Luke 13: 18-22
And Jesus said to them:
“So what is the Kingdom of God like and how shall I describe it [for you]? It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and threw into his garden, and it grew, and became a tree and the birds of the heavens lodged there in its branches.“
And another time he said:
“How may I describe the kingdom of God? It is like a yeast which a woman hides in three measures of meal until the whole lot is yeasted.”
And [this was how] he went through all the towns and villages as he made his way up to Jerusalem.
Luke tells us that in his teaching work, going from town to town, on his way up to Jerusalem, Jesus became known for his Kingdom of God parables.
It’s a fair thing to ask: Given the fact that the Synagogue Ruler had publicly embarrassed himself in the face of Jesus’ work and teaching, one has to wonder whether he then took up Jesus’ challenge and tried to better understand himself by attending to Jesus’ teaching, including these parables. I wonder: Is Luke here trying to suggest that Jesus’ parables as provided, may have been constructive in this man’s subsequent understanding of God’s Kingdom?
So how are we to understand these two parables? In many theologised accounts of the ministry of Jesus, such parables are often, and too often, explained in a framework that simply ascribes an eclectic redactionary approach of Luke. Luke is the name for the autonomous author using his own reason to sort it all out, a bit like we might do with a jug-saw puzzle, except in his case he is the one giving the whole its meaningful picture. I find that theorising of the Bible destructive of the story as Luke tells it. I think that there is every reason to believe that Luke is reporting on parables that also assist us in understanding the Coming of God’s Kingdom, and in particular by reporting upon the experience of disciples of this hope-filled apocalyptic coming when Jesus walked the roads of Judaea and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem.
The parables are given to us to assist in our interpretation of what we hear and experience of the Kingdom of God from the works and lips of Jesus of Nazareth. They are invitations to use our imagination and interpret their meaning, and use them to interpret and retell the story of Jesus’ ministry.
A man throws a mustard seed into his garden. Immediately we note that this is a strange statement indeed. It is a slight development of what we hear of mustard seed parables elsewhere in the New Testament. In the Mark (4:21-34) version of the parable it is noted as the smallest of all seeds. In this rendition, the man throws the seed into his garden. How was he to do that? It is hardly large enough for throwing. How could it have been jettisoned from his dwelling? Could “the man” in this version be actually throwing it out with the rubbish? In this case, the Kingdom of God is a seed, easily over-looked, but nevertheless full of explosive potential which will come to expression by and by.Now on the face of it, Luke reports on this parable to indicate that Jesus was teaching in ways that juxtapose the potentials and consequences of the Kingdom of God with the apparent ignorance of “the man”.
“The man” may have been seeking to maintain a scrupulous tidyness for his abode. But nevertheless, as the story goes, despite the persistent ignorant scrupulousness of “the man”, the tree grows, the garden becomes a pleasant place, and in fact it adds to the life of “the man” and his household. They can now glory in the wonderful habitat that is full of God’s winged creatures.
Now there is a question here about how far we can extend the metaphor. In this reading, should we read it to mean that the man should turn from his ignorant, scruples for cleanliness and cultivate this seed, perhaps sorting through the dust he sweeps up, before throwing it out? It seems unlikely that is what we are being encouraged to take from the parable. But had he found the seed and potted it, watering it so that it becomes a seedling, his house would be a “greenhouse” so that when the time came he could transplant it into his garden. The goal remains “that the birds of the heavens might lodge in its branches”, a habitat that the Lord of Heaven and Earth has provided where plants and animals combine in praising the Lord! All God’s creatures have a place in the choir!
If this first of these two parables gains its interpretive leverage on the man’s great and overbearing concern for his cleanliness scruples rather than for the seed’s potential, what we have here is the teaching that God’s blessing will often come to us and we will glory in it, despite our blindness, despite our ignorance.
Meanwhile the second parable gives attention to the knowing technique of the experienced bread-maker, the woman kneading the dough. She knew the goal of her action was for the bread to rise and she also knows that the yeast has to be kneaded evenly into the entire three measures so that the lump can rise become a loaf as it should. It takes time, not only for the bread to rise but for the yeast to be properly integrated into the entire lump before it is then baked. There is indeed work to do.
By putting these parables side-by-side, and at this place, Luke emphasizes something about Jesus’ teaching that it is worth our while to think carefully about – one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is patience and the Kingdom of God indeed has its own timetable. In this sense I find it suggestive of Jesus’ own care for the impatient synagogue ruler – a story that could indeed help him as he pondered his subsequent tasks “along the way.” In Kingdom of God terms, this embarrassed synagogue ruler we read about last time, was privileged in ways that we today have not been blessed. We have not experienced the disciplining of the Lord in quite the way that Jesus word was delivered to the crowd on the occasion of that woman’s healing!
Human impatience, born of scrupulous ignorance of what is being expelled in the interests of cleanliness, or sabbath observance, will not circumvent the potentials that God has created in His creatures coming to their full expression. On the other hand, diligent, patient work, adhering to God’s timetable, will always bring forth genuine fulfilment and will continue to do so in and among God’s creature and His servants, His image-bearers, until the day it is all completed and God’s purposes for His Creation are gloriously met.