The parables of the mustard Seed and the Yeast

Matthew 13:31-35

Last week we started our new series looking at parable of the kingdom. Zandra led us in looking at the parable of the wheat and the tares. One of the key points she made was of the need for patience. The farmer could not immediately tell the difference between the wheat and the tares and had to wait until the harvest. It is all too easy to rush to judgement about people, but it has to right until the right time - until all is gathered in. There are two very short parables of the kingdom in between that parable and its interpretion. The first is the parable of the mustard seed which grows into a large tree, and the second is the parable of the leaven which has to spread thoughout the dough. In both cases patience is again required and there can be no doubt that this is a key point he wants to get across. 

In Jesus’ time many were looking for, and longing for, the coming of the Kingdom of God. It would be a time when everything would be put right, not least, Roman oppression would be thrown off. And it was expected that this would happen quickly and suddenly by divine intervention. It was understandable. Jesus had to teach them that that was not how it was going to be. It was going to take time, a long time - but the end result was nevertheless certain. We do not share the same mindset, we are not a conquered nation. But in Church life there can still be a temptation to want the quick, solution to get everything right. There are always those on the lookout for the ‘quick fix’ whether it is working with children and teenagers, or in discipleship or in outreach generally. We need to hear this teaching of Jesus about the kingdom - be patient, keep at it, but be patient. It takes time for the harvest to come, it takes time for the seed to become a tree, it takes time for yeast to spread through dough, and you can help things, but you can’t rush them. But each of these two short parables also have other lessons as well and they encourage us to have hope, even though the coming of the kingdom in its fulness will take time. 

The mustard seed
The mustard seed was a very tiny seed. When Jesus says it was the smallest seed this is not Jesus doing horticulture but going with popular culture. But this tiny seed could grow into a strong tree, some 12 - 15 feet tall. From tiny beginnings something great could and would come. Those first disciples who had grasped something of what Jesus was about were in no doubt that they were a tiny group. At times there were crowds, but crowds are always fickle and were no true indication of the number of those wanting to become followers of Jesus. At the start of Acts we are told there were about 120 followers of Jesus - a tiny number of people. Hardly the basis for a mass movement - and yet look at the Christian Church today. It has spread throughout the whole world with over a billion followers worldwide. Some people see the reference in the parable to birds coming to rest in the branches of the tree as picking up on an Old Testament picture of the nations of the earth being represented by birds - so that we have here a looking forward to the nations of the world all sharing in the kingdom. It would take time, but the end result of the work of Jesus will be huge. And that should be a great encouragement to us as well. God’s kingdom is still spreading and growing.

The leaven/yeast
The second short parable is partly about growth again, but also makes a new point about transformation. As an aside it is worth noting that with these two parables, in the first the active person is a gardener and in the second a women going about her baking. Part of what appealed about Jesus was the homely quality to a lot of his teaching which related to ordinary, working men and women. But at the same time once the character has set things going the work happens almost invisibly. The seed sprouts and grows, the yeast spreads through the dough. Strictly speaking leaven is not yeast, it is rather a piece of dough which has yeast in which is then used to spread through the new dough, but the point is the same. Now the yeast transforms the dough. Listen to William Barclay:

“The whole point of the parable lies in one thing—the transforming power of the leaven. Leaven changed the character of a whole baking. Unleavened bread is like a water biscuit, hard, dry, unappetizing and uninteresting; bread baked with leaven is soft and porous and spongy, tasty and good to eat. The introduction of the leaven causes a transformation in the dough; and the coming of the Kingdom causes a transformation in life.”

This is a wonderful picture of what the kingdom of God is all about - transformation of something into something far richer. And that work of transformation is often invisible - although the end result can, of course, be seen and ‘tasted’. The work of God in us is also invisible in that we cannot see it happening, and yet the result of it working in us should be noticeable - we should be better people because of God’s work within us, and if we are  not then something is seriously wrong. 

But the Kingdom of God is not just about the transformation of individuals although that will be a core aspect of it. It is about the transformation of society - helping the world to become more as God wants it to be and as a matter of historical fact the Christian gospel has had a huge impact for good. 

Listen to Michael Green:

"Despite its appalling failures and sins, it is beyond question that down the ages the church has had an amazing record in medical care, social work, education, liberation of women and slaves, and the defence of prisoners, the aged, the helpless, and those whom society neglects. The first institution for the blind was founded by Thalasius, a Christian monk. The first free dispensary was founded by Apollonius, a Christian merchant. The first hospital was founded by Fabiola, a Christian woman. Hidden and obscure the kingdom may be, but it has had and continues to have an undeniable effect upon society. It is yeast in the flour."

And he is right. We could add to that, the first hospices were founded by Christians and many parents are keen to get their children into Church schools because of the values they see practiced there.

Although the church does have some terrible failures, I honestly believe that the gospel has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on society. And that should be the same today - Barrow should be a better place because of the faith, love and lives of the Christians who live in it. 

Now we need to be careful, it is not about throwing our weight around. A few months ago someone who doesn’t come to church said to me, “The Church runs this village” and that rang the wrong bells for me. We should not be those who exercise power in a worldly way, I would rather that person had said “The church serves this village”. If church members are involved in the life of the community not for their own sake or egos, but for the sake of the community then that has to be a good thing.

But that does serve as a reminder that the two types of transformation belong together. We must all allow God’s Spirit to transform us as individuals so that the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control are increasingly evident in our lives - and then we can be those individuals through whom  God works to transform our communities and indeed the whole world.

So these two short parables have important lessons for us today. Together with the parable of the wheat and the tares they encourage us to patient waiting for the kingdom of God to come in its fulness. The parable of the mustard seed is a great encouragement that great things can come from small beginnings and the parable of the yeast reminds us that the Kingdom of God is all about transformation as the Holy Spirit works in us, and through us in the wider community.

© St Bartholomew's PCC 2011