I have preached on this passage many times and I realized this week that I have often missed the real point. This is a great passage to run out to the Indian grocer, buy some mustard seed for the children’s sermon, and talk about what a wondrous plant comes from humble beginnings. Therefore, if the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, we can have hope when we feel our efforts are unremarkable compared to the world’s need, and trust that God is going to do great things from our small plantings, and spread the Kingdom among us. Don’t be afraid to start small in life, because God always has a bigger plan. Small is beautiful! That is not a bad sermon to preach. I do believe that God can often be found in the small things and lost in large undertakings. But after a little research, I decided that is not Jesus’s point.
The first problem I encountered is with the nature of the mustard plant. How many of you grow mustard in your garden? Why or why not? How much mustard do you put on your sandwich? Despite the value of mustard seeds for flavor and medicinal purposes, it is not something you want in your garden. Think mint on steroids. It does grow into a large bush, maybe four feet tall, and will spread quickly to every horizon. And what would you do with all that mustard plant? If you have ever cooked mustard greens, you will know that a little bit goes a long way. It has a horseradish kick, and you are not going to eat like you would potatoes or tomatoes. Mustard, in the Middle East, is a weed growing on the hillside, filling in the untamed and agriculturally undesirable spots. Most of the domesticated mustard grown in the world to make your Gulden’s spicy brown mustard is grown in two countries, Nepal and Canada. My guess is because they have a lot of land areas not valuable for anything else. There are no mustard farms in Iowa. When Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, watch out. It means that things could quickly get out of hand as you are unexpectedly overtaken.
And what about the birds, who come make their nests in the branches of a mustard plant? I always thought this was a comforting image of how tiny seeds provide a home for the poor birds who have nowhere to nest. In ancient agricultural areas, where seeds were sown by hand and scattered across the fields, birds were a nuisance. Remember the parable of the sower who lost many of the seeds because the birds came and ate them. You really don’t want to encourage the birds to nest around your fields, hiding in the mustard patch and eating up your crops.
As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses — if you could control it (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).
These short, inter-related parables of Matthew 13 are seasoned with scandals and surprises about the nature of God’s work. This woman who is putting leaven in dough is not your typical baker making daily bread. She is using three measures of flour, which is a very large quantity of bread for a feast, the NIV says it may be up to 60 pounds. I followed the little note that says to verb “mixed” may have a different meaning. The King James says she “hid” the leaven. The Greek verb is a form of “kyrpto,” so think of the English words “encryption,” or “cryptic.” Why is she hiding leaven in the bread? Remember that leavened bread is not necessarily a good thing in religious terms. Jews eat unleavened bread on the Passover, to remind us to be humble, that you don’t always have time to let the bread rise because you may have to flee. You did not have leaven, or any type of fermentation on holy days, because fermentation is understood as corruption and putrefaction.
In the Temple, every Sabbath, twelve cakes of bread were put on the table of the alter, and they were changed each Sabbath, and then priests could eat them. This bread, known as shrew bread, was baked by a specific clan, the Kohathites, according to Chronicles 9:32, who possibly knew a secret recipe that included Frankincense, but not leaven. So quite possibly Jesus is saying this Kohathite baker is making the shrew bread, and she hides some leaven in it, and by the time it is baked, it is absolutely out of control. Jesus later says in Matthew, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” In other words, these eaters of unleavened bread have the corruption of leaven in their teaching. When Jesus says, you are to be the leaven in bread, he may have a double meaning. You are to be a little subversive, and when you do something good and true and it gets in the dough, there is no going back. It permeates everything. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Showbread
The pearl extends the theme. How is a pearl formed? A mollusk is just trying to protect itself from an irritant. It deposits layers of calcium carbonate that build up over a couple of years until you have a nice pearl. Pearls come in all shapes and sizes, and rarely you get a round, perfectly, beautiful pearl, that is the pearl of great price. From irritation, and threat prevention, comes beauty.
What is Jesus point? I was contemplating this on Wednesday, and as I drove past the William Norris Elementary School in Southampton, I noticed the sign said, “Life begins when you leave your comfort zone.” My initial reaction was “this is strange. If I was a parent, what would I think about dropping my child off? I would want my school to be a comfort zone for my child, a safe space, where they can grow and thrive, experience caring, and learn math and literature. But this message is that learning happens when you get outside your comfort zone, and you try new behaviors, think new thought, or challenge yourself. Safety is a good thing. Without safety, we get anxious and can’t function well. If we always chose safety, growth is inhibited, change is blocked. If we always protect children from any anxiety, what happens? Children need just enough challenge, a small mustard seed to take root, a little leaven in the dough, and irritant under the shell, to develop strength and resiliency.
What about grown-ups? We probably need just a little more mustard in the recipe. Through long experience, we settle our beliefs, we form habits, occasionally we get a little rigid. Jesus says, God is often at work when we notice discomfort, or cognitive dissonance. A tiny seed of an idea comes into our mind. It may be an opinion about ourselves that doesn’t sit well at first, someone we like has an odd idea, someone we don’t like seems to make sense, so we ponder and wonder. WE feel a shift, and suddenly it feels like mustard has filled the available space. When I have a new insight, it feels expansive, my soul rises like bread dough and becomes more robust, but at first I might feel a little bloated, as dough goes outside the pan I live in. I have to adjust to the new size and shape of it. My first reaction is to contain the irritant, like the oyster, protect myself, but as I work at it, something else forms, something new, something precious and even beautiful.
When we talk about transformation and the work of God in our lives, we can never forget the basic Newtonian laws of motion. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Transformation disturbs what is, and when God is at work transforming our lives, we don’t always like the first bite. Our mouth got a surprise, it takes awhile before we say, “Oh, that is actually really good.” The Kingdom comes in strange people, places and things. Sometimes Samaritans are good, foreigners are faithful, the respected people are corrupt and the despised are the saintly. And life begins when we get outside our comfort zones.
For reflection: How do these parables speak to you? Where is mustard surprising you? What leaven is expanding you? What is irritating you under your shell, that calls you to adapt?