Jesus therefore began to say, “What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in the garden. It grew into a tree, and the birds of the sky made nests in its branches.” He also said: “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman takes and sticks into flour; three small measures leavens the whole.”
Luke 13: 18-21
These brief parables of Jesus, which appear in all of the synoptic gospels, occur in Luke in the context of a growing conflict with those who reject him. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “In just such small and hidden acts of liberation as he has worked in this synagogue is the victory over Satan’s kingdom being won, and the prophetic mission to “proclaim liberty to captives” (4:18) being fulfilled” (The Gospel of Luke, pp. 214-4). Jesus’ teaching about the true nature of the kingdom of God is both a consolation to us as well as a disappointment to our natural expectations.
As seed and as yeast, the life and the work of the kingdom in us are, as we measure them, small, indiscernible and fragile. At this moment of conflict, as later at the time of his passion, Jesus does not call for a great battle between the followers of his kingdom and those with whom they are in conflict. Despite the turns of later Christian history, the kingdom, as Jesus sees it, will not come to realization on a great battlefield by the overwhelming of the enemy, it will rather come to be through the care and nurturing of the seed and the yeast. It will do its work in the world largely in unrecognized ways. This being the case, the work of its disciples will be more that of tending and nurturing the kernel within oneself and in all others, realizing always that the visible effects will always be the work of God.
Here, as so often in the gospels, Jesus counters our natural expectations. The basic tendency of human life is to make something of ourselves; it is what the psychoanalyst Karen Horney calls “the search for glory.” This tendency in us is always a part of our motivations, even in the religious and spiritual spheres. When we take the measure of our own lives, we are apt to judge them based on our accomplishments. In the eyes of our pride form, we are worth however much we stand out from and above the others.
To our own day the wars of religion continue. Be it on the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Tibet, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and on and on, or be it in the political sphere in many other places, we believe that the truth of our vision and belief will be judged by its victory and dominance over the beliefs of others. Jesus’ view, however, is quite different. The images he offers today call us to tend to the seed and the yeast of love within that they may grow, in God’s time and way, into a home for the birds of the air and bread to be shared by others.
The “continual conversion” which this teaching of Jesus implies is a very difficult task for us who by our very nature seek our own recognition and achievement. Power comes naturally to us; love must be learned and cultivated. The latter is a largely hidden and interior work, one which flourishes out of sight and out of the confirmation of other persons. Devoting ourselves to being formed in love as a servant to the world will not bring us personal recognition and status, but it will allow a growth in consonance, or what Ryken considered “harmony”.
For it is only in harmony
that you will grow,
that your community will grow,
that the love of God will grow in your world,
and that the reign of God will grow to completeness.
For Jesus, it seems, the seed or the yeast of the kingdom is everywhere and in everyone. Thomas Merton saw this as the “seeds of contemplation” within everyone and everything. Whether these seeds are nourished and grow is our business. So, there is no incompatibility between tending the seed within and serving its growth without. It is impossible to do one without the other. So often our work and service to the world is more the result of our unconscious need and demand for power than the harmonious service of the unique note which the other’s life is striking.
One of the earliest lessons I was taught in choral singing was to make sure that I could always hear the others around me. If one can’t hear the others, then one is too loud, asserting oneself too forcibly, demanding too much attention. To hear the harmony of one’s voice with others is what fosters the experience of a group’s singing with “one voice.” If we can’t hear the others in singing and in life, we are too loud.
We don’t need to make the seed grow into a tree, or to make the dough rise. We just need to tend the seed and to knead the flour — in ourselves and in those around us. If we do, we shall start to experience harmony where there was dissonance, a harmony that will allow for the love of God to grow in our world and the reign of God to grow to completeness.
What is the attitude that the Lord asks from us in order that the Kingdom of God can grow and be bread for everybody and is a house too for everybody? Docility: the Kingdom of God grows through docility to the strength of the Holy Spirit. The flour ceases to be flour and becomes bread because it is docile to the strength of the yeast and the yeast allows itself to be mixed in with the flour… I don’t know, flour has no feelings but allowing itself to be mixed in one could think that there is some suffering here, right? But the Kingdom too, the Kingdom grows in this way and then in the end it is bread for everybody.
Pope Francis, Homily, October 25, 2016