The Mustard Seed and the Yeast. 13:31-33
The third teaching section in Matthew's gospel gathers together a group of kingdom parables. In our passage for study we look at the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast. As with all kingdom parables, these two parables proclaim the gospel, namely, the immediacy of Christ's glorious reign. Although kingdom parables are in the form of a riddle, their message is simple enough: the kingdom of God is at hand, Christ's reign has begun, now is the appointed hour, repent and believe the gospel.
v31-32. As is typical of the kingdom parables, the parable begins with the statement that "the kingdom of heaven/God can be compared to the situation where ...." The situation is the planting of a very small seed in a garden with its consequent growth into a large bush. The idea of the kingdom as a great tree with birds flocking to its branches, is an image found in the Old Testament. It is most likely that Jesus is playing with this Old Testament picture, but of course, he puts his own twist on it. Jesus uses the image of a shrub and not a mighty cedar.
The parable of the mustard seed is in the form of a typical Hebrew masal, a riddle. Some commentators argue that the riddle illustrates growth from small to large, while others argue that it illustrates contrast, of small compared to large. Other commentators, C.H. Dodd in particular, argue that the riddle has to do with the immediacy of the kingdom. The seed has been planted and the tree is now full grown, although it's not the tree everyone was expecting. Christ's reign has begun; glory awaits us right now.
v33. Again, Jesus takes a commonly understood image and puts a twist on it. Leaven working in dough was commonly used to illustrate the influence of evil, although it is unlikely that Jesus has this image in mind, cf., Mk.8:15, 1Cor.5:6. Again, some commentators think that the parable of the Leaven illustrates growth, that it illustrates the transforming power of the kingdom. Other commentators again stress the idea of contrast, while others suggest that the hidden nature of the leaven in the dough is the point of the parable, that the kingdom is a present reality, although hidden from view, but the day will come when it will bubble forth in power and glory. C.H. Dodd in his book "The Parables of the Kingdom", argues that the parable focuses on the bubbling dough, on a kingdom now. "At first, it is true, the leaven is hidden, and nothing appears to happen; but soon the whole mass swells and bubbles, as fermentation rapidly advances."
"The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit", Romans 14:17.
Albert Schweitzer was a wonderful man of faith who ended his years running a leprosy mission in Africa. In his day he was regarded as one of the foremost of German theologians. One of his more interesting theories was that Jesus taught the kingdom's immediate realization. Albert argued that Jesus expected to see God's kingdom come in power and glory in his own lifetime, but that he was inevitably proved wrong at his crucifixion.
Other than the idea that Jesus was a bit off the mark with his eschatology, Albert was kind of on the right track because the Bible does teach the presentness, the immediacy, of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is indeed a now reality, but then it is also a not yet reality. The kingdom has come, Christ is upon the throne bringing all things into subjection to himself, but then again we still await his coming.
Although the Bible teaches that the kingdom is a present reality, it is not something easily seen for what it is. The kingdom requires a certain type of seeing. Israel was waiting for a kingdom like a mighty cedar tree, not a mustard bush. Jesus, the messianic claimant, came eating and drinking, and as his contemporaries asked "has anything good ever come out of Nazareth?"
There is no difference between the way people of Jesus' day viewed God's long-promised kingdom, as it was realized in the person and work of Christ, and the way people often view God's reign in Christ today. The crowd looks for the outward signs of power and glory, and so fails to see what "is within", what "is not of this world." The kingdom of God is a spiritual reality which we can neither see nor touch. Its reality is found in a "righteousness" which is ours by grace through faith, in a "peace" with God, and in a "joy" driven by the knowledge that we are forgiven and loved by God. It is impossible for us to see the eternal reality which is already ours - our very selves "raised up with Christ and seated with him" "in heavenly realms", Eph.1:20, 2:6.
So then, although God's reign in Christ is a now reality, awaiting its consummation in the not yet, its reality is for those with eyes of faith. When next we hear the success stories of power and glory transforming this or that church programme, remember that "the Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing", Jn.6:63.
If you were looking for the mustard bush and the leavened dough, what would you look for?