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 fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’ –Matthew 13:31-35 (NRSV)
A pair o’ parables, two stories about ordinary things on the surface but underneath having greater import. A mustard seed, a large bush, a bit of yeast, a large quantity of flour — ordinary things that Jesus turned into lessons that we can still study today. Those parables served as a kind of starter for people’s beginning to think in a new and different way.
Human beings have used parables, allegories and the like for since the dawn of civilization, using common things to teach lessons in morality, tradition, ethics, behavior, and religious tenets. Jesus used them to teach about the kingdom of God. It might be invisible now, but properly tended and used, it could become a mighty (and filling) part of life.
I bake bread now and then, or rather, I assemble the ingredients and my R2D2-shaped bread maker does the mixing and kneading. I put in the flour, the shortening, the milk and/or water, the tiny bit of sugar, the eggs and a small quantity of yeast. I turn on the machine and it begins the process of taking those raw ingredients and turning them into a fresh, hot loaf of homemade bread. At the beginning it just sort of sits there, looking like nothing but a lump of stuff with no particular shape or anything. Over a period of several hours, though, it grows and expands, gets punched down and kneaded again, then allowed to rest again while the yeast continues its work of growing and rising until it nearly reaches the top of the breadmaker. Then the heating element turns on and begins to bake the loaf to a lovely golden brown. And the scent — what can smell better than the yeasty smell of fresh-baked bread. The yeast might have been invisible but look at all it did.
Jesus was undoubtedly familiar with the leaven that went into his mother’s loaves of bread, and the bread of Passover which contained no yeast at all. One was the bread of haste, the other a bread of normalcy. One little ingredient can make all the difference.
I kind of look at life that way too. There are lots of people in my life but only a few add the leaven that makes my life more expanded and fragrant. I think God planned it that way. I can also see the action of just a little bit of yeast in society when someone stands up for those who can’t stand for themselves or who are ignored by the majority because they seem small and insignificant. God planned that kind of thing too; Jesus taught about it and those who speak out exemplify it.
Sometimes these days it’s hard to get the full picture since so much of what was normal and open for people in Jesus’ day are out of sight and out of mind for us in our world. Sheep? Lots of city kids (and adults) have hardly ever seen a live sheep much less know about shepherding Jesus used as an illustration or a parable. Making wine? Yeast plays a part in that too, but unless I make wine at home or know someone who does, I probably don’t really know the full process other than what the movies show of people standing in tubs of grapes, stomping them into pulp and releasing the juice to be fermented. Sowing and reaping? Well, I certainly know what weeds are and what grass is, so I have some basis for understanding parables about that kind of thing, but I don’t have the everyday familiarity with the process that a farmer would have. It all begins with a small seed or ingredient, tended and fostered, that grows into something many, many times the size of the thing that started it.
I’m suddenly tempted to go grab the ingredients and make a loaf of my favorite Sally Lunn bread. I have the flour and the other ingredients, and I have the yeast. Perhaps now I have an even greater respect for the tiny granules in that packet that I open and add to the mixture. As I do that, though, I will consider where I can add leaven to the mixture of the kingdom. I may be only one grain of yeast, but that one grain has potential, if I just release it to do its work.
And with the warm bread and cheese I’ll enjoy when it’s done, perhaps just a dash of mustard…