Scripture Lesson: Matthew 13:31-33 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 105:1-11 (NRSV)
Jesus had a tendency in his parables and his preaching to be highly revolutionary. He would make a statement or posit an idea, often wrapped in allegory, and when you unpacked it and looked at what he was almost “secretly” telling his followers, the implications could absolutely blow the mind.
It’s no wonder that the Zealots (a group of Jews who wanted to expel Rome from Israel, even by force) thought Jesus would be an excellent spokesperson. He was constantly going on about a transformation, a revolution, a rebirth … just a more heavenly than a political one. (For those of you not familiar with this back and forth between Jesus and the Zealots, Jesus was all for expulsion of Rome, but it was not his primary message. Moreover, he fully believed in and embraced the idea of nonviolence.)
So, what was Jesus talking about? What was so revolutionary that people were freaking out and trying to have Jesus arrested while others wanted him to be the poster boy for Israeli Independence?
The Mustard Seed
Sometimes, when someone references “the mustard seed”, I just want to roll my eyes, and think, “oh, no, not again.” It’s a direct quote from Jesus, but is so overused and repeated that most people don’t really understand what it means any more.
So, let’s unpack it so it does mean anything.
A mustard seed is not what you’re thinking about. It’s a seed, yes, of a mustard plant, yes. But it’s not a yellow mustard seed that is commonly used in and around America and Europe. It’s an oriental mustard seed that are quite small (2mm) (but not the smallest recognizable seed in Jesus’s time) … and it grows into a mustard tree. I should probably qualify, mustard trees are 8 to 12 feet tall.
This is a seed of transformation. It transforms from one of the smallest seeds to a tree that only the bravest children might attempt to climb.
But that’s only the first part of the parable, and that’s the part we usually understand, at least abstractly.
The second half is about the mustard tree itself and the birds that flock to it. In first century Palestine, mustard “bushes” would crop up in the desert in clumps. They produced black seeds (more mustard seeds) that would attract flocks of birds.
The seeds would feed (and water, just a little bit) the birds. The bushes would provide shade and perches. Also, the bushes of trees would be large enough to accommodate the size of desert flocks.
It’s a striking image, to be sure, but to us in 21st-century America, it doesn’t really mean much of anything. We have our odd bird superstition (crows symbolizing death, not wanting to disturb a flock of birds nesting in a tree, whether or not it’s lucky to see a “v” of birds flying south for the winter)… but this imagery here in Matthew 13:31-32 has been lost over time and between cultures.
To Jesus, and indeed in eastern language and the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), the image of empire was one of a great tree. The nations that would form the empire were seen as birds, resting in the great tree.
It’s a powerful, strong, and resonating image that those listening to the parable would have immediately recognized.
And the empire Jesus was talking about? It wasn’t an earthly empire, it certainly wasn’t Rome. Instead, it was God’s empire over the nations, known as “The Kingdom of God.”
So a small, tiny seed – the smallest twinkle of the beginnings of faith – can grow into a vast empire of faith, with every nation in the entire world represented. You just have to plant it and tend to it and, from the ground up (quite literally), the believer will find heaven.
Why this is Revolutionary
Now, two thousand years after Jesus first spoke these words, the imagery and the concept seems really obvious to Christians. It’s so obvious, you might be wondering why I’m spelling out for you.
Simple Answer: it wasn’t obvious then. Quite the reverse, in fact. No one had ever come up with this before.
The idea that a single spark of faith, that a single insignificant person as tiny and lowly as a mustard seed might be capable not only of such transformation, but of changing every we know about heaven and earth … this is powerful, and dangerous.
It’s not a king or a governor who creates this change, with edicts and laws, it’s the common person. It’s not the oligarch or a ruling class. It’s not the priests who control who is saved and who is damned. Just one person is capable of sparking a spiritual revolution.
And, just in Christianity, didn’t we see it happen? One man spoke two a crowd on top of a mountain, multiplying bread and fishes, and now there are over 2 billion Christians on the planet just 2,000 years later.
In Germany, a simple monk nailed his 99 theses to a church door (or so the story goes).
It’s a message of personal agency, it’s a message of clear conscience, it’s a message of true freedom.
The message is universal, timeless. Mahatma Gandhi made this idea a reality in 1919 when he became famous throughout the world for civil disobedience, standing against injustice in his home country of India against the British Empire, using nonviolence. He was one man who transformed an entire nation when he refused to strike a person who was beating him, even in self-defense.
These tactics were used in the Civil Rights Movement at sit-ins in local diners and across America. Other facets of the movement included a preacher and a rabbi in Selma, Alabama, who dared to march to Montgomery with thousands of followers in demand of equal voting rights. Likewise, a Black actress was placed on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, as a symbol of racial and gender equality in an idealized future.
These are just a few examples from the 20th century, but there are examples across the planet, across time, moving all the way into the present day.
Yeast in the Bread
Of course, when Jesus gives us a parable, he often follows it up with a second metaphor, if not a third, so that his audience definitely understand what he’s saying.
The “parable of leaven” is just one verse (Matthew 13:33) but it is another parable of self-transformation.
Quick note: “yeast” is also known as “leaven” (as in leavened bread), roughly. It is not an exact translation.
To set the scene: in first century Palestine, baking was done in the home, and (as such) was a private matter, not a public one. You would never go to a baker to buy some bread. That just wasn’t part of the culture, not really, not for the Jews. (This was a cultural difference for the Greeks and Romans, of course.)
Jesus, as a young man, would have grown up with his mother, Mary, baking in the kitchen. This is an image of home and an image of family. It would most likely be a cherished childhood memory, in fact.
We must also remember, that in the Book of Exodus, the Hebrews left their living spaces/houses so quickly, they didn’t have time to let their bread rise (hence, “unleavened bread”). Unleavened bread became religiously significant for the holiday of Passover, if not the culture overall.
Also, along with this, leaven was considered evil in first century Palestine. We don’t really have a cultural equivalent. Yeast or leaven = fermentation (in the bread) = putrification = death / evil.
I don’t think that would really occur to more than a handful of people in modern day America. It’s certainly baffling to me, and I had to wrap my head around it before writing this mini-sermon.
This, however, is not just an interesting factoid. The point is that Jesus is saying in a one verse parable that yeast, that leaven, is not expressly evil. It can transform. This “evil” has a purpose and might not be evil after all. It can turn unleavened bread (which is a bit like a water biscuit and often unappetizing) to warm, moist, freshly baked bread that your mother made for you when you were young.
Suggesting such a thing is ludicrous. It’s unprecedented. He’s turning an entire cultural superstition over on its head. It’s–transformative. And, guess what, it’s also revolutionary.
What Do We Do With This As Christians?
That is the question. Everything starts with something small or unappetizing, and then a personal transformation that results in the Kingdom of God.
First, however, we must plant the seed and take care of it. This takes diligence, an open mind (open to God, open to doubts, because without doubt we have blind and unfounded beliefs), and most of all love.
If we want a positive outcome, if we want the Kingdom of Heaven, if we want a more fulfilling life, a better society for our children, we must be positive about it. Hate only ever breeds hate. Ignorance only creates more ignorance. If we want positivity and truth and love … then we must start with these three key ingredients.
Throwing accusations at your neighbor, hating others because you secretly loathe yourself, refusing even a dialogue to help create and understand something better than whatever we have right now … will mean more accusations, more hatred, more refusal to listen.
Jesus preached love. Love for your God. Love for yourself. Love your neighbor. And love for your enemy.
Such a concept should be old hat by now. After all, Jesus said these things two millennia ago. However, just think what a better place we’d be living in if we just shared a little of Jesus’s love, and it caught like wildfire, and transformed the world around us into something not only we but God could be proud of.
Food for thought, as always, (but if you’re making bread, don’t forget the yeast).