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Summary: Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven - especially the yeast and the Mustard seed

The Kingdom of Heaven is like ...

Why Parables

Why not just tell it like it is? Why do we always have to wrap everything up in stories? There are a number of possible reasons. The truth is often quite are to convey directly, but by reference to something else, some of the truth can be uncovered.

How would you describe an Elephant to a blind man? Or how would you tell him about the colour yellow? That is the type of problem that Jesus faces when he tries to tell us about the kingdom of heaven. He’s trying to describe something that we start off with only the vaguest of ideas about – and they may even be wrong. When blind men were asked to describe what they were feeling this is what they came up with:

leg is like a pillar;

tail is like a rope;

the trunk is like a tree branch;

the ear is like a hand fan;

belly is like a wall;

the tusk is like a solid pipe.

... but that doesn’t give me a picture of an elephant and neither would it much help another blind man -- perhaps if we started with a horse?

The colour yellow is in the visible spectrum and has a wavelength of 590–560 nm and a frequency of 510–540 THz. It’s the truth, but it doesn’t help us or especially someone who is blind get any sense of what yellow is. Perhaps we should have started by talking about the sun.

Hidden Meaning

When Jesus was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

" ’they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,

and ever hearing but never understanding;

otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’"

Parables are used to help some people understand and to make it impossible for others to understand.

Surprise Usage

The way parables are told often contains something to make the hearer startled in some way. Its a technique for getting someone’s attention and trying to help them to think differently. It also serves to make the saying memorable.

Sketch from life of Brian at the sermon on the mount.

Brian and his friends are on the very edge of the crowd listening to the sermon on the mount. They cannot hear properly. “What’s he saying?” someone asks. “Blessed are the Cheese makers”. “Why the Cheese makers?” and the listeners immediately try to understand it as a parable, “not just the cheese makers, but anyone who works with dairy products”. This, of course isn’t a parable, just a misunderstanding, and it shows us how easy it is to ’get the wrong end of the stick’ from what we hear.

Over interpretation – missing the point

You will often hear sermons and talks on parables that go into great depths about the detail in the parable and all the possible meanings and imagery that goes around it. In preparation for this talk I read and listened to a number of other sermons based on this passage. One was an exhortation to evangelism and one was about the apostate church. Both had entirely missed the main point of what Jesus is saying. As I take a look at some of the detail and the surprising things that can come from these parables I will do my very best not to miss the main point.

Background / Setting Series

In Matthew the parables describing the Kingdom of heaven are in one section that take most of Chapter 13. In Mark and Luke they are spread more widely. Matthew has helpfully grouped the parables together to give us a wider view of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

You can read the other ones later, but for now we are going to concentrate on the mustard seed and the yeast.

I’m going to talk about the yeast first, because I think it is the easiest one for us to understand.

Yeast Parable

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Summary of Message

It seems fairly obvious what this parable is trying to convey. A small amount of yeast added to the dough makes an enormous difference to the resulting bread. It must of course be well mixed in other wise the bread will be uneven, hard is some places and full of holes in others.

Surprising Elements

To Jesus’ hearers there would have been some surprising elements to the story.

Yeast was normally associated with evil. Later Jesus would say to his disciples "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." (Matthew 16:6). In Exodus, whenever the Jews are to celebrate God they are always told to bake unleavened bread – bread without yeast. You can imagine the reaction – “What! The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast”. Jesus would not have got the same reaction if he had said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the drop of milk that a woman put in her tea.” Although the spiritual lesson would be similar the impact is completely lost. You wouldn’t react, so the saying would not be memorable. (OK, I know first century Jews didn’t have cups of tea – but I hope you get the point!)

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