Commentary on Luke 13:18-21
At this point Luke inserts two short parables about the kingdom of God which Jesus is inaugurating.
Let us remind ourselves briefly what we mean by the ‘kingdom of God’. The Greek word is basileia (basileia) which is more accurately translated ‘kingship’ or ‘reign’. So it is a network of relationships rather than a place that we are talking about. The basileia of God occurs wherever people are submitting themselves to that loving power of God in their lives and in their mutual relationships, working together to bring God’s love and justice to the world.
Jesus is the symbol, the very embodiment, of the kingdom as, through him, God’s loving power breaks into people’s lives. And, insofar as they accept him and his message, the kingdom is being realised. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God that the whole world may, in this sense, come under the reign of God when we say, “Your Kingdom come; your will be done on earth as in heaven.”
So today, Jesus gives two parables or images of the Kingdom.
First, he compares it to a mustard seed which a man planted in his garden. The tiny seed eventually grew into a sizeable bush so that the birds were able to make their nests in it.
When these words were written the Church, the agent of Jesus’ mission, was still tiny but it had already begun to grow considerably from its beginnings with a handful of Jesus’ disciples. There is an air of hope and confidence that it will continue to grow in spite of the persecutions and setbacks it is facing and will continue to face. How amazed would those Christians be to know that the seed since has grown not into a shrub but into a huge tree!
In our own time, we need to keep fresh the hope and confidence of this parable. In so far as we are dedicated to truth and love we have nothing to fear; ultimately they will and must prevail.
The second parable compares the reign of God to a small measure of yeast that a woman kneads into a batch of dough as she makes bread. In time, under the influence of the small amount of yeast, the whole batch will begin to swell and rise.
In Scripture, yeast, because it is a fermenting agent, usually symbolises what is evil and corrupt but here the emphasis is on its growth effect.
This is an image of how the reign of God spreads through the world. It does so by being totally inserted into that world. Externally it is not seen but its influence is felt everywhere bringing about gradual change. As Christians, we are called to be agents (though not the only agents) of the Kingdom. We can only do this by ourselves being fully inserted in our societies, not by separating ourselves from them. At the same time, we must keep our distinctively Christian vision just as the yeast, though invisible, remains distinct from the dough it is transforming.
If this looks like infiltration, it is! But not all infiltration is bad, not if it is driven by God’s truth, goodness and beauty. Such infiltration does not undermine but builds up and transforms.