Gospel text: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jesus has many parables to tell us today that give us glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. But to start, I wonder if Matthew’s phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” is problematic? Because we’re not talking about heaven as that place in the sky you think you might get to go to someday. We’re talking about the kingdom of God, the holy realm, the place where God dwells, which would include, but not be limited to this earth in this present time. Jesus is opening our understanding, or challenging our understanding of how we might envision God’s kingdom to be. We like to think God’s kingdom is full of rule followers, law-abiders, people who are nice to each other, and hopefully our animals. But what Jesus has to say blows that understanding wide open. He offers something totally new, something challenging, something disturbing, even.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. You might be recalling to yourself the part where it says, “If you just have faith as small as a mustard seed…” This is not that. Here we’re talking about the kingdom of God, not faith itself. In that other example, the main point is that mustard seeds are small, right? Here, Jesus doesn’t stop with the small size, but talks about the explosive nature – that something so small becomes something so big. And for a moment we’ll pretend that’s the truth about mustard seeds. So the kingdom of God is like a small seed, that, when planted, grows into a great tree where birds can nest and find shade. Remember, this is the kingdom of God we’re talking about, not faith. So it’s the kingdom that grows in size.
Except, here’s the joke. A mustard plant never really gets to the size that someone would call it a tree. It might be a large bush. But not a tree. And here’s another kicker – the mustard plant was considered a weed where Jesus was. And it’s considered a weed elsewhere, too. I remember seeing the beautiful yellow mustard plants in wine country in California, but no wine grower would want those plants growing with the grapes. Mustard is a weed. It’s obnoxious, it spreads. If it attracts animals, it is definitely unwanted in any kind of garden. And by now maybe you’re getting the point that Jesus has a thing for weeds. This is the third week now that I’ve talked to you about weeds. But this week it’s a bit different. In the last two weeks, the metaphor of the weed stood for people, but this week it’s the kingdom of God. Even the metaphor is growing in size.
The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flour. To us who love bread, and especially yeast products, this sounds great! Maybe we can take it as justification for eating all those carbs we love so much. Just kidding – I don’t actually think Jesus is trying to inform our diets here. But his choice of items did put up the alert antenna for his listeners! First, we need to know that the original word that gets translated as yeast there is more accurately translated as leaven. Yeast is a kind of leaven, which means they are both elements that encourage growth when used the right way. The only reason it is important to know that it is different is that leaven was considered a symbol for moral corruption in the ancient world. Leaven is come by differently than yeast.
In Jewish custom, even still today, one practice for Passover is eliminating all leavening agents from one’s possession – the unleavened bread of Passover. This helps us to know how confused Jesus’ Jewish hearers may have been – that the kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman took and mixed with flour. When the people spend most of their time trying to get rid of leaven, by God’s command, why would mixing leaven in flour – where you can’t see it and might now know it’s there – why would that be a good thing? Mixing leaven into the flour would make the flour useless because it would have to be discarded.
And it’s not like the parable mixes a little flour with the leaven – it has the woman mix three measures of flour, which for us would be like 50-60 pounds! That is a lot of leavened flour that needs to be dealt with. And then we have a woman mixing the flour. In Jesus’ day and time it was men who represented purity – women were impure just by the very nature of being a woman.
And then we need to address the fact that our reading said today that the woman mixed the leaven with the flour. The Greek word translated as “mixed” is more accurately “hid” – we’re not talking so much about kneading here as we are about hiding in a negative sense. It’s not just covering the leaven with the flour, but concealment.
In this parable then, we have leaven, an agent of corruption, being concealed with a lot of flour by a woman, who would not have been considered pure. The crowd may have been imagining that Jesus told the story wrong – that the proper terms for God’s kingdom were unleavened, a man, and open or revealed! What in the world does this parable then mean to say about the kingdom of God?
If the mustard seed parable hints at the weedy nature of the kingdom of God – by that I mean that it spreads, often where you don’t want it to and without knowledge of its spreading – then the leaven parable takes it one step further. The concealment aspect of hiding the leaven in the flour almost has a sinister sound to it. Yes weeds are annoying and spread and grow even without water it seems, but the leaven is purposefully being hidden in the flour.
So still the question remains: what do these parables tell us about the kingdom of God? A few things.
- God’s kingdom invades everywhere. God’s kingdom, and God’s work in this world, is not controllable and it’s not easily stopped.
- The kingdom of God is unexpected, even unseen, and maybe subversive. Just like the roots of the mustard plant, or the work of the leaven, God is at work even though we might fail to see it or perceive it.
- God’s kingdom is at hand. It’s here, in the ordinary things of life. God shows up, sometimes where you least expect God to be.
These are all good news for us. Especially in this world, and we could even say “even after the events of this week,” we need to be reminded that God is here. God is at work, God’s kingdom is present, whether we are helping it along or not.
There was a news story this week about a large truck on I-5 in Tacoma that was carrying leftover bread dough to a processing plant where it would be repurposed as feed for livestock. The driver had loaded garbage bags full of dough into the truck, as he had been doing for years. Only this day would reach highs in the mid-80s, and he encountered more traffic than usual from a nearby military base. The combination of heat and yeast in the non-refrigerated truck made the dough rise and swell in the plastic bags, so much so that it caused the bags to burst and it began seeping out onto the highway. The driver was on the road for an hour before he noticed the falling dough and pulled over. The dough didn’t present a hazard and there were no accidents because of it. After some quick cleanup by state troopers, he made it to the feed plant with what was left.
The kingdom of God is like bread dough in a truck in hot weather, no matter how hard you try to contain it, it just spills out onto the road and invades the lives of all those who encounter it.
May God give us the strength and the will to continue to do God’s work in this world. And when life is hard, when we’re put down by all the division and injustice in our world, may we remember that, while we are invited to it, the work of God’s kingdom is not left up to us. God is at work even when we fail to be. God’s kingdom grows and spreads despite our best attempts to cut it down. Praise be to God for that.
Brian Stoffregen’s Exegetical Notes at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt13x31.htm