Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 (The Mustard Seed and Pearl of Great Price)
I have preached on this passage many times and I realized this week that I have often missed the real point. This is a great passage to run out to the Indian grocer, buy some mustard seed for the children’s sermon, and talk about what a wondrous plant comes from humble beginnings. Therefore, if the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, we can have hope when we feel our efforts are unremarkable compared to the world’s need, and trust that God is going to do great things from our small plantings, and spread the Kingdom among us. Don’t be afraid to start small in life, because God always has a bigger plan. Small is beautiful! That is not a bad sermon to preach. I do believe that God can often be found in small things and lost in large undertakings. But after a little research, I decided that is not Jesus’s point.
The first problem I encountered is with the nature of the mustard plant. How many of you grow mustard in your garden? Why or why not? How much mustard do you put on your sandwich? Despite the value of mustard seeds for flavor and medicinal purposes, it is not something you want in your garden. Think mint on steroids. It does grow into a large bush, maybe four feet tall, and will spread quickly to every horizon. And what would you do with all that mustard plant? If you have ever cooked mustard greens, you will know that a little bit goes a long way. It has a horseradish kick, and you are not going to eat as you would potatoes. Mustard, in the Middle East, is a weed growing on the hillside, filling in the agriculturally undesirable spots. Most of the domesticated mustard grown in the world to make your spicy brown mustard is grown in two countries, Nepal and Canada. My guess is because they have a lot of land areas not valuable for anything else. There are no mustard farms in Iowa. When Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, watch out. It means that things could quickly get out of hand as you are unexpectedly overtaken.
And what about the birds, who come make their nests in the branches of a mustard plant? I always thought this was a comforting image of how tiny seeds provide a home for the poor birds who have nowhere to nest. In ancient agricultural areas, where seeds were sown by hand and scattered across the fields, birds were a nuisance. Remember the parable of the sower who lost many of the seeds because the birds came and ate them. You don’t want to encourage the birds to nest around your fields, hiding in the mustard patch and eating up your crops.
As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses — if you could control it (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).
These short, inter-related parables of Matthew 13 are seasoned with scandals and surprises about the nature of God’s work. This woman who is putting leaven in the dough is not your typical baker making daily bread. She is using three measures of flour, which is a very large quantity of bread for a feast, the NIV says it may be up to 60 pounds. I followed the little note that says to verb “mixed” may have a different meaning. The King James says she “hid” the leaven. The Greek verb is a form of “kyrpto,” so think of the English words “encryption,” or “cryptic.” Why is she hiding leaven in the bread? Remember that leavened bread is not necessarily a good thing in religious terms. Jews eat unleavened bread on the Passover, to remind us to be humble, that you don’t always have time to let the bread rise because you may suddenly need to flee Egypt.
Jesus later says in Matthew, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” In other words, these eaters of unleavened bread have the corruption of leaven in their teaching. When Jesus says, you are to be the leaven in bread, he may have a double meaning. You are to be a little subversive. As John Lewis said, “Go out and get in some good trouble.” And when you do something good and true and it gets in the dough, there is no going back. It permeates everything.
The pearl extends the theme. How is a pearl formed? A mollusk is just trying to protect itself from an irritant. It deposits layers of calcium carbonate that build up over a couple of years until you have a nice pearl. Pearls come in all shapes and sizes, and rarely you get a perfectly round, beautiful pearl, that is the pearl of great price. From irritation, and threat prevention comes beauty.
How is this parable is prodding us now? This takes on an even more robust meaning in the face of the COVID pandemic. Parables prod us out of our conventional thinking and comfort zones, and we are all being thrust en masse from our comfort zones. It’s one thing to challenge yourself by choosing to take a new step. Learn Spanish, volunteer at the homeless shelter, take a fearless moral inventory, find your creativity in a writing or painting group, attend a protest rally, meditate. But we are not stepping out of our comfort zones. It’s more like being pulled out to sea in a riptide, and we don’t know if we have the strength to get back to the beach and solid ground under our feet. The change and disruption are fast and furious, and I’m working hard just to tread water and not get pushed too far out.
I keep asking where God is in all this. The best description I have heard is that we are in a liminal space. Liminal is a space between things. It can mean the space between heaven and earth, the space between the past and present. The word comes from the Latin root Limen, which is the bottom part of the doorway that must be crossed to enter a building. I think we are collectively standing in a doorway of history at this moment. There is no way to step back into the past we knew only a few months ago. When we can’t be near each other, we are pushed out of the room and into the doorways. And yet where do we go as we step through the doorframe? I don’t have a clear picture of what is on the other side. There is not a new life, a new church, or a new society to step into yet. It’s all a leap of faith.
I’ve been reading a book called “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going,” by Susan Beaumont. She notes that the Bible is full of these liminal spaces. Noah must build an ark to get to a new future. Abraham and Sarah have to journey to a new land. Jacob must wrestle with the angel. Jonah is carried in the belly of whale back to Nineveh. Israel wandered for 40 years in the wilderness to get to the Promised Land. These are all stories of liminal times and spaces.
There is no avoiding being caught betwixt and between. But it doesn’t last forever. And how we think about it effects the journey. If we let our fear reign, we are stuck in fight or flight mode, and we will get exhausted thrashing around every day. What if this is the space where God can work with us? As our false certitudes are dispelled, when normal is out the window, is their room for God to invite us to something sacred?
All of the parables we have been reading for three weeks start with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” We’ve heard about sowing seeds, pulling weeds, leaving weeds, mustard, leaven, and pearls. None of these parables are about the obvious or expected. They are meant to bring us into the doorway, the liminal space between heaven and earth, past and future. It’s an invitation as we stand at this threshold.
I think the most important thing I can say to you at this moment is “Be not afraid.” Be not afraid to stand in this place and see what God wants next from us. Resist the temptation to flee to the past for safety. It’s gone. And don’t blindly rush ahead into the fog of the future. Take courage and stand here. Do what you must for yourself and your family, but stand and look and listen and see what God’s call is. Remember, the Kingdom of heaven is near. The Beloved Community beckons. God’s Spirit is not static while the world is changing. The arc of history bends towards justice. We will get through this time.