Changing the Metaphor

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.”

Kris Rocke
Tacoma, WA  |  U.S.

Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.”

Perhaps Campbell learned this from Jesus who compares the kingdom of heaven to mustard seeds and yeast in this week’s text.

In a super-sized, big-box culture where size matters above all else, these parables are easily interpreted as self-congratulating stories about the guaranteed and inevitable growth of the Kingdom (and presumably the Church). The smallest of seeds becomes the largest of trees, and the pinch of yeast spreads throughout the whole dough.

At first glance, this makes sense. Jesus is commenting on how a small and insignificant band of disciples are the seeds and yeast of a movement that will, one day, be the largest religion in the world. In other words, in the end, team Jesus grows big and wins. Hurray!

However, if growth is the main point, the metaphors are confusing. For example, the mustard plant is not the tree we often imagine. It is true that it starts off as a small seed and then grows. But when a mustard plant is mature, it only stands about six feet tall. If Jesus was looking for a metaphor about size, he picked the wrong one. He should have gone with the cedars of Lebanon mentioned in chapter 31 of Ezekiel—a text Jesus was likely referencing. Ezekiel lifts up the cedars of Lebanon as the paragon of size, strength and beauty.

“… no tree in the garden of God could match its beauty…It was the envy of all the trees of Eden in the garden of God.”
But Jesus changes the metaphor from a majestic tree to a common weed.

The mustard plant is a wild herb at best, no more than a common weed, really. It is a measly shrub that gardeners spend their days trying to get rid of because they spread uncontrollably and attract lots of birds. The birds Jesus imagines are not the great birds in Ezekiel’s vision. Jesus sees little birds who come and eat the good seeds in the garden. In other words, the kingdom of heaven is like an unwanted weed that is not easily eliminated. It attracts pesky little birds that threaten the “good” plants, and most especially, our efforts to cultivate the perfect garden.

Can you see it? This isn’t a lesson about being the perfect spiritual gardener. Jesus is actually addressing our problematic image of the perfect garden itself.

We want our gardens to conform to our culturally and religiously sanctioned expectations. We want gardens that look like the well-manicured English variety that remind us we are master horticulturists, firmly in control.

Jesus adds, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Again, on the surface, the meaning around growth seems fairly obvious until we remember that yeast is a mold. In Hebrew culture, yeast was considered “unclean.” That’s why consecrated bread was unleavened bread. The point here is that the kingdom of God is like an unwanted weed and unclean mold—both of which multiply uncontrollably.

If we are looking for a dynamic equivalent in today’s context, we might say the kingdom of heaven is like COVID-19. It comes among us like an unwanted virus that grows exponentially out of control, massively disrupting our lives, opening us up to something new.

Of course, Jesus is not suggesting that the farmers should plant weeds in their gardens and cooks should use molds for baking, any more than I am suggesting we should celebrate the outbreak of COVID-19.

However, Jesus is suggesting that God comes to us through the very things we’ve worked so hard to eliminate. Surely, he is thinking of the long list of those whom his disciples have been conditioned to exclude: the poor, persecuted, blind, deaf, widows and orphans, mentally ill, and foreigners. The list goes on.

When we discover God is blessing us through the “cursed ones,” we are given a heart that looks a lot like the heart of God.