The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us in to the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

  Paul, Colossians 1:13, 14

Ultimately the secret [of freedom and peace] is perfect abandonment to the will of God in things you cannot control, and perfect obedience to Him in everything that depends on your own volition, so that in all things, in your interior life and outward works for God, you desire only one thing, which is the fulfillment of His will.

[Those who experience this] do not have to reflect on the details of their actions.  Less and less conscious of themselves, they finally cease to be aware of themselves doing things, and gradually God begins to do all that they do, in them and for them, at least in the sense that the habit of His love has become second nature to them and informs all that they do with His likeness.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation 

The Encounter

 18Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? 19It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.” 

 20Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” 

Luke 13:18-21

Some Observations

Jesus has just healed a crippled woman at the synagogue and taught the people and angry synagogue leaders that love and healing are the priorities of the kingdom, trumping tight observation to religious form, e.g., not “working” on the Sabbath.  In fact, you could say that Jesus generally critiques the religious establishment for their interpretation that obedience to God is sin negation and playing defense; they try to mark themselves by not doing certain things – not working on the Sabbath, not eating certain foods, not affiliating with unclean people, etc. – and use their “obedience” to claim superiority to those around them.

The kingdom that Jesus describes is less about sin avoidance and more about the total re-orientation of our beings.  We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.  Love means more than avoiding hate – it is an active state and orientation of the heart, seeking out opportunities to bless the objects of love.

According to Jesus, living a life infused with love for God and neighbor means shifting the focus from small outward behavior adjustments to the aspiration of a redeemed heart and transformed mind, expressed in humble servanthood.  Under these conditions, our thoughts and actions will then become more and more dictated and directed by God’s will, which is very clearly to be instruments of his love to those around us.  Merton captures this vividly in the excerpt above.  When our wills are truly united with God’s will, we do not have to live in a state of constantly scrutinizing and second-guessing the details of our actions.  God’s love will naturally be flowing through us and evident in our words and actions.

With the Spirit working in us, we will become more sacrificial, humble, compassionate, merciful, generous, kind and gentle . . . and our lives will become more “obedient” in all ways to the kingdom life Jesus outlines.  Seeking God’s kingdom through actively loving God and those around us can often crowd out the sins of commission that appear impossible to overcome by simply trying harder to eliminate them.  If we focus on living lives of love, it is less likely that all the many sins of commission that have at root our selfishness will dominate us.  While my “life of love” in Christ is far from perfected, I have personally experienced this dynamic as some of the old self-absorbed temptations lose their hold when the mind is set on moving through the day in active love.

But, as Jesus notes here, the kingdom starts small and spreads slowly, eventually becoming something large and pervasive . . . a small seed that becomes a large tree and home for the birds of the air, or a small amount of yeast working through a large amount of dough.  We see this nowhere more clearly than in Jesus’ own ministry and in the spread of the gospel through the whole world over the last 2,000 years – ultimately the whole world having access to God’s redemptive work through the life of a humble carpenter from backwater in Israel, with his message initially being spread by a bunch of ragtag followers.

In our goals and metrics-driven world, we must be careful not to impose our own expectations of results on our ministry or relationships as we approach each day seeking first God’s kingdom.  God’s timing is almost always different than our timing and the “results” of what he is doing are often not immediately visible to the human eye; furthermore, our definition of what constitutes “success” is often very different from what God is actually achieving on a larger – and, in our limited sight, sometimes invisible – scale.  

By nature, we are tempted to think much shorter-term and myopically.  We are to obey Jesus’ call to love and bless those around us even when there is no evidence that this is producing positive change in the recipient.  Similarly, as we engage on our path of exchanging the old man (proud, greedy, selfish, fearful . . . ) for the new (loving, humble, generous, sacrificial, courageous . . . ) we must allow the Spirit to be at work within us and understand this to be a lifelong journey as we fail and repent many times along the way.  Serving others is as much about our own reshaping to become more Christlike as it is about blessing those we serve, perhaps even more so.

We should be encouraged, however, that God’s kingdom is in fact spreading in the world, even here in San Francisco . . . and our hearts and minds are being slowly conformed to Christ as we seek to follow him and the Spirit works within us.  Let us take great hope in this each day!


”The wise in heart are called discerning, and pleasant words promote instruction.  Understanding is a fountain of life to those who have it, but folly brings punishment to fools.  A wise man’s heart guides his mouth and his lips promote instruction.”

  Proverbs 16:21-23  

A Prayer

“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all the nations.  May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you.  May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth.  May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. 

Then the land will yield its harvest, and God, our God, will bless us.  God will bless us and all the ends of the earth will fear him.”

  Psalm 67:1-7