The Kingdom of Heaven is a Mess

“He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field” (Matthew 13:31)

Thus begins the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which is one of a series of short stories featured in this week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 13. In sermons past I’ve referred to this collection as ‘The MacDonaldtown Parables’ after MacDonaldtown Railway Station, which is located a short walk from where I grew up.

McDonaldtown is a small, one-platform station, nestled in between two larger stations. It was originally built to service a rail-repair yard that was closed down long ago. The station would have been shut down too except for the petitioning of local residents who seem to value it. Even so, not many people get on or off at MacDonaldtown, just as not many people stop to pay attention to these short parables in Matthew 13. We tend to cruise on by, stopping at the larger, more interesting stories, such as the Parable of the Sower, or the Parable of the Lost Sheep. This is a shame, as I think these short stories have a lot to offer us.

There are five parables in this week’s reading:

  • The Mustard Seed
  • The Leaven in the Bread
  • The Treasure in the field
  • The Pearl of Great Value
  • The Net Full of Fish

These stories don’t each carry the same message, yet they do each have one thing in common. They are all distasteful stories.

Let’s start with the mustard seed that “someone sowed in their field”. Jesus says, “it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree” (Matthew 13:32a).

The fact-checkers would probably have suspended Jesus’ account if this had been a tweet. Mustard seeds are not the smallest of all seeds, and they don’t exactly grow into trees. Google a ‘mustard bush’ and you’ll see that these seeds grow into something more like overgrown weeds. “Birds of the air come and make nests in its branches”, Jesus says (Matthew 13:32b). ‘Very small birds’, He might have added.

In truth, Middle Eastern farmers wouldn’t normally want mustard bushes growing on their land. This farmer was probably sowing corn and didn’t notice the tiny mustard seeds that somehow got into the mix. The sudden appearance of mustard bushes – seemingly coming out of nowhere – would be both mysterious and annoying. If they attract birds, the farmer may now need a scarecrow!

The imagery of the second parable is equally uncomfortable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

It helps if we understand that this woman is working with an enormous amount of dough. According to the metrics of the time, a ‘measure’ is the equivalent of three omers, and ten omers make up an ephah, which is about the same as a bushel. The bottom line is that this woman is kneading around 22 litres of dough. She is a large, strong woman, using a lot of energy! Contrasting this enormous lump of dough is the amount of leaven that gets mixed into the dough, which is tiny.

Jesus’ contemporaries probably weren’t using yeast as we know it, but some simpler form of fermented bacteria, such as is still used in the making of proper sourdough. Like yeast, these substances are unpleasant, both to smell and to touch. Even so, the insertion of even a tiny amount of these bacteria into the dough makes for enormous changes to the larger lump.

You might reach this point in the series and wonder whether the next parable is going to compare the Kingdom of God to horse manure spread over a garden. I’ve heard that metaphor used to describe groups of religious clerics like myself. Spread us around and we can do some good and help things grow, but pile us all together in one place and … well … we stink. Ask anyone who has been to a session of the Sydney Anglican Synod, and you’ll see them nod in grim agreement.

No. There is no ‘Parable of the Horse Manure’, though it would have fitted in well in terms of awkward imagery. That may be because it takes quite a lot of manure before it has an effect on your garden, and the effect is slow but predictable. In contrast, mustard bushes seem to come from nowhere, and they pop up quickly and unpredictably. Likewise, with the effect of the leaven on the lump – change happens when you’re not watching, and it’s rapid and mysterious.

I’m going to stop with these two parables today but encourage you to go to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, and work your way through the others yourself. Each story tells us what the Kingdom of God is like by giving us an odd and uncomfortable image – an overgrown weed, an enormous lump of dough, a wily and deceitful prospector, an obsessed merchant, and a net full of writhing fish. These stories leave us with the feeling that the Kingdom of God is a mess – a wonderful and mysterious mess, but a mess, nonetheless.

Interestingly, when Jesus asks His disciples whether they understand this batch of parables, they answer, “yes” (Matthew 13:51), in sharp contrast to their response to the earlier parables where they needed Jesus to explain everything to them. I suspect that these parables connected with the disciples’ experience of working with Jesus. It was a wonderful and mysterious adventure, but also messy and difficult.

I think of some of the people I’ve been engaging with this week:

  • A sister fighting drug-charges who can’t get bail.
  • A brother struggling with mental illness.
  • Another brother, dealing with the death of a loved one, family breakdown and impoverishment.

It’s all a mess, so I pray and I do what I can, and it’s still a mess.

Why can’t the Kingdom of God be like a vending-machine. You put your prayer in the slot, turn the handle and out comes the answer you were looking for. It never seems to work like that. I pray and I pray, and I sweat, and I groan, and nothing happens. But then … all of a sudden, I swing around and see a great big mustard bush, complete with a chorus of tiny birds. I take another look at that lump of dough, and suddenly there’s enough bread there to feed the whole family!

The Kingdom of God is like that. It doesn’t work the way we want it to. It’s messy and difficult, but that’s all a part of the adventure. It’s a wild and unpredictable ride, but it’s still the best show in town!😉

Our Sunday Eucharist

We enjoyed another very special Sunday Eucharist last weekend.

It’s always great having Doug Pyeatt with us as he invariably comes armed with a new joke. It was a great way of starting the new week as the previous week had been a hard one for many of us. You’ll get the jokes, along with insights from Andrew Madry, Father Elias, and a rather unique presentation of one of history’s most popular hymns, in the recording below.

This Sunday we have brothers David Baldwin and Sam Madden with us live, and Graham Hood doing a pre-recorded homily for us on Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, where Paul proclaims that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

Tune in from around 11.45 am on Sunday for what should be a great session. Access us via or via Facebook , YouTubeTwitter or LinkedIn.

Let me work your corner

Thank you once again to all of you who support Fighting Fathers Ministries through your prayers and through monthly financial contributions. If you’re not contributing financially and you can afford to, it would be greatly appreciated if you could go to and sign up to either:

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  • All of the above +
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Every dollar helps keep the wheels turning – the websites, the newsletters, the broadcasts, the boxing club and the bush camp. Sign up at

What’s On?

I’m still grieving the fact that I’m not boxing tonight. I had thought that this fight was God’s provision to help me get on top of my financial situation. If any of you guys can help me get another match, it would be greatly appreciated. I don’t mind how far I have to travel or who I’m up against.

Of course, I know that many of you – my friends – have been telling me that it’s high time for me to hang up the gloves. Some of you have been telling me this for years. Perhaps you are right, but until someone can point me to a better path out of my looming insolvency, I will keep trying.

Let me end on a brighter note by sharing two articles I’ve published this week:

  •  Father Elias gave us a stunning reflection on the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds at last Sunday’s Eucharist. That homily is indeed embedded in today’s Sunday Eucharist recording but if you want it on its own, complete with a transcript, you’ll find it on the Fighting Fathers’ Member site. Click here.
  • I embedded an excellent documentary movie on my Prayers for Syria site this week. It’s called Crimes Against Syria and features many friends of mine. If you’re not clear as to what has been going on in Syria for the last ten years, this documentary will fill you in. Click here.

That’s all for today. May the Lord bless and strengthen you for the work to which you have been called.

Your brother in the Good Fight,

About Father Dave Smith

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four

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