“Hidden things still surprise”
Message preached on
July 30, 2017
Hidden within these two brief parables of Jesus is a surprise. On the surface, it is astonishing enough – great things come from tiny packages. We know this to be true from our very lives, which start out small. Who could guess the grown man when he was first born at his mother’s breast? Who could imagine the woman when she lay asleep in her crib? Every one of us started out small. Now look at us. Big… A mustard seed, a bit of yeast – this makes perfect sense to us.
Even if we voted to “Make America Great Again” last November, we know (don’t we?) that it is really the little things that matter the most. Great things do not start out big. Growth happens slowly, with its beginning unseen – a truth built into our DNA. We know this. “It’s the economy, stupid,” one Presidential candidate once said. And an economy is built one job at a time. When politicians forget that, they aren’t elected.
In the economy of the God’s realm, which Jesus called “the Kingdom of heaven” in these two parables, great things come from tiny packages: a mustard seed, a bit of yeast. We forget this at our own peril. The woman who loses track of the girl; the man who forgets he was once a boy; they who ignore their humble past – the humus, the soil of their beginnings and their one small step at a time to the present – these persons have lost the ability to see change for what it is. Yes, God can do big and flashy. But the greatest miracles are more often out of sight: underground or within dough, starting out small and slowly, but surely, growing. Just like the miracle that is a human being.
But, you know, if we dig deeper into these two brief stories, a hidden truth emerges. There was a Roman who lived around the time Jesus spoke this parable, or shortly thereafter. He was an author, naturalist, philosopher. naval and army commander, and a friend of the emperor Vespasian. Pliny the Elder (as he was called) once wrote:
“With its pungent taste and fiery effect, 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.” 1
Hmmm. You know, that sounds a bit like what we would call a “weed.” And, indeed, it is. “Wild Mustard (Sinapis arvensis in Latin) is an aggressive weed indigenous throughout most of the temperate regions of Europe, Asia minor, southwest Asia and North Africa.” 2 God’s realm, Jesus, said, is like a weed. You’ve got to watch those tiny seeds. If some of them get into your garden, they can take over. Didn’t Jesus tell another story about other seeds scattered by a farmer, in which some of them landed among weeds? Yes, he did. In the very same chapter of Matthew where this parable is found (13:1-9, 18-23).
In fact, there is yet another parable in this same chapter about a field of wheat which someone planted (13:24-30, 36-43). During the night, an enemy came and tossed some nasty weed seed into that field. That was NOT nice! “Should we go and pull up the weeds,” the farmhands asked later. “No,” came the owner’s response, “you might uproot some of the wheat in the process. Leave it till harvest time. We’ll separate out the weeds then, and burn them.” That story, and its end-time explanation, bookends (before and after) this morning’s parables of the mustard seed and the yeast.
In this same chapter of Matthew, then, we have three stories that involve weeds, two of them used in a negative sense, and one of them – this morning’s parable – positively. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, which those listening back then would know was a weed. They would’ve known that if a few mustard seeds land on a field, it quickly takes over. Soon, you have a field of wild mustard. Even if you try to domesticate it, it still runs rampant. Was Jesus implying that God’s kingdom cannot be domesticated, that we don’t control it – it grows as it will? There is a “wild-ness” to the realm of God. Surprise!
Certainly, the first followers of Jesus - after his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit – spread like weeds around Israel and then the Roman Empire. In fact, that’s how this Jesus movement was seen by many of their contemporaries. It’s like a weed that keeps growing and soon takes over. There were folks who wished to pull out the weed. Like that rabbi named Saul. We know him as the apostle Paul, but that was only after he shifted from pulling weeds to sowing mustard seeds. The early church, we say, grew like wild-flowers (that is, weeds) all around the Mediterranean Sea. After a while, the Roman empire saw them as a threat, and sought to wipe them out. But they could not.
One of my commentaries on Matthew mentions how an image for the empire was an imperial tree, juxtaposed here next to a lowly mustard seed and plant. To be honest, mustard seeds grow into bushes, not trees. But they can grow quite large. “The future tree-like glory is in continuity with the present smallness and ordinariness of the mustard plant. The presence of the hoped-for kingdom in Jesus, his works and disciples, is no more obvious than a garden herb – but the kingdom will come…” 3
And then there’s the second parable of a bit of yeast amid a woman’s baking. It’s this common, everyday kitchen ingredient that helps bread to rise, yeast, which adds pockets of air into dough when left to sit. The dough expands – it grows, if you will, because of the yeast. The kingdom of God is like this, Jesus said. His story ends before the baking even begins, which seems to imply that God’s realm is active here and now. This is leavening time. The story is hardly begun.
What is interesting to note is the volume of flour mentioned. Now, maybe our Lord was clueless when it came to the kitchen, but I think not. Did he know that “three measures of flour” would be enough to feed 100-150 people? We’re talking an extensive banquet here. Surprise! Of course, there was that big meal on a hillside with so many mouths to feed and so little food to share. What was it, only five loaves and two fish available? The disciples were not convinced there was enough but, when all was said and done, over 5,000 ate at that banquet, and there were plenty of leftovers (Matthew 14:13-21).
What’s also interesting to note about this morning’s second parable is that the woman doesn’t “knead” or “mix” the yeast into the flour, which is what you might expect it to say here. The translation read earlier (NRSV, same as NIV) has it wrong. The KJV has it right here, for the verb is “hid.” The woman hides the yeast in the flour. Now, was that just a man’s way of talking about baking, or was Jesus (or those who later wrote down this story) trying to get across a deeper truth? In the present, God’s realm may seem hidden or silent. What is going on, Lord? We pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” but we don’t see evidence if it happening. “Don’t grow discouraged, don’t give into the temptation to give up faith,” Jesus may be telling us with this parable. God is like this woman preparing bread for baking. The yeast is doing its job, though hidden. Our Lord may also be encouraging us to be like that woman. Keep baking the gospel. But remember, like the mustard seed and the realm of God it reveals, you are not domesticated. There is a wildness to you. Let your spirit soar!
Mother Teresa, who left the comfort of home and worked among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India, had a motto: Do small things with great love.” That’s an appropriate encouragement to connect with the hidden surprise of these two parables of Jesus. Both mustard seed and yeast may look small, but watch out… At our 2006 National Youth Conference, Jim Wallace of Sojourner’s magazine preached a sermon in which he invited young people to take up Mother Teresa’s motto and practice acts of kindness, even if in small ways. Ken Medema, blind songwriter, composed a song on the spot to summarize Jim’s message. Let’s sing just the chorus to it, which I came home and put onto paper:
Before you put away your singing voice and prepare yourself for communion, let sing together how Carolyn Winfrey Gillette summarized these two parables of Jesus. The words fit to the music of a familiar hymn, “To God be the glory.” Won’t you join me?
To what can the Kingdom of God be compared
Copyright © 2011 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved
Deacons, let’s prepare the way.
1 Natural History 19.170-171, translated by H. Rackham
3 M. Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible VIII: 309, ©1994, Abingdon Press.