When you know the end of a story it’s so much easier to understand the events leading up to it. We have that advantage when we read the Gospels. We know how it all turns out, we know what happened in the years after Jesus ascended into heaven, we are living proof that his message spread from one small part of the Roman Empire to the whole of the world.
For the disciples things were more difficult. They had the ideas about the Messiah which were prevalent in their culture at the time. Jesus simply didn’t fit with preconceived ideas. Perhaps one of the challenges for the disciples was to see how such a seemingly insignificant ministry as that of Jesus, could have such a huge impact. To help them, Jesus gave them two pictures – a mustard seed and a small lump of leaven. Those pictures can help us too.
The readings at the 3pm SLT service on Tuesday were Romans 8:18-25, Psalm 126, Luke 13:18-21. The reflection follows.
It can be a dangerous thing to get stuck in a particular mindset. It can make seeing how things really are, very difficult indeed.
Some of you will know that I work part time as a counsellor. Quite often those who come for counselling struggle with low self-esteem. It may not be the only issue they are trying to deal with but it can be a contributory factor for many clients. It’s a real problem to get beyond this way of seeing themselves. I’ve asked clients what they are good at, what are their strong points, their talents, what they have done well in the past week/month/year and so on. Usually I receive a blank stare. The sense of being of low value is so ingrained that it’s totally inconceivable that they might be good at anything at all. Clients usually see themselves as rubbish, useless at everything, failures, disappointments to their families and friends, a waste of space.
I asked one client what she would do if someone paid her a compliment. She said she would brush it away. When I suggested that she try accepting the compliment and thanking whoever gave her it, she looked most uncomfortable. That would mean accepting that the person saw something good in her, and that was not part of her mindset.
The disciples were stuck in a mindset too. They had grown up with the idea of a warrior messiah, taking on the hated Romans and restoring the kingdom of Israel. Tales of bravery and decisive action were all part of what they expected. Jesus of course was very different, and his way of bringing in the Kingdom of God was different too. Using his brilliant way of illustrating truths, Jesus found a way to explain what the Kingdom was really like.
The two illustrations in this very short passage from Luke are both giving the same message by comparing the Kingdom to every day pictures which the disciples would be very familiar with.
First Jesus compares the Kingdom to a mustard seed. In the other Gospels we are told that the mustard seed was thought of as the smallest seed of all by the Jews. The seed Jesus meant was probably that of black mustard. When it is fully grown it’s usually like a shrub, about 1.5 metres high. Sometimes favourable conditions allow the shrub to grow as high as 5 metres, a real tree size. That’s really impressive – a tiny, tiny seed becoming a tall tree. The seed would have looked insignificant in the gardener’s hand, but the tree would have been hard to miss. In fact Jesus suggests that the birds most certainly didn’t miss it, but took advantage of it to nest in.
The second parable concerns yeast used for making bread. Today we are likely to use dried yeast as it’s convenient to store and is always ready when the urge to make bread might come upon us. Some people use fresh yeast but you need to use it fairly soon after buying it. In Jesus’ day, the yeast would be contained in a small lump of dough from the day before. It would have been kept damp and added to the new batch of flour and water.
Making bread is a very satisfying process. You start off with flour and water, a little salt and oil, as well as the yeast, and you can have a great time kneading it until it all comes together into a flexible ball of dough. Then you need a lot of patience, as the recipe usually says ‘leave to rise until doubled in size’. Depending how warm the surroundings are, this can take an hour or several hours. The increase in size is caused by the yeast reproducing as it’s a living organism. The yeast uses the sugar in the dough to grow, and in the process it produces carbon dioxide which forms little bubbles. If you want a compact loaf you can bake it after just one rising, but if you want a lighter one, with more bubbles in it, you knead it again, form it into the shapes you want, and then let it rise again before baking it to produce a tasty, light loaf. The yeast is only a tiny part of the make up of the bread but its effect is huge.
In both of these parables a tiny, living organism, becomes something really big and significant in the end. If you hadn’t witnessed it happening, you might not believe it.
At the time when Jesus was teaching his disciples, the Kingdom of God was tiny, though living. It was Jesus, the living Word of God. Just like the yeast spreading through the dough, Jesus was spreading the Word to others, first to the disciples and then to any who would listen. In human terms, what was happening was totally insignificant. The population of Israel was in excess of a million people. At least 30,000 lived in Jerusalem alone. Jesus wandered from place to place, talking to a few people here, a few more there, reaching 5000 at least in one go on one occasion. It must still have seemed so little to the disciples. How could what Jesus was doing make an effect in the greater scheme of things?
The population of the world at that time was around 170 million. When Jesus died he left 11 disciples to carry on his work, 12 when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot. 12 to reach 170 million! A generation after Jesus had died, things were very different indeed. All parts of the Roman empire, including Britain at the far west, had been reached with Christianity, Thomas had taken it to India, the eunuch baptised by Philip had taken it to Ethiopia. Christians were referred to as people who had turned the world upside down.
I wonder if sometimes, as the message spread and spread, the disciples stopped and remembered how Jesus had explained what would happen. The tiny seed of the wonderful Kingdom of God had grown and grown, just as the mustard seed had become a tree and the little lump of dough had made wonderful fluffy loaves of bread.
Think of our own situation here in SL. In the last 60 days nearly 1.4 million people have logged on, something perhaps a little more than the population of Israel in Jesus’ time. Today nearly 63,000 people were logged on as I came in-world, roughly twice the population of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. It’s easy to see these big figures and feel that we can make no difference, that SL will continue unchanged by our presence. Like the disciples, we need to understand how the Kingdom of God works. If we gain that understanding, we are less likely to be discouraged or depressed, to feel that our efforts to bring the Kingdom to SL are a waste of time.
Our group has more than 12 active members; certainly we are many more than the disciples were at first. If they can turn the real world upside down, we can turn SL upside down. Of course, we may not see much happening at first but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t working. We may face persecution and setbacks but the Kingdom will continue to spread even so if we remain faithful to our calling.
Let’s be like Paul and look at the big picture. He put everything in perspective when he said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” We must continue to hope for what we do not see and wait for it in patience.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor