doers, who were they?
The parable of the yeast follows one of the beloved parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Theodore J. Wardlaw wrote that we focus on the “phenomenal growth from something small – [which] offers great encouragement for the church in every age, and can be appropriately gleaned from this text.” So, we have jewelry with little mustard seeds that remind us of the wonders that God can produce.
But, wait a minute, we hear that parable as a positive parable. Okay. The other minister said that the parable of the mustard seed was positive and the parable of the yeast was negative. But, maybe not. If we look back to Jesus’ day we need to wrestle with the fact that the mustard plant was considered to be a weed—a contaminate, just as yeast was a contaminate. The smallness of the seed meant that it was difficult, if not impossible, for someone to find it among all the other seeds. We have, in some ways, a re-telling of the parable we heard last week, the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Except, here, Jesus seems to present the “weed” in a positive light. J. David Waugh says that “the mustard seed and leaven parables utilize elements that either are not favored or are regarded as unclean to present lessons about transformation…Like the weeds of the previous parable, mustard is a plant that one is sorely tempted to weed out and burn. However, here Jesus emphasizes the surprising growth of something small and worthless into something that provides a place of shelter and nurture; he likens this to God’s activity.”
He explains the yeast as something “created by setting aside a portion of leftover bread to spoil, in order to create leaven used in future baking…Leaven can be fatal. Only a small portion – like a mustard seed—is needed to leaven flour.” We are told that the woman mixed the leaven with three measures of flour – which would have fed those at a wedding banquet.
Jesus took two negative images and spun them in a positive way. A weed becomes a sheltering bush (or tree) and leaven spreads through the flour so that there’s enough bread for a feast. (So, I disagree strongly with my colleague’s interpretation!) Wardlaw noted a similar theme in these two parables and the ones that follow, the parable of the treasure, the parable of the pearl and the parable of the net full of fish where the good fish are hidden among the bad. We are presented with a picture of God who refuses to be easily defined or contained by human expectations and traditions. Wardlaw says, “Maybe those disciples were shocked to hear Jesus say, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,’ because maybe they would assume that the planting and cultivation of such a kingdom is more orderly and predictable, laid out in neat rows. The kingdom of heaven is like soybeans, or like beautiful rows of lavender or cotton or grapes. What goes in is what is planned, and is altogether what grows up.”
“However, when the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, maybe that suggests that nicely bounded rows of expected crops are forever being invaded and overturned by an inbreaking that is fully unexpected.” Perhaps the carefully defined community of believers was being “invaded” by God’s grace.
He notes that the church likes to have clear boundaries. I remember hoping that those of us whose theology on bread and other issues differed could work together in mission. But, it wasn’t so. We like to know that co-workers fit into our understanding of what God’s realm is all about.
Do we see, do we recognize, do we celebrate God working outside of where we think God ought to be? Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of heaven was breaking into the world in a new way – a way that often upset and challenged the expectations of God’s people. He invited people to join him – and those who accepted his invitation, those who saw God at work in and through him, those who joined him in his work were, more often than not, from the edges of his society: fishermen, a tax-collector, and even women who helped provide for him and his ministry. They were the mustard seeds, the yeast, the treasure, the pearls, and the good fish.
So, where do we see God’s realm breaking into our world?
• The kingdom of heaven is like a homeless single mother who established a Girl Scout troop in the shelter.
• The kingdom of God is like a young boy who established a feeding program for the homeless in his city.
• The kingdom of heaven is like the friendship between two young women in Indonesia – a Christian young woman paralyzed in a natural disaster and her Muslim caretaker.
• The kingdom of heaven is like a young girl who saw the need to combat bullying on her playground and offered a friendship bench.
• The kingdom of heaven is like a group of beer drinking friends who responded to the earthquake in Honduras by going down to do construction work. The first trip started an ongoing commitment. They continue to build earthquake resistant structures. They connected with a foundation that provides hearing aids.
God’s realm breaks into our world in many ways, through many people, in many places. And, oftentimes, we don’t notice. We don’t expect God’s presence to be made manifest in the poor and homeless who might point the way. We don’t expect God’s presence in those of other faiths. We don’t expect God’s presence in the young. We don’t expect God’s presence in those who eschew the church, but reach out to serve and help the world’s vulnerable.
Wardlaw wrote of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the early 1980s. “When the white people arrived, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.” Wardlaw reflected, “Hidden within what we think we see so clearly, it is the subversive that grows up in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed and redeemed by our surprising, invasive God.”
How often do we try to tame God? How do we strive to contain God by our theologies and constructs that tell us – and through us, the world—what God can be expected to do and how God thinks? The church becomes that place that normalizes faith, that lays out the framework for God and for God’s people. C.S. Lewis wrote of his God character the lion Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia that “he is not a tame God.” Aslan was good – but not tame. So God’s presence emerges in unexpected ways that disturb our orderliness and through unexpected people and groups that challenge our assumptions.
Perhaps one of the worst assumptions we have is that we are too small, too powerless to make a difference in this world – to work for change, to work for justice, to work for peace, to participate in transformation that brings the world closer to the in-breaking realm of God. But the mustard seed and the yeast tell us that even what seems small and insignificant can be part of God’s redeeming presence. The world is in need of the weeds that disrupt systems and attitudes that perpetuate brokenness. The world is in need of yeast that invades with justice, compassion, inclusiveness and mercy.