Sunday, April 15, 2007

Explorations: Mustard Seed and Leaven

I posted a few days ago some thoughts on the parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven. Today I preached on the same and preparing gave me further time for meditation and reading. Here are a few explorations in a coconutshell:
  1. Striking Imagery: In rabbinical thought, the mustard seed used as a metaphor for smallness. The mustard plant was considered to be a weed. Leaven in Jewish thought represents corruption, something unholy. Jewish views of the Kingdom were grand, large and triumphant. The hearers would have been astounded by these reversals; Jesus challenges Jewish expectations with the Unexpected Newness of the Kingdom.
  2. Insignificant Beginnings: A mustard seed is small; leaven is common. Not only does the Kingdom consist of just Jesus and a few disciples, but it is opposed - Luke juxtaposes the parables with the opposition of the synagogue official.
  3. Inherent Power: This is Jesus' main point in Luke's version. A seed and leaven have inherent life. In Matthew and Mark the man plants the seed, here in Luke he throws it in his garden (check the Greek). Perhaps there is a picture of rejection here. But, it still grows. Pliny the Elder says: 'Mustard...grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once' (from Ben Witherington's Mark commentary). Jesus compares the Kingdom to a weed? Perhaps so! The weed is a threat to the established order. The leaven too is simply mixed into the meal, that's all. But it leavens the whole mass of dough.
  4. Future Greatness: A mustard plant grows to about 10ft. But this one becomes a tree - the hyperbolae links in the OT image of the kingdom of Israel as a tree providing shelter for the nations of the world. The woman is making rather a lot of bread - an overflowing mass! She has about 40 litres of meal - that's a lot of dough and even more bread! The small and surprising beginnings lead to greatness and abundance.
The power of the Kingdom in the face of opposition is reflected in the healing of the woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath and the response of the people; the account precedes the parables in Luke.