Instant gratification! That seems to be the theme anymore; at least for folks in the US. If we don’t see results pretty quickly, and preferably pretty dramatic results, we lose patience and call for a change. And it seems not to matter if the target is a president, a football team, or a weight loss program. I want what I want, and I want it now.
But Jesus gives us a couple of tiny little parables that seem pretty counter to that mindset; at least concerning the kingdom of heaven. It is with small, seemingly insignificant beginnings that the kingdom beginnings. But it has a mighty impact.
The Mustard Seed
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”Matthew 13:31-32 NIV
Some people like to quibble about the parable of the mustard seed, claiming that Jesus’ size claims are inaccurate. But I think that is really more an attempt to find fault rather than listening to what he is trying to teach us. Mustard seeds are pretty tiny. While not actually the smallest seed of all, they are likely about the smallest you would ever plant. And while there are a large variety of plant sizes for mustard, one of the species common to the Mediterranean does get to be quite a large bush. To those that Jesus relates this parable to, it is probable that this was the smallest seed known to them. And one that produced the largest garden plant they were familiar with.
The Lesson of the Mustard Seed
But, given that, what is Jesus trying to say with this parable? It might seem like a simple botany lesson, if it was not for the comparison he draws to relate it to the kingdom of heaven. I believe that there are two equally valid ways of understanding this parable; one related to the individual, and the other to the church at large. And both of them start small and develop into something much larger.
What happened in my own life when the word of God was planted? To most of the world, those who have not experienced it, it seems rather insignificant and of little value. But that seed, once planted, sprouted, and began to grow within me. And it continues to do so up to this day. And far from being an insignificant and valueless myth, it has worked powerfully within to create something entirely new; a son of God. I believe it is fair to say that the word of God has had more impact on my life than anything else I have ever encountered.
And this is true on a larger scale as well. Christianity took birth in a backward Roman province; among a mostly poorly educated working class; proclaiming a strange and offensive message of a crucified savior. But what has that mustard seed grown into today? I don’t personally believe that most of the people who check off ‘Christian’ on the survey form actually have a personal relationship with that crucified, and risen, savior. But I believe it is hard to underestimate the impact that the teachings of Christ have had on the world in the past 2000 years. And the kingdom of heaven has continued to grow over the past 2000 years in the lives of believers; becoming a tree that offers shelter to all who come seeking.
An Important Parable
By my count there are about 21 parables of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels; John has none. And of those, only three, including this one, are recorded in each of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Do you think maybe the authors of these gospels felt like this was a particularly significant parable? Maybe we should not get discouraged when the kingdom of heaven is not advancing as fast as we would like it to. Maybe, instead, we should quit complaining about those who we think are slacking off. Instead, get busy, do our part, and trust God to accomplish his purpose.
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”Matthew 13:33 NIV
The second parable in this set is even shorter than the first; but has a similar message to the mustard seed parable: don’t overlook what appears small and insignificant. In this case, the kingdom is like yeast rather than a mustard seed. The difference is that with the mustard seed we are seeing the growth of the kingdom of heaven while with the yeast we are seeing its influence.
I have, at certain times in my life, done some baking. And one of the ingredients used in making bread was yeast. If you didn’t know better, it would seem like yeast was a relatively insignificant ingredient. You use only a tablespoon or so of yeast to go with 9 cups of flour, and various other ingredients. But you would be in for a big surprise if you left it out. With the yeast, you get nice fluffy loaves of bread. Without the yeast you get small hard bricks that you really need to soak before attempting to eat.
The influence of the kingdom of heaven on the world is immeasurable. And it seems to work best behind the scenes, changing the hearts of people, and through that, making an impact in the world. Yet too often we want to directly change our culture, forcing others to live in a certain way, with little attempt to change them internally. The parable of the yeast challenges me to work to change individual lives. To bring them into the kingdom. And in so doing, change the culture, rather than the other way around.