Gen. 29:15-28 and Ps. 105:1-11, 45b or 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Ps. 119:129-136
Rom. 8:26-39; Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52
PARABLES OF THE KINGDOM (Matthew 13:31-33)
By Josh McDonald
In defining the exercise of power in the world, some distinguish between “right-handed power” (which tends to be confrontational and even violent) and “left-handed power” (which often is indirect and always non-violent). Though Jesus occasionally exercised right-handed power (as in throwing the money-changers out of the Temple), for the most part he used left-handed power. Though doing so might seem counter-intuitive to us—and it certainly seemed that way to many of his peers, including his followers—no person in history exerted as much power as Jesus.
To some degree, Jesus’ story is the story of an obscure country boy who spoke with an uneducated accent, but nevertheless shaped history more than all the kings, politicians and soldiers put together. His words, often advocating non-violent, left-handed power, caused kingdoms to rise and fall. Jesus’ power is the power to save—the power to advance the kingdom of God. It’s the kind of power to which Jesus refers in many of his parables. We’ll look at two of those parables today in our gospel passage:
[Jesus] told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is liken a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matt. 13:31-33)
In these two parables, Jesus shows how the kingdom of God effects the world. His audience at the time likely wanted him to exert some right-handed power to restore the kingdom to Israel. Yet, Jesus’ message to them, and to us today, is this: “My kingdom is not of this world!”
Using the illustrations of a mustard seed and yeast, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as “buried” and “hidden,” and so working in often unseen, sometimes slow ways in the world. While Peter and the other disciples were sharpening their swords for the coming conflict and practicing signing their autographs anticipating coming fame, Jesus told them about being buried and hidden.
As we look at these two parables, we’ll see three guiding concepts:
- The kingdom of God. Jesus talks about the kingdom often, but what is it?
- The kingdom both now and then. We’ll see what it means to be God’s “already, but not-yet people” during the “time between the times” when Jesus is king, but heaven and earth haven’t yet come together.
- In, but not of the world. This concept comes from Jesus’ words in John 17 where he asks God not to remove his people from the world, even though they aren’t to be of the world.
Before looking at these concepts, let’s fiirst ask, “Why does Jesus speak in parables?” One reason is that when you tell people things “straight out,” they have a tendency to either get their defenses up or merely ignore you. Knowing this tendency and knowing that his words about the kingdom were going to be heard as radical, Jesus frequently taught using parables. If you wanted to know what Jesus meant, you had to “hang out” with him to get “the rest of the story.” As Emily Dickinson put it, “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.” Like so much of Jesus’ ministry, his teaching using parables exemplified the exercise of left-handed power. Though subtle, his parables were truth “time bombs” that have been exploding (and thus “blowing” people’s minds) for centuries!
1. The kingdom of God
Both parables in our gospel passage today begin with the phrase, “The kingdom of God is like….” Theologians agree that the “kingdom of God” is central to Jesus’ ministry, but they don’t always agree concerning what Jesus is saying about the nature of the kingdom. Is it the church? Is it social reform? Is it what will be set up after Jesus returns? Is it heaven? Well, in some ways, it’s all these things… and more.
The Greek word for kingdom usually used in the New Testament doesn’t refer to a place as much as a fact. It’s not so much about a territory, as it is about God’s rule. It doesn’t mean only some far off time when God is in charge, but the fact that his rule has already begun on earth, though it often is unseen. You will recall that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This part of the Lord’s Prayer is about the kingdom here and now, and in the future.
The nature of the kingdom’s coming both now and in the future includes many things—often things, especially now, that don’t look much like the exercise of right-handed power. I’m reminded of what Paul said: “Do all things, whether you eat or drink, to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). From the pre-school teacher to the barber to the plumber, all things can be done to God’s glory—in ways that reflect the reality that the kingdom of God truly is “among you,” and even “within you.”
What is the kingdom of God? Let me offer a short-hand definition: “The kingdom of God is what things look like when God is in charge!” And what do things look like when God is in charge? As one author noted, it looks like “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.” The kingdom of God, the power of God, the rule of God—all are at work in our lives—right now and forever—encompassing the church but not stopping there—spreading out to encompass the whole cosmos in a new (renewed) heaven and earth that will reach fullness when Jesus returns.
I remember when I got my first “real” job following college. I would bring my Bible to work to show that I was a Christian. Kind of an in-your-face, “I’m a Christian and I ain’t afraid to say so” attitude. I worked there for two years with people whose worldviews and lifestyles were very different than mine. I soon found I could be the best witness not by arguing about theology, or by wearing Christian t-shirts, or by making sure my Bible was on my desk, but by trying to be like Jesus to those I worked with—loving and listening as Christ always did with people. As I shared life with these people, they knew I was Christian and (I hope) saw Christ in me. I didn’t need to accost them with the gospel, instead I tried to let the kingdom of God—the rule of God—work through me in my job. As I saw it, I didn’t work for that company, I worked for the glory of God, which meant doing my best and most ethical work, and doing so with love. When I screwed up, which I did regularly, I tried to fess up with honesty, and certainly without blowing my top.
People don’t remember the Bible on your desk, or the Christian t-shirts you wore, of even your theological arguments. What they remember is you—your behavior and attitude. I hope by what I did among those people they were touched by the kingdom—by the rule of God.
Yes, you can use the right-handed power of theological debate. You can toss around gospel tracts seeking to get evangelistic notches on your belt. Or, you can use the left-handed power of living out the mystery of the kingdom of God through acts of love, kindness and respect coupled with gracious words that testify to the goodness of God in Christ.
So, in these two parables we learn this:
- The kingdom is like the smallest of all seeds—a seed that grows into a big tree, a plant that provides life-giving shade and shelter to those who rest beneath it.
- The kingdom of God is like a bit of yeast mixed into a huge pile of unleavened dough. You can’t see the yeast, it makes no noise, but eventually it works its way through the dough and changes everything!
Years ago, my dad was driving on a freeway and saw a semi-truck pull over to the side. A woman got out and the trucker left her alone on the side of a busy road in the middle of winter. Dad stopped and rolled down his window, asking if he could help. She said, “Oh, you’re a pastor. You won’t like what I do.” It was clear that she was a prostitute. Dad replied, “I’ll give you five bucks just to warm up in the car for a minute. It’s freezing outside.” She accepted his invitation, sat in the car, and he proceeded to tell her about the Lord who loved her just as she was. She talked to him about her life and the pain of having to do what she did to get money. He assured her of God’s love and she left, five bucks in hand.
In that moment, did this woman need someone to tell her that what she was doing was an abomination? No! She already knew that! Did she need someone to give her shelter for a moment, to show her kindness? Yes, and that is the kingdom present and at work—that is God’s kind of love at work. That is what it looks like when the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.
What is the kingdom of God? It’s what things look like when God is in charge. It’s God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.
2. The kingdom both now and then
Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom is now present, though not yet fully. It’s the kingdom now and the kingdom to come.
To understand the two parables in today’s Gospel reading, we need to see the context that precedes them, which is the parable of the wheat. In that story, a man plants a field and his enemy comes at night and plants a bunch of weeds in the field. The weeds grow and the farmer’s servants ask if they should tear out all the weeds. He replies that they should not, for doing so would tear out the good stuff too. He then notes that the final harvest will bring about a separation of the weeds from the wheat, and at that time of separation (judgment) the tares will be burned up and the wheat bundled and carefully stored away. This parable is about the kingdom to come, with a strong focus on the final judgment at Christ’s return.
For some, this judgment part of the kingdom story appeals to our darker appetites. They want to hear about the moment when the enemies of God finally get what they deserve. Jesus’ original audience wanted to hear about the Romans getting their long-awaited comeuppance. Perhaps Jesus detected this bloodlust, and so he suddenly changes tone to offer two more parables telling about what we should be like as the kingdom of God here and now:
- In the first parable, he talks about a mustard seed. This is the smallest seed they would know of, and he pictures it as growing into a mighty tree-like plant (a large shrub).
- In the second parable, he talks about three measures of dough—that’s about 100 pounds! And then he points to the mystery of the kingdom—the mystery of God’s power represented by the yeast which proceeds to “infect” the dough.
The mystery here is that tiny little seeds usually grow into tiny plants, and it’s hard to conceive of a tiny bit of yeast impacting a huge quantity of dough. Jesus’ point it this: when it comes to the kingdom as it now is in the world, big things come, over time, as the result of seemingly insignificant, even hidden, little things.
In Jesus day, 12 men, mostly of a young age, and from all different walks of life, joined a new religious movement following an unknown rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus taught these men (and some women who were part of their traveling company) about the future—about the eventual separation of weeds from wheat. In other parables he told them about the separation of good and bad fish when the catch is brought in. But almost as if he is wanting to temper these parables of separation (that look toward a future event), he reminds them with these two parables that the kingdom (kingdom life) is right here and right now.
It’s important to understand both perspectives. Sadly, some Christians pay attention to only one, to the exclusion of the other. Some wait around for the next life, forgetting the place and calling that is theirs here and now. As the evangelist Dwight Moody once said, “Sometimes we are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” If you’re just watching the sky, waiting for Christ’s return, or waiting around to get snatched up to heaven in a secret rapture, you’ll miss those who are hurting and so in need of help here and now.
Conversely, some have an over-focus on this world and the good they can do here and now. With good works as the sole focus, the community of Christ becomes what one author called, “a social work agency with an underqualified staff.” Yes, it’s good to help the poor, love the broken, and work for peace in the world—but sometimes the good can become the enemy of the best. Yes, we are citizens of the kingdom of God now, but we also are part of the kingdom’s fullness yet to come. We know heaven can’t be found or built on earth—it must come to earth at Christ’s return when earth and heaven become one at last. It’s good to work for reform on earth today, but God tells us to hold action and love in one hand and mystery and anticipation in the other: The kingdom now, the kingdom yet to come. Not either/or but both/and.
3. In but not of the world
“In but not of the world” is a phrase distilled from Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where he presents us to the Father, praying that we would not be of the world, yet not taken out of the world. Instead, Jesus sends us into the world, just as God the Father had sent Jesus into the world. Toward that end, Jesus gives us the parable of the mustard seed, which grows into a large shrub that provides a gift of shade and shelter to the vulnerable.
In a church I used to attend, a young man decided to live the gay lifestyle. His father was an angry alcoholic who threatened to kill his son because of that choice. Though that small church didn’t agree with the young man’s lifestyle choice, and did not participate in his sin, it did protect the young man from his violent father. They took him in and he lived from house to house, kept secret until his father got sober and stopped threatening him. It was the kingdom at work here and now—showing Christ’s love even to someone who was in a broken and confused time in life.
Also toward that end, Jesus gives us the parable of the yeast in the dough. What does yeast do? It “infects” the dough, causing it to rise. You can’t see it in the dough—that’s why Jesus says it’s “hidden”—but as a living organism, the yeast actively (though quietly) alters the makeup of the dough. It chemically changes the dough at the cellular level. The yeast doesn’t separate itself from the compound it creates, instead it changes it—it lifts it up. The yeast thus represents Jesus, in our midst, bringing salvation. As his representatives, are we life-giving yeast in the dough?
Two parables: mustard seed and yeast in dough—two “time bombs” set off by Jesus during his earthly ministry that are still exploding—changing the world, one person at a time. These parables tell us about three things:
- The kingdom of God—the term Jesus uses throughout his ministry. Matthew calls it the “kingdom of heaven” because the Jewish people didn’t use the name of God out of reverence. As we’ve defined it, the kingdom is “what things look like when God is in charge.” So this doesn’t just mean your church life—your devotions, your study of the word, your prayer time. This means your whole life—all parts of it. Do people know you as the person with the fish on their car, or do they know you as the person who loves their neighbors? We are called to show Christ just as much as we are required to tell people about him.
- The kingdom, both now and then—the kingdom here already, but not-yet. The kingdom in our midst, yet in the future. We see now only the shadow of the fulness yet to come. Again, this is a tricky balance to keep. We don’t sit around doing nothing and watch the sky so we can be snatched away to heaven. We also don’t try to work within the world to create heaven on earth. It can’t be done. We live in the time between the kingdom now and the kingdom then. God’s kingdom can break in through us now to change the world, but only comes fully when Christ returns and takes his rightful throne over a renewed heaven and earth.
3. In, but not of the world—Jesus tells us about the mustard seed, which becomes the large shrub that gives shade and shelter. He tells us about the yeast, which changes the dough for good and makes it rise. Jesus, by the Spirit, is working us into the world right now to be that yeast—to be as Christ in the world. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. He disagreed with them, he prayed for them, and yet he shared the table with them. He shared life with them. He didn’t run away, seeking to be only with people who thought and acted like he did. He was in the world but not of the world.
Keep in mind the old saying: “You’re the only Bible some people will ever read.” Let us be the metaphors that Jesus keeps on speaking. Let us be his ambassadors, his agents of grace wherever we go! Amen.