Now, Not-Yet, and Presently Working: How the Kingdom of God Has Entered Our World

He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while people were sleeping, his enemy came, sowed weeds among the wheat, and left. When the plants sprouted and produced grain, then the weeds also appeared. The landowner’s slaves came to him and said, ‘Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then where did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this!’ he told them.

“‘So, do you want us to go and gather them up?’ the slaves asked him.

“‘No,’ he said. ‘When you gather up the weeds, you might also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At harvest time I’ll tell the reapers: Gather the weeds first and tie them in bundles to burn them, but store the wheat in my barn.’”

He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when grown, it’s taller than the vegetables and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into 50 pounds of flour until it spread through all of it.” (Matthew 13:24-33)

Having explained his purpose in parables, Jesus went on to give three more of them. The first, he would later interpret for his disciples. The second two, he left open to interpretation — but they are not overly hard to grasp.

Recall that Jesus’s parables were about the mysteries of the kingdom of God — the specific characteristics of the kingdom that were kept secret for generations, through all the long years of the prophets and kings, but finally revealed in the time of Christ.

Recall, too, that these secrets weren’t quickly understood by those whose expectations for the kingdom were already set. Those who expected a political coup would see nothing of their hopes here. Those who knew the Messiah was to be a Maccabee-style freedom fighter, sticking it to the man and sending the Romans packing, had no room in their hearts for the kind of quiet subversion Jesus came preaching. If Jesus was the Messiah, he must have seemed cowardly and compromising to them.

Wheat and Weeds in the Field of the World

The parable of the wheat and the tares, as I grew up calling it (a “tare” is a type of weed), bears clearly similarity to the parable of the sower.

Once again, a man goes out to sow — this time, specifically sowing wheat in his field. But this second parable addresses a problem that the first one does not. While the parable of the sower acknowledged that not every seed planted would grow to a satisfactory harvest, the parable of the wheat and the tares points out that some seeds will grow that should not. Even though the field belongs to God and he has sown only good seed into it, with the morning light it becomes clear that other things are growing here too.

This parable, profound in its simplicity, addresses some of the most challenging questions in theology and indeed, in life. Why, if God is good, does evil happen? Why, if he made our world, is there so much suffering in it? Why, if humanity was fashioned in the image of God, does he so often look like the devil?

For Jesus, the answer is very simple: “an enemy has done it.” Just as he did with the hard soil in the parable of the sower, where “the evil one” is pictured as coming to snatch away every seed that is not understood, so he immediately makes us aware of spiritual warfare. An enemy exists in the world. He is active, he is real, and he has an agenda that is directly counter to God’s.

For years I read this parable as equating the wheat with believers and the tares with nonbelievers, which left me with a problem — the enemy doesn’t create people (or anything, for that matter) so how can he be responsible for planting evil people in the field of the world?

Here, I think the parable of the sower can be of some help. Jesus does in fact equate the final harvest of wheat and tares with people, but remember that the original seeds — the life-bearing things that would eventually grow and bear fruit — were not people, but words. The seed Jesus sows is the word of the kingdom. The seed of the enemy is his message: “he is a liar, and the father of it” (John 8:44, KJV).

The seeds we receive and allow to come to fruition in us shape what we ultimately become. Along the way, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. (The Greek word Jesus used for “weed” may refer to darnel, which looks a lot like wheat in its immature phase.) Some seeds do become obvious before the end — when we think of those who shine for their love or their goodness, or of those horrify us at their almost inhuman coldness, cruelty, and self-absorption, we might well wonder whose voices they were listening to.

It matters. It matters very greatly who and what we believe.

The Mustard Seed

In his third parable, Jesus addressed another of the kingdom’s stranger aspects: its smallness. It’s almost offensive insignificance. We’ve already seen that the Pharisees and others were offended at Jesus’s choice of company — “tax collectors and sinners.”

They took offense for religious and political reasons, but maybe they were also offended at the sight of a Messiah who refused to get on with the important things and the important people and instead frittered away his time preaching grace to cheaters and letting prostitutes wash his feet. Didn’t he know there was a liberation to get underway? If the kingdom had come, why didn’t it take action?

For Jesus, of course, there was no problem at all. The kingdom was taking action. Kingdom seeds may be very small — a mustard seed is typically one–three millimeters across — but what grows from it will not be.

Jesus was not moved by human self-importance, and he didn’t judge value the way we do. All the hosts of heaven could have hammered on hard hearts for years without accomplishing God’s purposes. But one tiny seed in receptive ground would be enough to change the world.

And it would: “It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when grown, [it] becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.” In time, the kingdom would begin to take shape in this world, silhouetted against our sky, offering shelter to our weary travelers.

It might look like nothing now, Jesus was saying, but wait. It will grow.

Like Yeast in a Loaf of Bread …

The final parable in this sequence (also the shortest of them), echoes the same sentiment as the mustard seed, though with a different emphasis — this time not so much the smallness of the kingdom as the hiddenness of it.

I bake bread, so I can tell you exactly what happens when you do: you measure out a very small amount of yeast, then mix it into bread dough with flour and water and oil. When you do, it completely disappears. You will never be able to isolate that yeast again; it has become totally incorporated into the bread. All that’s left of the yeast is a slight fragrance.

Well, that, and its power.

The yeast, entirely hidden, broken down and engulfed, acts. Rather than being negated by the bread, it transforms the bread. As time passes, the bread rises, doubling, even tripling in size. You punch it down and shape it, and it rises again. You place it into the heat of the oven, and once again the yeast makes the bread expand.

What you have in the end — light, fragrant, life-giving bread — is completely different from what it would be without the yeast. If you doubt this, compare a piece of brioche to a stick of matzah. What’s the difference? Yeast.

It’s worth really sitting back and thinking, once more, about just how different this was from any version of “kingdom come” Jesus’s generation expected. And in fact, it’s worth asking how different it is from what we expect.

How often do we fear the kingdom is failing because we don’t see it? How often do we ask God to move in power, break things, bulldoze something, instead of stopping to see if we can detect the fragrance of the kingdom at work?

Or asking if we, ourselves, can function as yeast?

How many of the good things in our lives and indeed our world, things we frequently take for granted, are in fact the results of this hidden kingdom at work?

If we can understand that God works in this hidden way, we might be able to see him at work more clearly and more often. Remember, you can’t see yeast once it has disappeared — only its effects. The fact that the kingdom is largely hidden from our eyes is not a design flaw or a sign that our mission is failing. It’s part of the mission.

But of course, the changes wrought by yeast aren’t invisible. We can look around and see bread. We can see the tree, silhouetted against the sky. We can see fields of wheat — not yet ready for harvest, but there, nonetheless.

Jesus came preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Indeed.

It is already here.

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This is Part 225 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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