Tag Archives: Yeast

Cultivating Human Beings (Matthew 13:24-43)

bono coexist.jpg So, why create a sandwich with these three parables together followed by the explanation of the first parable? It seems that these parables build on each other and relate to each other. But how?

All three parables have to do with something small that takes over for good or ill. The seeds sown for the weeds and the mustard tree (toothbrush tree) become prominent features in the landscape. The yeast is worked into all the flour.

The parable of the weeds is a negative example of the kingdom, while the parable of the mustard seed and yeast are positive examples. Perhaps this is why only the first parable needs explanation. The idea that God’s kingdom is small and takes over through small acts is easy to swallow. It might be hard in practice, but it’s easy to hear. The good guys win. The idea that what is sown by evil people should be allowed to continue alongside the works of the righteous is much more difficult to swallow.

When we divide the world into these binary categories of righteous and evil, it is difficult to abide their coexistence. If there is simply an Axis of Evil then the decisions about what to do are simple and obvious. If, instead, as Jesus suggests, we are to allow the righteous and evil to exist alongside each other and leave judgment for the end of the age and harvesting to the angels, then life between now and then just got a lot more complicated.

As I suggested in my post on the parable of the weeds, the idea that we know what’s best in agriculture may be based on some faulty assumptions about good plants and bad plants. We also make the same mistake with insects. Upwards of 95% of all insect species are beneficial. So, what happens when you blanket crops with pesticides that kill off the 95% along with the 5% that do damage? I also believe strongly that the soil is the foundation of good agriculture. If you create an environment in which your plants are healthy and thriving, because they have good soil, you are also controlling for weeds and insects. In other words, the healthiest environment for productive life on the planet is one where we allow the weeds, crops and insects to thrive together in a balance that naturally occurs without our help.

The stability of old growth forests, create an abundance of life and resources, because nature is allowed to live out its balance with “weeds”, insects and edible plants all living together. We tend to err on the side of intervention, always assuming that we know best the answers to natures problems (usually problems we created through our intervention). As with my idea of what missions is, it is less about intervening and more about listening, understanding and allowing the Spirit to lead us in a process of mutual transformation.

Like, the mustard seed or the yeast, it is hard to see what will come from something so tiny. It is also hard to see what comes from allowing the weeds and wheat to grow together. The transformation begins when we lay down the assumption that we know the answers, solutions and who is righteous and evil. Transformation also begins with the small acts of the kingdom that multiply, grow and permeate the world around us.

“Natural farming is not simply a way of growing crops; it is the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Masanobu Fukuoka (quote and photo via eartheasy.com)

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photo of Bono from u2tourfans.com

Parable of the Toothbrush Tree and SCOBY (Matthew 13:31-35)

Salvadora persica (Miswak tree).Jizan area_gif.jpgMatthew 13:31-35 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘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.’

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’

We previously looked at the surrounding parable of the weeds. Now let’s consider the middle passage. Jesus comes at the crowd rapid fire with two short parables about the kingdom, before explaining the first parable.

The mustard plant Jesus was referencing might be brassica nigra or Black Mustard, but this plant certainly does not look like it could support birds, much less a nest. Botanical.com points to the Khardal tree of the arabs as the likely suspect. It is “a tree abounding near the Sea of Galilee, which bears numerous branches and has small seeds, having the flavour and properties of Mustard.” I did some more digging to try and figure out exactly what plant this was and finally found Salvadora persica in an obscure footnote of Ceylon: an account of the island, Volume 1 By Sir James Emerson Tennent, which is now called Sri Lanka.

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This tree is known as the mustard tree and its seeds can be substituted for mustard seeds, but it is also called the toothbrush tree. Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad recommended the use of twigs, or Miswak, from the tree to clean and whiten your teeth. Perhaps this is how Jesus’ teeth stayed so perfectly straight and white. The World Agroforestry Centre lists many uses for the tree including edible fruit, leaves, tender shoots, seeds and seed oil. It can also be used as a forage for animals and the wood can be used for timber… and of course twigs for toothbrushes.

Now that we’ve identified the plant Jesus is talking about… So what? It doesn’t change the meaning of the parable really. The point is that big things come from small things. North American culture certainly prizes the biggest above all. So, it’s a good word for a culture in which the average size of our homes has grown from 1,600 sq ft to 2,434 sq ft from 1970-2005 (Wikipedia).

Now, yeast brings us bread, beer and even Vegemite, but we sometimes forget that it’s a living organism. Technically called eukaryotic micro-organisms, yeast is classified as a fungi. Sourdough, Amish friendship bread, yogurt, symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), kombucha and kefir are probiotic foods and beverages with microscopic living organisms in them. These civilizations of microorganisms, under the right conditions, multiply and continue to produce new foods and beverages through fermentation. In a consumer culture where we tend to buy everything we need, it is countercultural to create our own food from scratch. You never need to buy yogurt again if you make your own, because a small amount of the yogurt contains enough bacteria to make more yogurt. So, it blows my mind to see kombucha mass marketed in stores when you can make it yourself over and over again for very cheap.

So, what’s the point of all this investigation into what tree Jesus was talking about and what yeast is really all about? Well, I think it’s a way of recognizing (again) that when we hear Jesus use agricultural and food analogies, we don’t know what he’s talking about because we are so disconnected from the earth and our food. Because we’re disconnected from our food and the source of that food what “has been hidden form the foundation of the world” continues to be hidden from us. It also points out the importance of context and place. The mustard tree is not the plant producing condiments for our hot dogs, but a particular tree that is part of a particular ecosystem.

The meaning of the parables also reminds us of the way that real change happens. Small things are not small. In fact it’s all any of us can really do, and it’s what has always changed the world (sitting down at lunch counters, not moving to the back of the bus, making salt in the sea). The kingdom of God is like this. Like yeast it is tiny, but it infiltrates all though dough and transforms water into beer, grapes into wine, milk into yogurt. It reproduces this effect over and over again indefinitely until everything is permeated with this life.

Photo of the toothbrush tree from http://bpdt.wordpress.com the blog of David Thomson the Bishop of Huntingdon. Graphic of Salvadora persica from Wikipedia. Photo of vegemite from http://dasspunk.com