In 1933, the Nazis began a very public campaign to destroy the Jewish people – their livelihoods and their lives. As a hallmark of that systemic violence, they began to paint a yellow Star of David, the six-pointed star that had become a symbol of Judaism, onto the front of Jewish homes and businesses all over Germany and beyond. Over the next 10 years, the Nazis would target and brutalize various groups of people including the Jews, eventually forcing those living in towns and concentration camps to wear garments with that same Star of David.
By contrast, the Nazis used the symbol they adopted, a swastika, so much that it became synonymous with their particular brand of evil. Despite the Nazis best efforts to destroy the Jews by using their own marker of heritage against them, the Star of David is still very much in use by the Jews, while the swastika remains buried with the Nazis.
All of that happened 70 to 80 years ago. When so much time passes, when things become so far distant from what we are experiencing today, it’s hard to feel a connection to important events in the past, even if our shared experiences were once very fresh, and very sharp. It may have been difficult at times to find a way to feel connected to the parables of Jesus that we’ve been reading in Matthew over the last few weeks – parables that were spoken by Jesus 2,000 year ago. Wrapping up this section on parables we get five parables thrown at us in rapid succession. But they are connected to each other, and to the audience who would have been listening to Jesus speak, as they were facing very sharp and difficult times as the opposition to Jesus and his movement was growing.
These are parables about power and growth, about the precious value of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God it proclaims. This was a message of hope and worth to the people following Jesus who had given up everything in his name, and for others who were wondering if it would be worth for them to do the same.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed the first parable in Matthew 13 begins … Being agricultural people, they would have been familiar with the size of a mustard seed. For most of us, me included, mustard is that stuff you get in the yellow French’s bottle on the grocery store shelf. But the people listening to Jesus would have been familiar with both the seed and its tree, and how how remarkable it is that such a tiny seed contains all the information, all the life necessary, to grow into a tree large enough for birds to nest in.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast – or leaven – all it took was a little bit of fermented material mixed in to change the entire makeup of a huge amount of dough. For most of us, bread is that stuff wrapped in plastic we pick up off the shelf at the grocery store, like the mustard. But for the people listening to Jesus, they would have been very familiar with the process of baking bread, and that three measures here meant enough to feed an entire banquet.
We can take a couple of things from these two parables: The Gospel is powerful. It is the Living Word of God contained within a simple message – but this simple story holds within it the information, the power that can change the world. The second thing we learn from these parables is that once God sets the growth of his Kingdom in motion, there is nothing anyone can do stop it. Nothing. The power of God is evident in his ability to choose something seemingly small and weak and to grow it into something massive by his own will. There are those who will try to grow their own kingdoms on this earth, but they will all eventually fail. God is the only true Creator, with the only real ability to resurrect, and his Kingdom is everlasting.
The mustard seed parable and God growing it into a tree that nests birds touches on a prophecy the prophet tells as recorded in Ezekiel 31. God had allowed the nation of Assyria to grow like a huge tree that the birds nested in, more glorious than any other trees, but it had become proud of itself and forgotten God, and so he cut it down, and sent it to its death. And in a great expression of his power tinged with humor, God points out that now his birds are standing on the once mighty tree’s fallen trunk, and his creatures are crawling around on its fallen branches. Nothing can grow so great that it outgrows the Creator – and God will even make use of the failure of the proud. The sound of this tree’s fall terrified the nations. And God goes on to tell Ezekiel that this same fate will happen to the Pharaoh of Egypt, who has been acting out evil against God’s people.
The memory of those events nearly 80 years ago in WWII have come rushing forward over the last few weeks as an extremist group taking hold in Syria and Iraq has begun a campaign to persecute Christians. And in an eerily familiar experience, they have started painting a symbol on the walls of Christian homes in the northeastern Iraq capital of Mosul in order to mark them for persecution – they are painting the Arabic letter “N”, the first letter of their term for Christians, “Nasrani,” taken from the word Nazarene, for those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Nasrani. The Jesus Followers. Churches have been desecrated and shrines sacred to both Christians AND Muslims both have been blown up. Everyone living in the city of Mosul has been terrorized, and Christians have been robbed of all they have, and have been told to leave or convert, or they will be put to the sword. Read more about this here.
It might seem like all is lost, for those Christians in Mosul. But God has them in his special care – as Jesus is quoted in several places in Scripture, “those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.”
We are half a world away, and that kind of test of faith seems very foreign – thankfully – to us here in America. Yet we are connected to these Christians because as fellow followers of Jesus, we are their brothers and sisters. They are our family. At the end of our reading in Matthew, after he’s finished telling the parables, Jesus talks to the disciples and asks them, “Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. And his response is to give them one more parable. “The scribes trained for the Kingdom of heaven are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Jesus is telling the disciples that every person who is has heard and understands his message, all those who are trained to spread the Gospel, everyone who is taught to tell the Jesus story, is standing on the rich foundation of the long history of the people of God, in partnership with the new Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what gave the disciples hope in a time of rising conflict, when they were facing persecution, and even death. The same God who guided and lived in covenant with his people from the beginning, and in Jesus’ time, is continuing to work out his Kingdom among us here today.
Woe to any person or any movement who believes that they and their symbols can grow bigger than God. And the same to any of us Jesus Followers who don’t understand how much strength there is in the Gospel message we have been given, or if we think that there is anything – ANYTHING – that can stop the power of God to grow his kingdom.