The conventional wisdom of the mustard seed says that great things grow from small beginnings. As for the leaven, the wisdom is that a little something yeasty can go a long way and have a big impact. While that’s certainly true, I have discovered that there is deeper wisdom still in the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. A sermon about them is an appropriate place to begin a blog entitled The Mustard Seed Journal:
A Sermon on Matthew 13:31-32, with Allusions to Isaiah 55
The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven seem so tame, on first reading at any rate. Who has not observed the marvelous growth that comes from a tiny seed? What’s more, many of us can recall the delicious yeasty aroma of rising and baking bread. Jesus’ point seems clear: great things grow from small beginnings, and so it is with God’s kingdom.
But as I studied these parables, I discovered that when Jesus first told them, in the listener’s ears they had bite. They were tangy, even a bit offensive. The people of Jesus’ day were surprised, even shocked to hear him speaking of God’s kingdom that way.
That was especially true with the leaven. Every other reference to leaven in scripture is negative. Why? Because leaven to Bible folk was not the clean, sanitary packaged yeast that our mamas used to make bread. The way they made leaven was to take a lump of dough or a piece of bread, keep it in a dark, damp place until mold grew on it. Then they used this moldy lump as the starter for the next batch of bread.
Picturing that, I can see why Bible people thought that leaven was unclean. And as such, it was a fitting symbol for sin, corruption, creeping rot. Like leaven, sin creeps through and corrupts everything. No wonder Paul wrote to the Galatians, who were upset by a certain man’s teaching: “How can you let this troublesome teacher lead you astray? Deal with him! Don’t you know that a little leaven permeates the whole lump of dough?” (Galatians 5:9).
It was the same as saying “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Even Jesus later used leaven as a negative symbol: “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” he warned his disciples.
What is leavened, in the Biblical thought world, is unholy. Corrupted. The sacred is seen as unleavened. Pure. To this day the Jewish Passover rules instruct families to get rid of every last speck of leaven in the house, and then eat unleavened bread for the seven days of the holy feast.
Jesus’ listeners were shocked to hear him using an image of something unclean to describe the kingdom of heaven. The way he told the story added to the offense. He said, “It’s like yeast that a woman”—remember that the purity of women in that day was always subject to question—“it’s like yeast that a woman hid—the Greek says hid—in enough flour to bake bread for an army.” It was a huge amount of bread. All it takes is a little leaven to infect the whole.
How can the Kingdom of God be like rottenness and corruption? How can it be like an unclean action, done with an unclean substance, by a most likely unclean person?
I tried to think of what image Jesus could use to surprise us that way today. I thought of viruses—those little things that make us sick. We see viruses as unequivocally bad, something to vaccinate against and guard against. Hear the word “virus,” and we think “Yuck! Flu!” and any number of other yucky illnesses. Suppose Jesus had said, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a virus that invaded a cell in the body, and then tricked the cell’s DNA so that the cell became a factory making more copies of the virus. Then the new viruses infected more cells, and it spread through the body.” How can the kingdom be like a virus?
The image of the leaven was not a positive image. But I learned this week, too, that even what to us is a beloved image, the image of the mustard seed, was itself not entirely positive. Mustard seeds grew into mustard bushes, and mustard bushes were considered weeds! What’s the man in the parable doing sowing it? Once mustard seed gets into a patch of ground, you can’t get rid of it. It attracts birds where you don’t want birds and don’t want them doing their business. In Matthew, right after the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus says, “Here’s another parable: the kingdom of heaven is like a man sowing mustard seed in his field.” The Kingdom of heaven is like a weed!
Think of pesky weeds now. Suppose Jesus said to us, “The Kingdom of heaven is like this: a man sows dandelions in his yard. The Kingdom of heaven is like dandelion. Once you’ve got it, you won’t ever be able to get rid of it.” How can Jesus compare the Kingdom to a weed?
What was Jesus trying to tell people about the Kingdom, and the God that reigns in the Kingdom? Maybe we can put it this way: Like a weed that can’t be eradicated, like leaven that doesn’t stop fermenting until it has worked its way through the whole batch, God’s kingdom is unstoppable. It can’t be eradicated, and it can’t be stopped.
It’s unstoppable not because it’s like a massive army, not because it’s like some gigantic, titanic unmovable tower, some bludgeoning force. The Kingdom is unstoppable in a weedy, yeasty sort of way. If you’re not looking for it, you could miss it altogether.
The exiles couldn’t see it. After their nation and homes were destroyed, and especially after the holy city, Jerusalem and God’s temple were destroyed, it looked to them like God’s reign had been stopped. In Babylon they were strangers in a strange land, caught in the massive machinery of the Babylonian empire, which, like all empires, thought it was the answer to the world’s problems, and that it was invincible. What happened to God’s dream of a covenant people gathered on the holy mount Zion? The exiles thought the dream was dead. God was stopped!
The early Church that Matthew was writing to experienced hostility both from the religious community that rejected Jesus, and from another seemingly invincible empire, Rome. With so many believers suffering and even dying, some sorrowful folk found themselves wondering whether God’s dream could survive. Was it in danger of being stopped?
Even now, with daily news of hatred, and viciousness and violence, can God’s dream really be moving forward? Evil seems to have the upper hand. Ideologies of hate seem stronger than the gospel of love. If God’s reign hasn’t been stopped, it sure seems stalled sometimes. Look at all working against it!
Both of our scripture lessons today affirm that that is most certainly NOT the case. The Kingdom is not stopped. God most certainly is not stopped. God is unstoppable!
Through the prophet Isaiah, God told the exiles, “My plans aren’t your plans. My plans are higher than your plans, and my plans are not going to be stopped. My word is going to go out, and it is not going to be stopped. It is not going to come back to me empty. It is not going to come back to me until it has done everything I send it to do. You are going to leave Babylon with joy. You are going to go home with peace.” God is ever faithful, ever sure. God is faithful and determined. God’s reign is unstoppable. Kings and kingdoms, Babylon and Rome will all pass away, but God’s kingdom is unstoppable. God is unstoppable.
Jesus said that the reign of God is like a mustard seed, and the resulting plant. You can’t get rid of it. Chop at it, and it comes right back. The reign of God is like leaven. It’s unstoppable. It won’t stop until it has done all its work, infiltrating all the universe.
God is unstoppable. When evil bares its teeth yet again, dripping with hate, dripping with blood, God is undeterred. God is the ruler yet. The God of love is still at work. The reign of God is dawning even now. The light of God’s love shines in all that is fair and gracious and healing. God is still at work in a mustard seedy, yeasty sort of way, a way you might not notice if you’re not looking.
When sickness and death strike yet again, God is not thwarted. God is not stopped. The healer, the one who holds us in life and in death, keeps right on working, speaking the word of life that shall not return to him empty. Until it is Easter, until it is resurrection day in all times and places, God will not stop.
God is unstoppable, God works in a mustard seedy, yeasty sort of way. This is the God who sowed a seed in Bethlehem, the God who invaded the world in the form of a human infant. He grew. He loved God, and he loved humanity. He gathered disciples. He touched lives with healing and forgiveness. Some people thought he was a weed that needed to be stopped—exterminated because he didn’t do what they thought he ought to do. They thought they had succeeded in eradicating him, and the yeast of his teaching, by means of a cross on skull hill. But death couldn’t keep him in the ground. God is unstoppable!
People of God, knowing that God is unstoppable, knowing that God’s kingdom cannot ever be stopped, take courage. Be unstoppable as citizens of God’s kingdom. Do the ordinary things that seem small, inconsequential, insignificant, humble, like one seed, like one pinch of yeast. They count! They matter! Be unstoppable, people of God!
Make that call, send that card, put in your 2 cents’ worth. Do the humble acts of mercy, kindness, helpfulness. Show and tell the love of Jesus. Speak up for ailing friends and family members. Speak up for the weak. Cry for justice. Keep feeding on the word. Keep gathering with God’s people week after week after week. And pray, pray, pray. Be unstoppable in prayer. In the name of the living Lord Jesus Christ, do your own mustard seedy, stubborn weedy, heaven leaven kingdom things.
Kings and kingdoms will all pass away, but God is unstoppable! And we, too will go out in joy and be led forth in peace. We will go home in peace to make our nest in the tree of life forever. Praise the Lord!