Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 26th of Seventh Month, 2020 Speaker: Brian C. Young Scripture: Matthew 13:31–33 (34–35), Ezekiel 17:22–24 Good morning, Friends! Matthew 13:31–5, NRSV: 31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Some years ago when Stephanie and I lived in Chicago, for a few years running she had a plot in a community garden in our neighborhood. Like most Chicagoans, we lived in an apartment building, where there was little room for gardening—we a had a window box or two, but that was about it. So she needed some nearby ground in which to grow tomatoes and peppers and a few other things. One year, the bed that she was assigned needed extensive prep work, for a previous gardener had planted mint at one point. Some of you probably know what this means. Mint is one of those useful plants that you’ll see in a lot of gardens—but you need to tend it carefully, because if you turn your back on it, it will own you. It spreads by sending out runners above ground, and under the ground the rhizomes send up new shoots by the dozens. It grows so thick that it crowds out just about everything else. And it will get everywhere. A lot of people keep it under control by growing it in containers. And in the garden that Stephanie was working, it was indeed in a container—but that was an eight-foot by four-foot raised bed! Stephanie had been given half that space, and if I remember correctly, the mint had planted in the other half, probably all the way down at the other end, but had spread throughout. There wasn’t anyone tending that other half of the box, so it seemed like the best thing would be to get rid of as much of it as we could. I’ve read some gardening advice that says, “oh, mint roots are shallow, and it isn’t hard to pull,” but that was not my experience. It took multiple sessions to get all those thickly-packed shoots out, that spring. Persistent stuff. I’ve never encountered it in a garden, but I think that mustard has some things in common with mint. It’s a useful plant, cultivated for millennia, but you have to watch it. It doesn’t spread the same way that mint does, but as Jesus says in the parable, its seed is very fine and small—this is the part of the plant that is harvested as a spice and flavoring. But if you don’t get all of that seed, the remnant will be taken in the wind, spreading hither and yon—and in many places in the US, the kind of mustard that we’re talking about here is classified as an invasive plant—a weed. But here in Jesus’ parable, the mustard seed is planted by someone who knows what he is doing. He takes one seed, and plants it, and lets it grow. And it grows, and grows. It becomes, not just a really big shrub, but a tree, so large that birds to come and build their nests in its branches. If you have today’s bulletin, that’s the mature product that you see in the artwork on the bulletin cover.
I have to wonder about those birds of the air—one thing we can observe is that we’re
probably meant to think of multiple kinds of birds on those branches. As a birder, I want to
know specifically what species they are, but of course Jesus isn’t going to satisfy my curiosity there.
But commentators do find that this parable was likely inspired by some of the words of
the prophet Ezekiel, from a section of chapter 17 where the prophet was also spinning
parables. In the first part of that chapter, Ezekiel tells a story of two eagles, a cedar tree and a vine; the eagles symbolize the great empires of Babylon and Egypt. The cedar and the vine are the rulers of Judah, the Jewish kingdom which had been conquered by Babylon, and which was hoping in the power of Egypt against their conquerors. Ezekiel says that Judah’s king will perish, because he has broken his covenant with Babylon, and that Egypt will not help him. But then he goes on to say that God will plant another cedar tree—a symbol of the restoration of the exiled people of Judah—and this is where the birds come in:
Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
In order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
(Ezekiel 17:22–24, NRSV)
So possibly Jesus was thinking of “Under it every kind of bird will live/ in the shade of
its branches will nest/ winged creatures of every kind” when he spoke of the birds of the air coming to live in the branches of that overgrown mustard plant. In Ezekiel and also in
Matthew, those various birds seem to symbolize the nations of the earth that will come to live under God’s reign when it is fully established. It’s not just one chosen species of bird that will come—it’s winged creatures of every kind; all peoples, every tribe and nation and tongue.
Now for Ezekiel, the place that all the birds come home to roost is a cedar on a high
mountain of Israel, which is probably a metaphor for Mount Zion, the holy place of Jerusalem. Jesus doesn’t situate the reign of God in the same way—instead, it’s a lowly mustard shrub rather than a noble cedar, and a run-of-the-mill garden rather than a lofty mountain. But there’s more than the birds that unites these two passages.
Note what Ezekiel says in 17:24—speaking God’s words, he says, “I bring low the high
tree, I make high the low tree/ I dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Under God’s rule—what some folks like to call God’s empire—the high are made low and the low are made high. Those who have much, the green trees, are dried up, and the dry trees who have nothing are given much. And we don’t have to read very much of the Gospels before we remember that this was a core part of Jesus’ message. Even before Jesus’ birth, his mother praised God and sang, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly/ he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:52–53). In more than one place, Jesus told his followers that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 19:30, 20:16; Mk 10:31, Lk 13:30). This theme of reversal is all through Jesus’ ministry, and is expressed most profoundly in the resurrection. And it is implicit in these two parables that we read today, which after all tell us that the glorious reign of God is like unto some very small, humble, commonplace things.
The second parable, of the leaven, or yeast, is perhaps the shortest of all Jesus’
parables. I don’t want to slight it because of that, but here I have just a few observations. Any of you who bake bread know that you don’t need very much leaven—whether it’s yeast or sourdough—to make a lot of flour rise. In a typical dry yeast recipe, the volume of flour is around a hundred times the volume of the leaven. So however much flour the master baker in Jesus’ parable had, she wouldn’t have needed very much yeast. And in fact, this woman is baking a lot of bread; what is translated “three measures” here would have been at least half a bushel of flour, and likely more. One commentator estimates this would have made enough bread for a hundred people! I’m reminded of the abundance that comes in God’s reign; we might imagine that this bread is being made for the great banquet that Jesus speaks of in one of his other parables: another place where the first (the invited guests) become last, and the last (the poor, the lame, the people hanging out on street corners) become first.