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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Not Always Front-Page News | Parables

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.’

Matthew 13:31-33


 

Languishing in prison, John the Baptist began to wonder whether Jesus really was ‘the one to come’. Things hadn’t worked out as he’d expected. It was not easy to see how an itinerant preacher from an inconsequential village, with a small band of followers, could be the hopes of Israel.

We too might sometimes puzzle over where and how God is at work in the world today. Or perhaps we don’t feel big enough or strong enough or important enough to make a difference where we are. Or we’re painfully aware that the church doesn’t look too impressive in the grand scheme of things.

And yet, ‘whoever has ears, let them hear…’

Jesus compares God’s reign to a mustard seed, proverbial for its tininess, planted in a field, which becomes a bush big enough to provide shelter for birds. Then Jesus likens the kingdom to yeast mixed into a large lump of dough, working its way through the whole lot, yielding enough bread to feed over a hundred people.

Old Testament passages have suggested to some that the tree refers to God’s sovereignty which provides shelter for the nations, the ‘birds’. Others have not been slow to point out the permeating influence of the yeast. But beyond these finer points of possible significance, what unites both parables is a striking contrast – between a tiny seed and a full-grown plant, between a small amount of yeast and a large lump of dough. The essential element is not the greatness of God’s reign or the transformation it will bring – neither of which would be doubted by Jesus’ hearers – so much as that what it will one day bring will be out of all proportion to its seemingly unimpressive, easily overlooked presence now.

For us, as for the first disciples, it’s an encouragement that God is at work – even if we don’t always see it as clearly as we’d like to. Indeed, something about the images Jesus uses reinforces the apparently ‘ordinary’ mode by which God’s reign is present – not always in an overwhelming display of cosmic strength, but no less significant for that. Jesus anticipates the powerful intervention of God in the fulness of time, but he also teaches that God’s liberating sovereignty and love is already present, with disciples called to live now in the light of that coming reign.

Antony Billington

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Antony Billington

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