Readings: Matthew 13; Luke 8-13
“The Gospel authors, in their brains, left most of these parables as receptive narratives to be able to tempt us to engagement together. Each reader will hear a distinct message and might find that the same parable leaves several opinions over the years…. Reducing parables into a single meaning destroys their aesthetic in addition to moral potential. This surplus of significance is the way poetry and storytelling function, and it’s all to the good. ”
–Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus
This week we launch in the Kingdom Parables–those short narratives where Jesus tries to eff the ineffable and provide ordinary mortals a frame of reference to speaking about the Kingdom of God. This is beyond a tough market. The Kingdom that Jesus spent the majority of his ministry talking about is the earthly kingdom, but it’s like no earthly realm which has ever been around, and its governing logic is totally foreign to normal humankind.
But we must watch this to be it, so Jesus tells us about the components –similar to the blind men describing the elephant at the famous poem from John Godfrey Saxe. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom begins little and becomes a place of refuge; such as a fishing net, it pulls in everyone and yells back what it can not keep; like a great treasure, a person who knows about it’s going to be ready to sacrifice everything to receive it. And so on. All of these are incomplete and imperfect, but each one of them contributes something to this film, and, if we add them all up, we may have the ability to imagine the entire elephant.
The parables, then, are instructing tools, right? Illustrative stories that Jesus uses to make difficult things simpler to understand. Right?
But that is not what Jesus says in Matthew 13. In Reality, in one of those temptations that I have struggled with for much of my own life, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, and he says:
And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He replied and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it isn’t given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him will be taken away even that he hath.Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see notand hearing they hear not, neither do they know. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall find, and shall not perceive: (Matt. 13:10-14)
So that clears up things. The entire purpose of using parables is to make certain people have a more difficult time understanding that the concept because, for whatever reason, Jesus seemingly wants the people he’s instructing to not have any idea what he’s talking about. Plausible deniability maybe? Or a key code to the righteous?
It was not until I read Amy-Jill Levine’s epicly amazing book Short Stories from Jesus that I have a sense of the answer to this question. From the introduction to this book, which is quoted in the epigraph, Levine explains that the entire purpose of parables on earth of the New Testament is to educate in a way that instills simple efforts to repair the meaning of the lesson. Parables are not supposed to mean only 1 thing. A parable provides us infinite interpretive possibilities–without which one could never attempt an expression of something as hard to define as the Kingdom of God.
Let’s just look at one example–maybe not the longest or most famous parable in Matthew 13, one whose significance splashes around and rolls enough other parables to ensure it is a very really fantastic way to start a discussion of how to read them all. In Matthew 13:33, Jesus says,
The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
So that’s the Kingdom of Heaven for you. Yeast. A smelly little chemical agent that interacts with the flour and leaves the break bloated. However, like leaven, this parable extends to satisfy a good deal of space. Here are four unique ways that we can consider the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of leaven. All these are neither exhaustive nor always compatible with one another. But they each name part of this Large, bready, yeasty elephant that we are attempting to specify:
Interpretation: 1: The Kingdom of Heaven Makes Everything Better
The very first, and undoubtedly the most frequent interpretation of the Parable is that, like leaven, people that consciously work to make the Kingdom make the whole world better. They are agents of change who interact with plain old flour to lift it up and allow it to be better than it ever knew it might be. This resonates with Jesus’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount that the Chosen People must be”the salt of the earth” and”the light of earth.” Leaven functions in much the same way. It does very little for itself and quite a lot for everything it touches.
This interpretation of this parable really interacts with lots of the other parables in Matthew 13 and changes how we read . It is necessary that the woman in the parable does not only use leaven; she hides it, in much the exact identical way that the fantastic treasure hidden in the field (13:44). However, the leaven is not buried; it is hidden in plain sight since, until it’s cooked, the leaven (that is really something nearer to sourdough starter than the packets of yellow yeast we all know and love) looks like the dough. And making it kind of just similar to the wheat among the tares (13:24-30) and the good fish among the terrible ones (13:47-48).
In all 3 instances –wheat/tares, excellent fish/bad fish, along with leaven/dough–something good is concealed among other things which look just like that. However, the leaven parable works differently compared to another two. Even the tares are burned in a furnace along with the unwelcome fish are thrown back in the ocean (which is arguably the greater fate). The allegories definitely separate the”good,” who are spared, from the”poor,” that are cast away.
But leaven doesn’t work like that. There is no point at which the leaven is separated from the dough and stored while the rest of the dough has been thrown away. And who’d want that? Yeast does not taste good alone. The leaven blends with the dough in a way that cannot be undone, and it really changes the chemical composition of the whole mixture. It makes the bread better by becoming a part of it, also by the end of the procedure, there’s no longer”leaven” and”flour,” there is just excellent bread that’s been made by the action of this leaven.
And that, perhaps, is the way to build the Kingdom of Heaven.
Interpretation 2: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Rich and Generous
The easiest means to misread this parable would be to presume that”three measures” of flour is something similar to”three cups” It’s much, much more. Even the NIV actually eliminates the chance of making this error by copying”three steps” into its modern equivalent of”roughly 60 lbs.” This is the type of thing that everyone in Jesus’s audience would have known but that most of us overlook: the woman was making a great deal of bread.
And we can not discount the simple fact that Jesus gives this very particular amount here–it needs to be significant. Otherwise he could have only said that the girl was making bread. But she had been making 60 lbs of bread–far greater than their family members could have eaten before it spoiled. She had been making bread for some different men and women. And she had been making them the great stuff. Leaven isn’t needed for bread (unleavened bread was really a big thing back then). She had been giving her time and her talents to nourish different individuals in a way that strongly implies luxury, abundance, as well as generosity. Can the Kingdom of God be all these things too?
Interpretation 3: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Not Uptight about Stuff
It ended up being a necessity for Second Temple Jews to remove all leaven from their houses during Passover and eat only unleavened bread. Leavened bread was not sinful or anything. You can eat it in the past season. Nevertheless, it wasn’t as great, ritually speaking, because the flat, dull cracker-like stuff which you were supposed to eat at Passover. A part of this audience might reasonably have anticipated Jesus, when he was going to say that the Kingdom of God was such as bread, to mention that it was like unleavened bread.
So maybe this is (too ) the purpose. Perhaps Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God is like something that is not part of the strict, ritualistic, regulatory components of a religion–but the joyous, abundant, and celebratory part. This would surely be harmonious with the rest of Jesus’s ministry, in which he insists that things such as sacrifices, sabbath observance, and inflexible adherence to a dietary code wouldn’t construct the Kingdom. Neither would the Word of Wisdom, the Law of Chastity, also committing tithing–all things which could reasonably be called the unleavened breads of the faith.
Maybe the Kingdom functions on different principles than we think it will. Perhaps God is not as worried about most that material than we are. And possibly the pearls of amazing price are for something other than clutching.
Interpretation 4: The Kingdom of Heaven Isn’t a Gendered Space
It’s not an injury that the Parable of the Leaven follows directly in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Both parables have a very similar assortment of meanings, but the stem from two different spheres. Mustard seeds and mustard plants are part of those (for now ) very male sphere of work and agriculture. Leaven and bread originated in the (for the time) very feminine world of preparing meals and sustaining family. The two viewpoints are given equal weight and equal importance. It’s possible that they have to be combined with each other to understand what Jesus is really describing.
And this is the stage. Maybe why both of these tales occur in parallel is nothing about the Kingdom of Heaven could be explained from a single, gendered cultural world because dividing up the world into gendered cultural spheres is that the logic of earth rather than the logic of the Kingdom. Maybe human beings that are working to build the Kingdom need to step out of these spheres and be completely human. And maybe, just possibly, sex is much less endless as we all like to trust.
And perhaps I am wrong about what. I am certainly not inclusively accurate. It might be just as silly to say that a parable means just four things as to state that it signifies only one. The array of translation for all of Jesus’s parables is infinite–because the thing they’re attempting to describe is boundless. Along with”having ears to hear” means something more than just being vaguely spiritually in song. “Having ears” means being willing to do the difficult work to examine, re-read, research, and interpret the multitudes of things which thee marvelous stories mean.