He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (excerpt from Luke 13:10-21, emphasis added)
When I was younger, my dad used to always get onto me about my use of conjunctions in writing. I didn’t always understand it at the time (it often just seemed like a quirky mini-obsession!) but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see why it was such a big deal for him. You see, the thing about a conjunction is that it tells us how things are connected. For instance they can be connected numerically or sequentially (e.g. “The swimmers, runners, and the rowers all attended the safety briefing”), or even connected in a contrastive relationship (e.g. “The swimmers and rowers attended the safety briefing, but the runners did not.”). It’s important to get your conjunctions straight because if you don’t, you may miss the connection.
Taking this into consideration, notice the word “therefore” at the beginning of the passage above. Technically it is a conjunction (a conjunctive adverb, to be precise, but that is not important for our purposes) which means it connects two or more things. But the question is what is it connecting and what kind of connection is it making?
The reason I ask is because it is actually connects two incidents that we very often study separately—Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath of a woman who had been bent over for eighteen years, and his teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God. The “therefore” tells us that these two incidents, though they may have occurred separately, are meant to be understood together. That is to say, there is something about Jesus’ teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God that makes sense of his healing of this long-suffering woman; and there is something about Jesus’ healing of this woman that illustrates not only the effects of the kingdom of God, but also how these effects spread.
So what is the connection between the two?
Look at the two metaphors Jesus uses to describe the work of the kingdom of God. Both of them share an emphasis on something that starts small, almost imperceptible, and eventually develops into something significantly greater—the tiny mustard seed that develops into the great mustard tree, and the small amount of yeast that is able to leaven enough flour to feed nearly 150 people. The message seems to be clear: the kingdom of God may start in small, even inauspicious circumstances, but its power and the abundance of its effects are in complete disproportion to its beginnings.
But that is not all that these two metaphors suggest to us about the kingdom of God. In addition to the clear emphasis on power and abundance, there is nonetheless also a clear emphasis on humility. The image of the leaven challenges Jesus’ audience to enter into the domain of a first-century woman and household cook—a domain not often deemed worth considering—and the image of the mustard seed calls them to see God’s kingdom in the light of what would more typically be considered a shrub rather than a great tree; and yet, the abundant power and effects of both are not diminished by this humility. To the contrary, they are made all the more salient and beautiful. As Joel Green says,
“Why not the mighty cedars of Lebanon? [Because] God’s kingdom is established through other means than the coercive power and intrigue usually associated with the establishment of a new order, and his dominion purposefully seeks out persons who do not represent the socially powerful and privileged.”
It is with these eyes that we are to look back to Jesus’ healing of the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years and understand it not simply as an act of healing, or a demonstration of Jesus’ compassion on the woman, though of course it is both of these. It is a demonstration of the Kingdom of God because through it, Christ demonstrates God’s dominion over the influence evil in this woman’s life experienced not only through her physical suffering, but also the spiritual and emotional suffering that she would have known in her shame and ostracization.
To choose to demonstrate the power of God’s kingdom in the life of a woman who, up to that point would have either been ignored or treated with revulsion, and who, even after her healing, would still be considered among the lowest in society may have seemed counter-intuitive; and yet it is in this that the true nature of God’s kingdom is made known—for it seeks not coercion, power or privilege, but is made present “even in such seemingly inconsequential acts as the restoration of an ill woman who lived on the margins of society” (Green).
Such small acts, we are promised, do not remain in isolation but have the power leaven the whole of life with the healing, restoration and salvation that are the hallmarks of the kingdom of God.
What small acts might you be called to today? Know that there is no act too small, no life too insignificant to demonstrate God’s power and love. To the contrary, this is where it is often most needed, for it is where it is often left undone.
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.