The tallest trees in the world, the California redwoods, have tiny seeds. Each seed is about 1/8” wide. The tallest of these living trees currently measures about 377 feet tall. That’s longer than a vertical football field, including the end zones, one goal post hovering 360 feet above the other on the ground, and still more tree above that. That’s a very tall tree. Once one of those tiny seeds takes root, the tree can live for possibly 2000 years.
Which means the oldest of these trees could have been sprouting right around the time Jesus was telling these parables about the kingdom of heaven, including the parable of the mustard seed.
It’s an enticing thought to think of Jesus, the Middle Eastern Jew, blowing the minds of his listeners by saying that the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny seed on the other side of the world, now just a sprout, that will one day, millennia from now, grow to be the largest tree in the world.
Jesus did have the famous cedars of Lebanon as next door neighbors. The prophet Ezekiel had used these trees to illustrate how Israel would regrow after being uprooted by the Babylonians. Ezekiel spoke of the Lord God taking a sprig from a lofty cedar, planting it on a high mountain, and that tree growing to provide shade and refuge for birds of all kinds.
When choosing a small seeded woody plant for a parable about the kingdom of heaven Jesus does keep this imagery from Ezekiel about it being a place for birds to nest, but he doesn’t talk about the mighty cedars. And, not surprisingly, he doesn’t mention the coastal redwood of North America. Instead, he talks about a shrub, a mustard plant. Once its tiny seed sprouts it can grow to be a whopping 2, maybe 4, at most 6 feet tall. That’s two yards, not nearly enough for even a first down.
Apparently, in a world of towering trees, the kingdom of heaven is a mighty garden shrub? Go figure.
This is the first of six mini-parables that follow on the heels of those longer parables about the kingdom of heaven – The Parable of the Sower, and the Parable of the weeds among the wheat. For those two, Matthew includes an explanation straight out of the mouth of Jesus. For these six, we’re left to our own imaginations.
The parable of the mustard seed is linked with the parable of the woman and the yeast. They occur one right after the other. Both feature tiny, nearly invisible things – that nonetheless have their effect on the whole. Only rather than an undersized tree/shrub, we now have an oversized amount of flour. To get a visual on how much three measures of flour is, picture a woman lugging a five gallon bucket in each hand, each one filled to the brim with flour.
She hides yeast within the flour, and the yeast starts to do its thing. The parable includes no mention of the bread actually being baked, so we’re left with a big bubbling vat of yeasty dough, ready for a grand feast should anyone get hungry.
The kingdom of heaven is like a shrub that gives a wink to all the tall trees around it as the birds of the air find themselves strangely drawn to its open branches and humble shade. The kingdom of heaven is like a feast not yet baked, ready for a multitude, made possible by the all-pervasive unseen presence of yeast, and the persistent mixing of the divine chef.
It’s become a bit of a running joke in our household that Abbie and I have different shopping styles. While Abbie enjoys browsing store aisles and yard sales looking for whatever unexpected treasures she might discover, I much prefer the method of knowing what I want before I leave the house, heading directly for that aisle without even engaging my peripheral vision, securing said item or items in the shopping cart, and proceeding to check out. I’m all for serendipity, but somehow forget to consider the possibility while in shopping mode.
I chalk it up to our evolutionary inheritance where Abbie would have been among the foragers, gathering the expected and unexpected bounty of the earth, and I would have been among the hunters, charged with a specific task of go, find, carry it back on the your shoulders, eat. That’s likely bad anthropology, but maybe it explains a little of these differences.
By now our kids have become accustomed to the different shopping experiences depending on who they’re with. I do seem to be losing the battle for hearts and minds on this one as our daughters are showing clear signs of appreciating Abbie’s style over mine.
Fortunately, according to back to back parables Jesus tells, the kingdom of God has room for both of us.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in her joy she goes and sells all that she has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)
In this parable someone stumbles on a treasure hidden in a field. They are possibly a field worker, or someone passing through. Either way, it’s a completely unexpected find, bringing much joy to the finder. This, I assure you, is what Abbie considers a very good day.
And the parable directly following:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (v. 45).
And this one is sounding more familiar to me. The merchant is in search of something specific; in this case, fine pearls. He may not know which aisle it’s in, but he tracks it down and figures out a way to purchase it.
Although their modes of finding are different, what the forager and hunter have in common is that they come across something so valuable, so absolutely delightful, that suddenly nothing else matters. They liquidate all their other assets – sell all they have, for this treasure.
The metaphor carrying the parable has shifted from the ecological world of seeds to the economic, but that doesn’t mean this exchange of everything for one thing makes good economic sense. The Kingdom of God is not a good deal, at least not in a balance sheet kind of way. Everything that gets sold might very well be worth quite a bit more on the open market than the pearl of the kin-dom. In fact, it might be a very poor economic choice.
But people who have found that one thing that’s more important than everything do this all the time. Birthing or adopting children could very well be a blow to the checking account, but investing all your heart in the next generation is like treasure beyond value. People leave better paying jobs to pursue something that better serves the common good. People leave careers or personal pursuits to care for aging family members. People move away from home or move back home because of a calling to serve others that might very well throw most of the rest of life up in the air.
In order to find that one thing that most matters it usually takes great love or great suffering. Love and suffering have a way of causing things of lesser value to fall away, leaving only what is of greatest value. If you’ve found or stumbled across this treasure, there is little need for further explanation of the parable because you’re living it. If you’re like Bono of the mid-80’s and still haven’t found what you’re looking for, there’s a good chance love or suffering will find you, and thus reveal a hidden treasure.
Which brings up another way of understanding these twin parables. Perhaps it God who is walking through the field, God who is the merchant, and we who are the treasure. God has been searching for us, or stumbles across us hidden in the field. And when we are found - just like the good shepherd who finds the lost sheep - and the woman who turned her house upside down to find the lost coin – when we are found, God is overjoyed, offloads all those offerings and sacrifices that had been accumulating, and simply enjoys us for who we are. It is we who are found, and God who abandons all other endeavors to delight in our existence. The kin-dom of God is like this.
Of the final two parables, one has to do with a net that catches fish of all kinds, and one has to do with what it might look like to be trained in the ways of the kin-dom. The net one has enough similarities to the weeds and the wheat from last week that you can go back to that one if you want, especially if you’re troubled by the image of the bad fish getting thrown in the furnace of fire.
Jesus’ closing words on this section of parables, is a parable about parables themselves. “Therefore, every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of their treasure what is new and what is old.”
Considering that the newest part of our scriptures are about as old as a really old California tree, it’s good to hear Jesus acknowledging that those trained for the kingdom of heaven – which, within our theology of the priesthood of all believers I take to mean all of us – those trained for the kingdom of heaven have treasurers that are both old and new. Meaning that we are always keeping our eyes open for how the new, how the now, relates with the old.
For how parables keep showing up in our life. For how the shrub of God keeps inviting us to nest in its branches, the yeast of the holy keeps working its way toward a great feast, the one thing for which we abandon all other things keeps delighting us.
For those who feel completely trapped in the demands of the old, these words give you freedom to let in the new.
For those going from new to newer to newest, these words give an invitation to ground yourself within the wisdom of the old.
What is the kingdom of heaven like? It’s like so many different things that many parables must be told about it. Some of these are quite old. And some are brand new.