Matthew 13:31-35The parable of the mustard seed raises the question: why does the kingdom of God seem so insignificant?
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables'.
The first disciples of Jesus must have felt very small and unimportant when they considered themselves against the backdrop of all of Jewish history and in the context of the wider world of the Roman Empire. If Jesus really is the King of the universe then why is he starting his kingdom movement with a bunch of semi-literate fishermen?
The answer seems to be that “any fool can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the apples in one seed.” In the tiny little seed that we in our humanness and sinfulness discount as insignificant, in that same tiny, fragile seed, God sees tremendous potential for growth and positive impact on the world around.
One human being alone can seem very insignificant, unimportant. But one human being planted by God in just the right place at just the right time can accomplish great things by God’s grace and power.
Think of William Wilberforce who fought and won the battle for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire against overwhelming odds. Think too of Telemachus, a simple Christian hermit living out in the desert, called by God to go to Rome. Telemachus found his way to the gladiator games. There was a crowd of 80,000 spectators watching men slaughter each other. Telemachus was disgusted to the point he knew he must do something. He ran into the arena and stood between the gladiators. They threw him out, but he came back. The crowd was angry and began to stone him. Still, he struggled back to his place between the gladiators. The prefect commanded his execution; a sword flashed in the sunlight and Telemachus was killed. A hush fell on the crowd. They suddenly realized a holy man had been executed in their midst. Something happened to that crowd in Rome that day. There were no more gladiatorial games from that day forth. The death of one man changed an empire for the better.
Little becomes much when you place it in the Master’s hand. Sometimes the work we are doing for Christ’s kingdom does seem insignificant, but that is only because we lack God’s perspective. We see only the seed, and not the tremendous tree that will grow from the seed. We need to trust in God and keep planting those little seeds of the kingdom.
Another question is raised by the parable of the yeast: why does the kingdom of God seem to be so hidden?
Jesus’ answer is, “Yes, my kingdom may seem hidden, but so is the yeast when you put it in the dough. In time it will permeate the whole loaf and you will see its effects.”
Jesus’ first hearers would have been surprised by this parable. Leaven or yeast represented evil to the Jewish mind. In preparation for Passover every year all the yeast in every Jewish household had to be removed.
Perhaps Jesus is making a special point by using yeast as an illustration of something positive. Perhaps he is saying to the Pharisees and others: “Yes, you may look down on my disciples now as disreputable characters. But I will take just these people whom you despise and I will use them to change the world.” And indeed Jesus did just that.
Do you realize that though Jesus began with just twelve disciples, Christianity has become the most universal faith in history, with believers composing a majority of the population in two-thirds of the world’s 238 countries? Christianity began the 20th century as the world’s largest faith with 555 million believers, 32.2% of the world population. Christianity finished in the 20th century as the largest faith with 1.9 billion, or 31% of the world’s population. Indeed the yeast is working its way through the whole loaf.
Yet, the positive effects of Christianity are still a secret to many. Some people ask, “What has Christianity done for the world?” The answer is: Christianity has changed the lives of millions for the better. Not only that, it has changed society for the better. It is Christianity that has elevated the status of women in the world. Christianity has transformed life for the weak and the ill. The first institution for the blind was founded by Thalasius, a Christian monk. The first free dispensary of medicine was founded by Apollonius, a Christian merchant. The first hospital was founded by Fabiola, a Christian woman. These are just a few of the good things Christianity has brought to the world. The goodness of Christianity is hidden to some people, just as yeast is hidden in a lump of dough. But upon inspection over time we can see the tremendously good effects of Christ’s growing kingdom throughout the world.
We all struggle with waiting—waiting for God to deal with evil, sickness, sin and death once and for all—waiting to see the significant, visible effects of God’s kingdom. We all love to sing or hear it sung at Christmas—that climactic verse from Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.” That verse, set to the triumphant music of George Friedrich Handel, thrills our very souls. But we aren’t there yet. The kingdom of God has begun in our hearts but has not been consummated. We live in the tension between the “now” but the “not yet”.
We are all just a bit like the little boy whose father planned to take him on a picnic. They made their plans, fixed lunch and packed the car for the picnic to take place the following day. Then it was time to go to bed. But the boy couldn’t sleep. So he got out of bed and ran to his father’s room. He woke his father up and the father said, “What are you doing? What’s the matter?” And the boy said, “I can’t sleep.”
So the father asked, “Why can’t you sleep?”
And the son answered, “Daddy, I’m too excited about the picnic tomorrow.”
The father replied, “Well, son, I can understand you being excited. It’s going to be a great day. But it won’t be a great day if we don’t get some sleep. So go back to your room and lie down and try to get a good night’s rest.”
So the boy obediently went back to his room and got in bed. But it wasn’t long before he was back in his father’s room. He woke his dad up again and the dad said, “What's the matter now?”
And the boy said, “Daddy, I just want to thank you for tomorrow.”
We all struggle with waiting, as we are caught in the tension between the “now” and the “not yet” of God’s kingdom. But that’s where we need to take our cue from that little boy. Though we are not there yet—though God has not yet eradicated evil, though the mustard seed has not grown into the towering tree it will one day be—though the yeast hasn’t worked all the way through the dough—though the kingdom of this world is not yet fully the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ—though the picnic is not yet here—still we can thank our Father in heaven for what is coming.