Jesus tells a string of parables today about what the “kingdom of heaven is like.” Stories, wisdom sayings, and riddles, which are not straight forward allegories or metaphors. His meaning is simple, yet hidden; available for all to see, yet multivalent and always surprisingly new. He takes everyday things like mustard seeds and yeast, pearls and a net, and points to the unknown, the promised, but unknowable realm of God.
One day, at the family home in central Wisconsin, Kim and my mom and I were out for a walk, and I pointed out the most beautiful purple colored wild flower by the side of the road. Look how pretty the flower is, I said! I noticed these when we were driving here too. They fill in by the road so well, and make for a colorful view as we travel! Oh, that’s Spotted Knapweed, my mom said. It’s an invasive species. We’re trying to get rid of those, they take over everything. They often spread by cars, attaching themselves to the underside and being distributed to new territory unbeknownst to most people, very tricky little things. Beautiful, but dangerous! They can only be eradicated by controlled burns.
Who knew Spotted Knapweed was so beguiling! Attractive, yet invasive! Not unlike the mustard shrub that becomes a tree, according to Matthew. The black mustard seed was known across the Mediterranean as the proto-typical “smallest of seeds.” The thing about the mustard seed, less than an 1/8th of an inch in diameter, was that it grew like a weed, sprouting quickly and becoming an impressive six, even as much as a 10 or 12 foot shrubbery, though not a real tree as we usually think of them. So as a metaphor of comparison, it does the job: the kingdom of heaven grows from next to nothing in our lives, to an impressive, well, shrubbery! Jesus’ kingdom is impressive, not on the level of Caesar Augustus’ kingdom, which would have been more like a might cedar tree, but on the level of making a home for the birds of the air to live.
The comparison of the leaven reveals the same thing. Three measures of flour was a rather enormous amount, something like 10 times the amount of bread a home-maker would make in a day. I remember when I first learned to bake bread – the same basic honey-whole-wheat bread recipe I still love make – and that my favorite part was always the rising. I hated the kneading part, the most difficult to master. But as I have gotten better at kneading over the years, my favorite part is now… well I still like the rising part the best! It’s amazing to watch it’s progress, slow but sure, growing in the bowl, rounding up and finally edging over the rim until double in size. It has a life of it’s own. And compared to the kneading, which takes training, and depends on your labor, the rising part takes place completely beyond your control. So the comparison in this parable is also readily apparent: the leaven works, slow but sure, by the work of God, and grows into something much greater than you expected.
But parables are more than metaphors, and Jesus most likely has in mind the subversive nature of the mustard seed, and the leaven, itself. The mustard seed was a kind of an invasive species. It spreads! It will not be contained in garden or field. There was a Rabbinical prohibition about sowing mustard seed in a garden with another crop at the same time. Mustard grows quickly, overwhelming other plants, spilling over it’s boundaries. It is a desired and culinary plant for its spice, but it must be reigned in, sometimes eradicated.
Jesus, is that subversive mustard seed – on one level, he is surely talking about himself in the parable. Following on the heels of the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and the prohibition not to cut down the weeds until the harvest time, for fear of confusing them with the wheat, and cutting down the innocent, Jesus now tells about a farmer who sows weeds in his field, on purpose! Jesus has become the mustard plant! He sprouts and grows among the people, good and bad, and stands out, but will be cut down before the harvest. He is rejected as a weed, an invasive species, an enemy.
So Jesus is also like the leaven that was “hidden” in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. His kingdom was contending with was the kingdom of the Roman empire, which demanded obedience to Caesar, as a king and a god. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to – not the success of a soldier, or Caesar’s hierarchically ordered world – but to a woman doing a daily chore, making bread for the family. And because of leaven’s hidden, unknown nature, it was considered somewhat suspicious. It could be a good thing, as it is here in this story of raising an unexpectedly large measure of flour, but it could be a negative thing too, like “the leaven of the Pharisees,” that Jesus warns his disciples against.
This is the part of the parable that does it’s work on us internally, pushing us to a decision, growing in us towards our transformation. If we have ears, we hear, and are changed. Jesus, coming as a mustard seed, and as leaven, did not come within the boundaries of where anyone expected to find him, not as the next King David to conquer Rome; not as the next King Solomon seated in the Temple. Jesus came as friend of the working class, healer of the homeless, invasive species to the powerful. His reward was, death on a cross, despised and misunderstood. Do not cut down the weeds with the wheat, said Jesus, lest in pulling the weeds you uproot the wheat. And so we begin to understand that Jesus, the mustard seed become a great shrubbery, who was the true king, is sacrificed as a noxious weed. Jesus, the bread of life, and our unleavened bread of the Passover from death to life, has become our banqueting celebration, our nourishment and salvation!
Where does Jesus crop up in your life? Where will your next holy encounter be? Jesus subverts our normal expectations of weeds and wheat, good and bad, evil and righteous. As his followers, we begin to understand the realm of God that Jesus brought. One where seeking revenge, would be to crucify him again. What we thought was a weed, a bad fish, or evil, may turn out to be just the opposite, God’s own precious child. We cannot contain God’s loving grace in neat little gardens. God sows angels and messengers, leaven and mustard seed, in amongst us all. The kingdom of heaven is not like a mighty cedar tree, but like a surprising shrubbery, beguiling and attractive, providing life for all, even for the birds of the air, and producing some delicious herbs that spice up our life! God loves us that much.