Jesus was nothing at all what his followers were expecting. Far from a mighty warrior arriving to conquer the Roman oppressors, the Savior they got was a humble teacher. His ministry would be one of obscurity—masked from both the public’s eyes and the public’s understanding.
So it’s quite fitting that Jesus would rely on these stories, these parables; they conveyed truth in the simplest of terms, but also the most profound of meanings. And these parables also revealed just a bit more about the true nature of God’s kingdom. Though inconspicuous, his kingdom would develop into something larger than anyone could ever imagine. This was the message of two parables in particular: the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven in the bread.
MUSTARD SEED FAITH
In the midst of several other parables, Jesus told his followers this story:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
If you’re a skeptic, you might be quick to note that no; mustard seeds are not the smallest of seeds. If Jesus was God, shouldn’t he have known that? Well, he probably did; it’s just that mustard seeds were frequently used by both Jewish and Greek teachers to emphasize the very small. Jesus was just building on a tradition his followers would already have been familiar with.
Jesus’ point is much more basic than such details. He’s seeking to compare the rapid growth of mustard seeds with that of his kingdom. How rapid, you ask? A typical mustard seed might be something like a millimeter in diameter. Small, right? But when you plant them—in that climate at least—the plant would grow ten feet tall within five days. And when it did, it would sprout large leaves, large enough for birds and other wildlife to find shelter and nourishment from other seeds.
How is this like God’s kingdom? God’s kingdom—again, the rule and reign of God on earth—seems small and insignificant in comparison to the Empires of the world. But let it grow, let it flourish, and it explodes into something vibrant and organic, something that many can enjoy and find nourishment in. It’s quite possible, in fact, that Jesus used the “birds of the air” to illustrate the way that Gentiles—that is, the non-Jews who did not have any original claim to God’s kingdom—could also find hope in what God’s doing.
Jesus told a second story:
33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)
Leaven was often used as a symbol in both Jewish and Greek writings—sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. In this short story, Jesus seems to be using it quite positively.
Leaven is not the same as yeast. Yeast refers to a specific organism that causes fermentation—the resulting carbon dioxide production causes bread to rise. In the ancient world, “leaven” was the term given to fermenting dough. It most likely refers to a small lump of dough saved back and used to make subsequent batches of bread.
How much was a “measure?” Well, one measure was thought to be about 3 gallons of dry measure. So “three measures of flour” would be approximately a bushel of flour and would probably be the upper limit of what one woman could handle. The amount of bread that could be made would feed roughly 100-150 people. As with the mustard seed, the point of this parable is that something small could have large results.
But it’s that unseen, hidden nature of God’s kingdom that haunts us. Nothing in our lives bears the mark of God’s rule and reign. But Jesus tells us that in the background, in the quiet spaces where we often forget to look, God’s kingdom still grows.
ISIS militants persecute and take the lives of Christian missionaries. One of the relatives thanked—thanked—ISIS for allowing their Christian testimony to be incorporated into the video of their beheadings. And God’s kingdom grows. Pornography usage is steadily increasing. Experts tell us that well over $3,000 is spent on pornography every second. Every 39 minutes, a new video is created. And still it grows. According to Richard Stearns, current president of World Vision United States, 26,500 children die as a result of poverty daily. Stearns says that in visible terms, this would be the same as if 100 jetliners full of children crashed to the ground every single day. And still it grows. In our own country, in our workplaces, in our schools, Christ’s followers are increasingly pushed to the margins of society, labeled as intolerant at best, bigoted at worst. We are told that we are part of the problem, not the solution, and that our antiquated beliefs have done more to harm than to heal. And still it grows.
And 2,000 years in our past, on a lonely hillside overshadowed by the clouds of God’s own wrath, hung the body of our Lord, the body of One who tasted death so that he might swallow it up in victory. A Savior who told—nay, promised his followers that to come after him would mean taking up our own cross, bearing this symbol of murder and shame, and carrying it through a world that recognizes a crown of glory and never a crown of thorns. A Savior who promised that in the new beginning, when his kingdom is one day made complete, we shall rise from the ashes of the present age to live in a world made wonderfully new. Until that day we live in the meantime, that interim period between a kingdom announced and a kingdom made real. And still it grows. And still it grows. And still it grows.