[Jesus said], “What is the kingdom of God like? To what can I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a person took and planted in the garden. When it was fully grown, it became a large bush and ‘the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches’” [Ez 31:6].Again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed (in) with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened” (Lk 13:18-21 NAB).
So what precisely is the kingdom of God?
The reign or rule of God: “the kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). The Kingdom of God draws near in the coming of the Incarnate Word; it is announced in the Gospel; it is the messianic Kingdom, present in the person of Jesus, the Messiah; it remains in our midst in the Eucharist. Christ gave to his Apostles the work of proclaiming the Kingdom, and through the Holy Spirit forms his people into a priestly kingdom, the Church, in which the Kingdom of God is mysteriously present, for she is the seed and beginning of the Kingdom on earth. In the Lord’s Prayer … we pray for its final glorious appearance, when Christ will hand over the Kingdom to his Father.
Now, what is the signal characteristic of the mustard seed? Its smallness; “it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree” (Mt 13:32; cf. Mk 4:31-32). A faith so small as a mustard seed can yet move mountains (Mt 17:20) and transplant trees into the ocean (Lk 17:6).
Another characteristic of the mustard seed is that it grows into mustard plants. It won’t turn into an olive tree after seventeen or eighteen years; you won’t wake up one morning to find its leaves drooping with figs or pomegranates. The tree is known by its fruit (Mt 12:33; cf. Lk 6:43-44). What it will look like after so many years may be impossible to guess from looking at the seed, but it will still be the same kind of tree it was in the seed.
Then Jesus changes the simile up to another image of growth: the leavening of bread. Mere water and flour, when baked, is no more than a cracker; yeast changes its texture, creating true bread. Thus the Kingdom transforms its surroundings, raising it up along with itself.
In both of these similes is embedded the notion of time passing. The birds have no branches to sit on right away; the dough must rise before it can be baked. One of the hardest things to do is to wait for the right time: to plant, to harvest, to bake, to remove from the oven. (Ah, the smell of fresh-baked bread in the morning … far better than napalm.)
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance (Rom 8:18-25).
Anything worth doing is worth taking the time to do it right. This is hard for a generation raised to expect immediate results, instant gratification, a generation that sees no truth in the old truism “Haste makes waste”. And yet we can still appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into artifacts over which some artisan has spent years of loving, careful labor.
So it is with God’s work among us. He is developing his Kingdom not just among us but within us. Saint Peter reminds us that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pt 3:8-9). God is beyond Time, and all His acts one Act; He can’t be rushed.
Saint Paul has contributed another image to our stockpile: the universe, all creation, as an expectant mother bringing forth something new into being … a necessary but prolonged agony. We wait in hope, for “as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Cor 2:9; cf. Is 64:4, 65:17). It could be said that we’ve “bought a pig in a poke”; yet throughout our lives – if we’re paying attention – we get glimpses of that all-consuming Love that is the focus of our longing and our hope, that creates the Sehnsucht C. S. Lewis defined as “joy” — a longing-for that is more desirable than any having.
That agony of expectation is the Kingdom of God within us, “heart speaking to heart”. And with that joy infecting our minds, souls and hearts, we spread the Kingdom as yeast spreads its benefits throughout the dough.
Eventually our time will come. Eventually the moment for which the universe strains in labor will be born, and heaven and earth will have been brought to perfection according to God’s will. But in the meantime, we wait as patiently as we can, and spread the Kingdom to the best of our abilities.