The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast
Before Jesus went to the cross, his disciples rarely understood who he really was or what he was doing. "Do you still not understand?" Jesus would ask them. We are really no different today than we were then. We go about living in the world like we're waiting for something to happen to us. Rather than engaging in the kingdom of heaven now.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." And as we found in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the "last will be first." Jesus proclaimed that the "kingdom is close at hand." But what does all this mean? These are very confusing teachings. Let's put on our sinner's ears and our repentant heart and read the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast to learn how the kingdom of heaven is intended to unfold around us.
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like 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.”
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”
Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
I have always thought the Parable of the Mustard Seed to be quite odd because I had never seen a mustard plant grow as tall as a tree. However, as summer has come to a close and autumn is barrelling through, we have a few kale plant (mustard family) still alive and one particular plant has grown quite tall. We've been picking leaves from it for meals throughout the year, possibly for two years, and now that our bean poles are down, it is the largest plant in our garden. I'm sure some birds have taken refuge in its upper leaves and the thick woody stalk is reminiscent of a small tree. So, each time I pass that plant, I think of this parable.
Like the Parable of the Sower, the mustard seed probably represents the word of God. When we think of the Word of God, we should always remember what John says about Jesus the Christ:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The tiny mustard seed has a humble beginning. Jesus, as a baby in a manger, had a humble beginning as well. Jesus is the root our humility. He is our humble King of the Creation. It doesn't make sense to our human nature that being of royal stock could have anything to do with humility. Yet, what comes to mind when we think of noble acts? We think of looking out for the other. We think of saving the innocent maiden. We think of feeding the poor. And this is how royalty should act—ever serving. We are royal blood as well, through the blood of Christ.
Christians are not called to a worldly-wise way of life. We are called to let the word, Jesus, be planted in the soil is our heart, which is the foundation of our soul. When Jesus grows in us, through his Spirit, he nourishes us. He serves us. We find shelter in Jesus like the birds that find rest in the shade of the leaves. Those aspects of us that are being transformed find refuge with his Spirit within us. The child of God within us is just like a child. Our child is not savvy to the ways of the world and must take shelter as a child does behind the leg of his father. We need Jesus in us or our humble child becomes scared and takes flight. He or she is our humble beginnings and who we are today.
But we will become like the tall mustard plant as well. Do people take shelter in you from the storms of the world? If they don't now, they will when your plant is tall. In God's love, in God's service, in God's care, in God's wisdom, in God's forgiveness, the little ones will come to you and take shelter. They will ask: Why are you happy? Why are you patient? Why are you sincere? Why are you selfless? They might not ask you with words, but they will ask you with their eyes and their ears. You will explain that Jesus planted his seed in you.
Jesus explains that "the kingdom of God is close at hand," because when the mustard seed sprouts in our hearts, the kingdom begins growing in us. So, it is very close at hand indeed! That's not to say that the kingdom is not in close proximity to us externally also. It most certainly is—in his Church and in his creation.
In Matthew and Mark, the Parable of the Yeast follows the Parable of the Mustard Seed. They both demonstrate that the kingdom of heaven grows within and among us.
The yeast that Jesus speaks of in this parable is radically different from the yeast which is ever-symbolic of sin in the Old Testament. The only similarity is that yeast spreads quickly and thoroughly. Yeast was not used in the unleavened bread eaten at Passover, because yeast represented sin. So, unleavened bread symbolized purity. This 'sin-free' bread also pointed to the sacrifice of Jesus, our 'bread of life', our Paschal Lamb. In Mark 8, Jesus warns us, "Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod." Sin can act like yeast. Yet, as with this parable, the kingdom of heaven propagates like yeast as well.
In order to understand how yeast is perceived in the New Testament, we should probably outline the main types of symbolic yeasts considered here: the yeast of the Pharisees, the yeast of Herod, and the yeast of the kingdom.
Jesus explains in Luke 12 that the yeast of the Pharisee is hypocrisy. When religious people try to look holy on the outside, they become deadly role-models for others. Despite the selfishness and sin lurking beneath the surface, People want to imitate this false-holiness. This yeast can spread like wildfire in communities, because people want to look like they are good, to receive the glory. "Isn't he a holy person." Or, "Look at their happy, upright family."
But it's better to wear our sin on the outside. This is why we pray aloud, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner." Or like the Centurion we call out, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and [I] shall be healed." This type of yeast has spread throughout all of Christianity. It a yeast of envy, just like the yeast of Herod.
The yeast of Herod is selfishness and narcissism. It is lust. We are a covetous people, always wanting what the other person has. We want power and ownership. We are a consumer, a throw-away society and always have been since sin entered our world. We lust. We get. We throw away. We move on to a new lust. Like all yeasts, it is rampant. It grows within us, if we let it. It grows among us, if we let it.
On the other hand, thankfully, the yeast of the kingdom is God's love. It is this yeast that the women works into her dough and it spreads "until it worked all through the dough". At first glance, the Parable of the Yeast seems fairly straightforward. But there is more to it if we consider it in the light of Mark 8.
In the gospel of Mark, chapter 8 describes the miracle when Jesus fed four thousand men with seven loaves and a few fish. After the people were fed, Jesus and his close disciples got in a boat and went across the water. The disciples were again hungry and complained to Jesus that they only had one loaf left with them. As they were grumbling, Jesus patiently explained for them to be wary of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod as discussed above. Confused, the disciples misunderstood what Jesus was saying. They did not realize that he was warning them because they had the yeast of the Pharisee and of Herod inside of themselves. As they complained of their hunger, they didn't even remember what had happened when Jesus fed the four thousand. They were not thankful for what they had in the boat with them. They thought that they only had one loaf with them. The yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod is lust: ever-wanting, complaining, ungrateful. His disciples were simply not satisfied, because they didn't understand who Jesus was. Jesus was everything they ever needed. The irony, of course, is that the one loaf of bread that they had in the boat was Jesus himself. He is the bread of life.
The yeast of the kingdom is Jesus and when he enters our life, he breaks forth into reality and spreads fast. This is what happened at the two recorded miracles where he fed the masses on just a few loaves of bread. When he broke the bread and blessed the bread, he literally altered the fabric of reality. The bread and fish reproduced miraculously like yeast in dough. But note that at the end of Mark's account of the miracle, Mark writes, "The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, 'Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.'"
Now, isn't the feeding of four thousand enough of a sign! The Pharisees and others didn't see the miracle, because Jesus altered reality through his blessing and through the breaking of bread. After the meal, it would have seemed like it was all natural. It wouldn't have seemed like a miracle. People would have said, "No, you were only mistaken. There were not really only seven loaves and a few fish to begin with. You were mistaken." They would have responded, "Maybe I was. You must be right." Jesus altered the fabric of reality. This is what happened with all his miracles.
Many would have also said, "No, Jarus' daughter was only sleeping. I'm glad she's feeling better now."
Or, "Was she really bleeding for 12 years? She was probably just a hypochondriac."
The same is true today. Jesus still alters the fabric of reality. He still speaks his word. What John wrote is still true, "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."
When we let Jesus grow within us like the mustard seed and like his yeast, his Spirit alters us. We must let the woman work the yeast all through us. Miracles will happen continuously. It is only though faith that we see the miracles in this age. In Mark 18, Jesus explains, "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?" The eye that can see this miracle is the eye and ears of faith. Let your faith remember what Jesus is doing to you. Let him transform you, every inch of your being. And as he does it to you, like the mustard plant, you will do the same for others. That's how yeast works. Let it spread like wildfire. Jesus says, "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled."
The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”