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Jesus insists that the glorious anticipated kingdom of God is also present in a hidden way in his ministry and that of his followers. These parables most clearly declare that God's kingdom has arrived in some sense in Jesus' ministry, in a hidden and anticipatory way. Far from baptizing the wicked in fire and overthrowing the nations at his first coming, Jesus came as a meek servant (12:18-20), wandering around Galilee with a group of obscure disciples and healing some sick people.
In a world characterized by political turmoil and filled with wandering teachers and magicians, Jesus' initial arrival as a politically inconspicuous servant had rendered his mission as opaque as his parables, except to people of faith. We Christians sound foolish to those outside Jesus' circle when we speak of a final judgment and living for a future kingdom; what does that have to do with the troubles of daily life in the present? But those who have pressed into Jesus' circle today, like those who did so two thousand years ago, know who Jesus really is. Despite the magnitude of the task before us, we dare not despise the "smallness" of our own works, for God's entire program long ago came hidden in a small package.
The Kingdom Is like a Mustard Seed (13:31-32)
Despite some dispute today over which plant Jesus intended, the mustard seed had become proverbial for small size (17:20; m. Niddah 5:2; Toharot 8:8). Although not literally the smallest of seeds, and yielding a shrub rather than a tree in the technical botanical sense in English, the mustard plant hyperbolically conveyed Jesus' point (the inconspicuous becomes mighty) better than any other. (It commonly reaches eight to ten feet around the Lake of Galilee.)
The Power of a Little Bit of Leaven (13:33)
Jewish writers used yeast in a variety of symbolic ways, but Jesus stresses here the factor all had in common: its ultimately pervasive character. One leavens unleavened meal until the finished product is thoroughly leavened. The amount of flour involved here represents roughly fifty pounds, providing enough bread for over one hundred people. A housewife would not normally fix so much meal and could not knead more than this; the unnatural magnitude of the illustration probably suggests that the kingdom far exceeds daily examples to which it may be compared (so Jeremias 1972:147). That she "hid" (NIV mixed obscures this point) the yeast in the dough also exceeds the comparison and reinforces the image of the hiddenness of the kingdom in this age.
Jesus Tells Parables to Reveal God's Long-Hidden Mysteries (13:34-35)
Although the parables were riddles to outsiders, they conveyed God's hidden revelation to his followers (compare 13:10-17; 1 Cor 2:7-10; Col 2:2-3). As in the central section of the parable of the sower (Mt 13:10-17), Jesus justifies this principle from Scripture.