This passage allows us to encounter several small parables involving in which something or a situation is compared to the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of Heaven invokes imagery of some ethereal place where Christians will go and live eternally glorifying God, but that is not exactly what Jesus is talking about here. Throughout his ministry, Jesus refers to the kingdom of Heaven and when he does so he says things like, the kingdom of Heaven is near or the kingdom of Heaven here. When we talk about Heaven, we are talking about something that is in our far distant future, but when Jesus talks about the kingdom of Heaven he is talking about something that is here and something that is near, not way off in some ethereal place that we will only be able to reach on the far side of the here-after. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of Heaven he is talking about the work that he is doing here; the work that he is doing in us and through us.
The kingdom of Heaven is near because it is coming about in the work of salvation that Christ was working through His life, death and resurrection. The kingdom of Heaven is here because the work was already begun through his ministry in the hearts and lives of his disciples and all those who were touched and changed by his ministry here on earth.
The kingdom of Heaven is still near and here today. The completed work of salvation, which is the redemption of all creation, bringing the whole world into right relationship with God is not yet complete. The kingdom of Heaven is already AND not yet. The work begun by Christ through His life, death and resurrection is not yet done. But the kingdom of Heaven is still near, because the work is being done by the people of God which continues to this day. The salvific work of Jesus Christ is still being done. People are still coming to know who he is, hearts are being mended, wrongs are being set right, lives are being changed because of the work of Jesus Christ to redeem this world. And the kingdom of Heaven is here because it is alive in every person that loves God with all their heart, soul, and strength. The kingdom of Heaven is here whenever Christians do the work of Jesus Christ, when we as Christians share a cup of cold water in his name, when see someone hurting and reach out with the love of Christ to heal that hurt, when we share the good news of the love of Christ Jesus with those around us who may not yet know, how his love can change their lives. The kingdom of Heaven is near, the Kingdom of Heaven is here.
Jesus compares the kingdom of Heaven to a mustard, which is a tiny seed that can grow into a sheltering tree. The mustard seed was indeed the smallest of the seeds with which the average person in Palestine at this time would have been familiar. It is often used proverbially as a symbol for something extraordinarily small. Although mustard plants typically grown in American gardens are a medium sized bushy plant, mustard grown in the middle east is a tree which can grow to between 8 and 10 feet tall. To those listening to Jesus’ parable for the first time, as well as those reading Matthew’s gospel, this was very much the idea of something very small becoming something large. The part of this mini parable which captures my imagination the most is not that the tiny seed grows into a tree. It is not just the juxtaposition of a tiny seed to something so much bigger than itself, but it becomes a tree; a place where birds make their homes, raise their babies. The tiny useless seed becomes a home, a haven where the birds can come to make nest. The Kingdom of heaven is like that!
The next thing to which the kingdom of Heaven is compared is to yeast. When we think of yeast and the Bible, our mind often goes immediately to Passover and its complete removal from the Jewish house during the observance of this festival. Because of this connection, we often think of yeast and its leavening power as a bad thing, yet in this parable Jesus presents yeast and how a small portion has the ability to leaven the whole batch of bread.
The yeast imagery here is an interesting imagery, it was something that women in Jesus’ day and age worked with every day as they made the daily bread for their family, but during the season of Passover it became a symbol sin, in that it contaminated the whole house, even if there was even a tiny speck of it left. And that is just what Jesus is getting at here, even a tiny bit of yeast could make an extraordinary amount of dough rise. Yeast spreads and changes the nature of the dough that it is in. Yeast makes the difference between dry, flat, nearly tasteless crackers and soft, fluffy, delicious bread.
The yeast in the parable is a small amount and is spread through and causes a change in an immense amount of bread. Yeast is small and once it is worked into bread it becomes invisible, but slowly, steadily, almost stealthily, given time, it changes the entirety of the nature of the dough in which it is placed. The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. It may seem invisible, but it is working, slowly, steadily, stealthily changing the entire world.
These two petite parables, that of the mustard seed and that of the yeast, should be seen as a pair of parables, explaining a similar truth about the spread of the gospel and its work in this world. It may appear to be small. It may seem to be of very little consequence, but its impact is greater than expected.
The church started with 12 apostles and about 150 disciples, in a small area in and around Jerusalem. Today, there are millions of Christians spread throughout the world. It may be easy to be cynical because some of those that call themselves by the name of our Lord and Savior are not truly living lives that follow the example that was given to us by Jesus, but the kingdom of Heaven is still at work among Christians slowly, steadily, stealthily changing this world, one heart, one life at a time.
Next we have two micro-parables about treasure. The kingdom of heaven is something valuable which is hidden and worth going to great pains to obtain. Its value may be hidden like that of a treasure in a field or a pearl within a dull looking oyster, but when you find it and realize its what it is there is nothing worth more.
In the parable about the fish, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of Heaven is like a net that catches every kind of fish, but the fish are not sorted until the fishing is all done and then when the boat is brought to shore and the entire catch is in, then the fisherman opens up the net and sorts the fish disposing of the bad fish and keeping the good ones. The net is like the church, the church brings in all sorts of people and some are good fish and some are bad, but they will not be sorted until the day is done and the work is complete. This is a hard thing to hear from Jesus. We want to draw the lines, we want to know who is in and who’s out, who belongs and who does not. We want to be able to distinguish the good fish from the bad. We want to be able to make that determination. And yet, Jesus tells us that this is not our job, this is not a task given to us.
So what is the kingdom of Heaven like? It is like a mustard seed. It is like yeast. It is like a treasure or a pearl. It is like both good and bad fish caught in the net. It is like a treasure and a pearl. What is the kingdom of heaven most like? The passage ends with Jesus asking his disciples if they understand. Do we? Do we understand what the kingdom of Heaven is like? How do these passages give us glimpses of understanding?