Summary: Do not despise the day of small things. God uses the insiginificant for significant purposes
The Parables of Mustard Seed and Yeast
‘Great oaks from little acorns grow.’ I am sure you have heard that saying before and I am also pretty sure many, if not all, of you fully understand what it means. From humble, small, insignificant beginnings great things can grow and materialise in this world – hence great oak trees many hundreds of years old and reaching to the skies began life like this, an acorn. An acorn which dropped from an oak tree and was buried in the ground, hidden and unseen by human eyes until one day a small shoot sprang up and over many years a tall, strong, majestic oak has grown.
Remember the context in which Christ is speaking and remember the context into which Matthew is writing his gospel of Christ. For Christ there are a small band of genuine followers. He has just been rejected by the religious leaders of the day and has begun his public teaching ministry out in the open air. He has begun to turn his back on Galilee and to turn towards Jerusalem where he will be crucified and rise again. Matthew is writing his gospel of Christ to a small persecuted fledgling church, mainly of Jewish believers. To this small, insignificant at least to the Roman world around, Matthew recounts these words of Christ as a means of encouragement.
At the time of Christ to say something was the size of a mustard seed was to say it was no great significance, that it was very small indeed. It was a common proverbial saying of the day. No doubt to the followers of Christ the church did indeed seem small and insignificant – certainly if you measured it against the might of the Roman Empire or the edifices of Judaism or some of the pagan cults of the day. In answer to the question: Why is the kingdom of God so insignificant? Matthew reminds his hearers of these two sayings or parables of Christ.
A mustard seed is indeed microscopic and yet when it is fully grown it grows into a plant that is some 4 metres in height. Compared to the seed from which it grew that is phenomenal growth. Yes to the world around the figure of Christ and his followers might indeed seem small and insignificant – they appear as a mustard seed, the weak things of this world. As Zechariah 4.10 says we are not to despise the days of small things. And it may well be that the followers to whom Matthew writes were indeed like the lambs described in Isaiah 40.11 – that needed to be carried around close the heart of the shepherd for protection and warmth because of their frailty at that moment. Yet, despite of all of this there is growth going on and in time the growth would be phenomenal. Even though the mustard seed is small, it is still a seed. A seed full of potential to grow into a 4 metre tall plant to which the birds of the air would flock to roost in the shade of its branches. To those listening to Christ or hearing the reading of Matthew’s gospel this picture of birds coming to roost in the branches of this tree would have jarred with them. Birds in the OT, especially in Ezekiel 17.23 and Daniel 4.20-22, spoke of the Gentile nations. Jesus is hinting that not only will this little seed grow to a remarkable size but that its branches will spread beyond the narrow confines of Judaism and provide a home for the Gentiles. Here Christ speaks of the spread of the kingdom of God beyond the Jewish people to the Gentile nations. Please note they come to the tree to roost – that is they come to Christ and in him alone they find salvation and rest.
It is a seed whose purpose and disposition is to grow and given the right conditions it will grow into the greatest of all garden herbs. It will grow and it will mature and it will amaze with its strength – beyond all expectations of what was thought possible when that little mustard seed was in their hands. At present the seed looks small and insignificant, just as the kingdom of God looks small and insignificant. But it will not stay that way. Significance is not measured in numbers or size.
Leaven had a bad press in Judaism. All leaven had to be scrupulously removed from a house before the Passover could be celebrated. So Jesus’ hearers would have been surprised to hear him liken the kingdom of God to leaven. Maybe, just maybe, that is how the followers of Christ were viewed by the jewish religious leaders and people of the day – like leaven that had to be removed from the house. After all his disciples were uneducated fishermen, tax collectors etc and he freely associated in their eyes with drunkards and sinners, not to mention prostitutes whom he allowed to wash his feet, and worst of all he had women amongst his disciples, something no self-respecting rabbi would have done. So maybe leaven wasn’t really such a surprise after all. Christ tells them that a woman took the leaven and mixed it into a large amount of flour. In the original it says into three measures of flour – that would be the equivalent of 40 kg of flour, enough to feed around 100 people. This is no ordinary amount of flour but industrial amounts of flour. The amount of flour is in contrast to the amount of yeast. Yet without the yeast the making of the bread would not happen. The small amount of yeast is hidden or kneaded into the flour and it permeates right through the lot. It transforms the whole dough. It is this transforming act that Christ wishes to emphasise to his hearers – hence he says the ‘woman hid the yeast in the dough.’ It works unseen to the human eye and out of all proportion to its size, especially in relation to the amount of flour into which it is hidden. Jesus here reminds them that the work of the kingdom of God in their lives and the life of their community often goes on unseen by human eyes and that God, since the start of creation, has been work his yeast into the dough of this world. One day it will become apparent in my life, your life and the life of this community.