It is difficult not to interpret God’s word through our current circumstances. There is a difference between asking “What does God’s word say to our situation?” and “What does our situation tell us God’s word means?” The former is a turning to Scripture seeking to find answers for cultural happenings and the latter is a turning to culture to understand Scriptural instructions. Many, in Jesus day, interpreted the coming of the Messiah, the Kingdom, through the lens of their circumstance. Even though Persia allowed a return to Judah in 538 BC, they were still being ruled by a foreign and Godless nation. And even though the Greeks took over in 332 BC, nothing really changed. Not until the Maccabean revolt in 167 BC did they taste of freedom from an occupying power. For 104 years they rejoiced in their success. Did the Maccabees represent the Messiah? Was this the Kingdom of God breaking into their reality and breaking their shackles? Then in 63 BC the Romans came thundering into their reality and the questions dried up. They would obviously have to wait some more. When Jesus burst onto the scene, Rome had been ruling them for some 90 years. Is it any wonder that they longed for a Kingdom that would force the Romans out or better yet, into extinction, and then, well, just last forever?
Jesus came proclaiming a different kind of kingdom. Luke 13:18-21 contains two very short parables that show us what Jesus believed the kingdom to be like. What is the kingdom of God like? Many in the audience would have answered “a sword,” or “an ax,” or “a host of Godly warriors.” I wonder if any shouted out their answers. But Jesus answers his own question and compares the kingdom to a mustard seed. The mustard seed was proverbial among the Jewish people. It was a small seed, possibly the smallest seed in Palestine at the time, and it grew into a fairly large shrub. The sinapis nigra (black mustard) plant had an average height of four feet, but could reach up to nine feet. It is technically a shrub, but Theophrastus was known to use the word “tree” for “shrub.” And Jesus wanted the word tree because of the Old Testament allusion he intended to make.
So, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which a man took and threw into his garden. The word “threw” seems to emphasize a haphazard approach to planting. Jesus is most likely wanting to show that it is the seed that has power to grow. It is not the man and his careful cultivating, plowing, planting, weeding. It’s the seed; the kingdom of God that has power. You see, I need reminding of that occasionally. We can tend to think that successful kingdom growth is about our care; our approach; us. Don’t get me wrong, we should plant, or in this case throw, the seed. But it is the kingdom that contains growth power within itself. Some seem to think that Jesus is describing his ministry here and defending a slow or small beginning. It seems more likely that he is showing how the kingdom of God works; it is like a seed. It is not a sword, expertly wielded to defeat those dogs the Romans. It is a seed that grows on the inside of a person and becomes a tree; a tree in which the birds can seek shelter. The quote is from Ezekiel 17:23. In the Ezekiel passage Yahweh says that he will take a sprig, young and tender, and plant it on his mountain where it will become a mighty tree in which birds will take shelter. God’s kingdom growing in us becomes a source of shelter for others. Well, let that one sink in.
The second parable illustrates the same point. This time, Jesus enters the realm of women. Luke brings out this balance more so than the other gospel writers. Not only was it a means of drawing in half of his audience, it was an equalization. In the kingdom of God, men and women are equal. I wonder if the women in the audience listened with delight when a woman became central to the parable. So, this woman takes some leaven and hides it in three pecks of flour. This is strange behavior. Leaven was usually kneaded in the dough. This encourages the fermentation process. But again, if the kingdom is leaven, growth power is in the leaven.
The kingdom of God is bursting with growth power; like a seed nearly bursting with life ready to spring out. Our job is to throw; to hide; to get that life bursting essence into the hearts of people; men and women. God’s kingdom does not bully people into submission. It is planted or hid in the heart and there it germinates and grows. And if the soil is good, it will become a tree in which others can find rest and shelter. So, women and men, throw and hide. And trust the kingdom to burst forth with life. Grace and peace.