“All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable.” (Matthew 13:34)

“He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” (Mark 4:33)

“And when he was alone, those who were with him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, `To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.’” (Mark 4:10-11)

Jesus: teacher and storyteller

Jesus was a teacher. During his lifetime his followers, opponents and even interested inquirers regularly addressed him as ‘teacher.’ His teaching involved a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom that lay at the core of the first-century Jewish social world. It remains a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom of twentieth-century America, including the Church of our day.

Jesus was also a master storyteller. He used stories and images in his teaching to make a point. The gospels are filled with his stories, metaphors, similes, proverbs, and even riddles. The parable is a type of story. The English word parable comes from the Greek word parabole, which means ‘to place along side.’ So a parable compares one thing to another. In the gospels, they are specifically used to compare some aspect of common, everyday life to some reality of the kingdom of God.

myths and parables

John Dominic Crossan has defined the parable as a story form that is the polar opposite of a myth. In this sense, a myth does not mean a story that is not true, or a story that is about gods and goddesses. Myths are the stories that we live by. They embody the conventional wisdom and the values of our culture. Myths create a sense of order in the world by turning randomness into pattern so that it is understandable.

reversal of expectations

The function of parable is to challenge myths. Myth creates a worldview; parable undercuts that worldview. It does so by challenging the expectations raised in humankind by myth.

A structural analysis of a simple myth and a parable reveals the following structure:

Chart of myth structure

To put it in the simplest terms, as human beings we come to expect certain givers to give good gifts to certain good receivers, and to give bad gifts to certain other receivers. The good gifts might be designated O+ (a positive object), and the bad gifts O- (a negative object). Similarly, the good receivers can be termed R+ and the bad receivers R-. Myth establishes and reinforces these expectations.

Chart of parable structure

Imagine our surprise to find that the good object (O+) actually goes to a ‘bad’ receiver (R-) and the bad object (O-) to a ‘good’ receiver (R+) in some particular story. The reversal makes that story a parable because it entails a reversal of expectations. Myths establish and nourish a particular world in which contradictions and frustrations are reconciled; parables undermine that world by frustrating expectations and turning things upside down.

“Two people went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast once a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:10-14a)

In the parables that he told, Jesus seems to be saying to his listeners; whatever you hope for, whatever you want, whatever you think you should have — the kingdom is not that! It always comes as a surprise!

themes in the parables

Jesus intertwines a series of themes in the parables. They have to do with the nature of God, the nature of religion, and the nature of the new order God was bringing about.

Jesus paints a picture of the nature of God and of the religious observance that God desires. Jesus describes God as a gracious and compassionate parent, contrasting this view to the conventional wisdom of his day that held that God was a judge with strict requirements, rewards and punishment.

He describes true religion as a life of compassionate service rather than a system of holiness to be found through correct beliefs, practices and absolute moral codes.

He illustrates the new order God is creating in the midst of the old. The kingdom community is based on values of inclusiveness, equality, sharing, and forgiveness. Care for the lost, compassion for the poor, and love for all are signs of the kingdom.

So Jesus began to teach the people. And he spoke to them in parables.

Then he would say, “What is the kingdom of God like? What does it remind me of? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and tossed in the garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky roosted in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19)

Jesus’ parables were intended to subvert the distorted myths by which people live their lives. In some cases these myths are an attempt to resolve the tensions of everyday life by promising an idealized future in which one will be rescued from all the problems of ordinary life.

parable of the mustard seed

For the people of Jesus’ time, the tension between everyday reality and a mythical vision of Israel as God’s chosen people was felt with particular urgency. From the heyday of national power and prestige during the reigns of King David and King Solomon, Israel had been on a downhill slide for several centuries, its kingdom conquered and divided several times over. The Jewish people looked forward to the day when God would act to reverse this trend. They looked for aglorious new age of universal peace, with God’s chosen people at the head of the nations. In the particular myth in which the people of first-century Israel were living, the new age had specific connotations of power, triumph, holiness, and goodness.

The cultural symbol for this myth was the great cedar of Lebanon. Cedars of Lebanon were comparable to the huge redwood trees of California. They grew straight up for two or three hundred feet or more. Every kind of bird could enjoy their shade. This image was deeply embedded in the cultural conditioning of the Jewish people. The kingdom of God as a nation would be the greatest of all nations just as the great cedar of Lebanon was the greatest of all trees.

Instead, Jesus proposed this parable, “What is the kingdom of God really like? It is like a mustard seed”—proverbially the smallest and most insignificant of all seeds—“that someone took and sowed in his garden.

A mustard plant, a common weed, was forbidden in a household garden because it was fast spreading and would tend to invade the vegetables. In the Jewish view of the world, order was identified with holiness and disorder with uncleanness. Hence there were very strict rules about what could be planted in a household garden. The rabbinical law of diverse kinds ruled that one could not mix certain plants in the same garden. In stating that this man threw a mustard seed in his garden, the hearers are alerted to the fact that he was doing something illegal. An unclean image thus becomes the starting point for Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God in this parable.

If the starting point is an unclean image, the rest of the parable becomes even more perplexing. What do we know about a mustard seed, botanically speaking? It is a common, fast-spreading plant, which grows to about four feet in height. It puts out a few branches. No self-respecting bird would build a nest in this puny shrub. At best, a few birds might rest in its shade.

Steeped in their cultural images of the great cedar of Lebanon, the hearers would be expecting the mustard seed, Jesus’ symbol of the kingdom, to grow into a mighty apocalyptic tree. Jesus’ point is exactly the opposite. It just becomes a bush. Thus the image of the kingdom of God as a towering cedar of Lebanon is subverted. Once again, Jesus’ listeners are frustrated. According to Jesus, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which some man illegally planted in his garden. It became a shrub and a few birds nested in its modest branches. That’s all. The parable subverts all the grandiose ideas about what the kingdom is going to be like when it finally arrives.

One of the most firmly held Israelite expectations was that the kingdom of God would manifest the final triumph of God in history. Its arrival, heralded by the long-awaited Messiah, would rescue Israel from its miserable subservience to the Roman Empire. It was a future kingdom, not one in the here-and-now. The kingdom, according to Jesus, will not fulfill our expectations. It is not something great and glorious. It will not arrive with fanfare and trumpets. It will simply appear in the midst of ordinary life. And to most people it will be so insignificant that they will not even notice its presence. In this parable Jesus show us that we do not have to wait for an apocalyptic deliverance. We do not have to wait for a grandiose liberation. The kingdom is available right now. It is here in our midst and we do not even realize it.

A parable points to something we only gradually come to know as we absorb the teaching of Jesus. In this parable he intimates that God is not necessarily going to intervene in this world for the triumph of the just. God will not intervene in an apocalyptic manner to deliver Israel or bring about justice and peace. God has entrusted the job to us. We are not to wait around for an apocalyptic intervention to do the job. We are simply to get on with it.

So hard was it for people of Jesus’ time to get over their idea of the kingdom of God as a triumphant institution that even the evangelists tried to change it into something great anyway. In other words, the myth recaptured the parable. The parable was meant to change one’s idea about the kingdom, but what happened was that the old mindset began to interpret the parable in a way that was consistent with its former mythical expectations.

There are four versions of this parable in the gospels, three in the synoptics and one in the Gospel of Thomas, a document recovered about fifty years ago in the Nag Hammadi Gnostic collection, which many scholars think is closer in some places to the original oral tradition. For Luke and Matthew, contrary to all botanical good sense, the mustard seed does turn into a tree. In Mark, it turns into the greatest of shrubs. In Thomas, it turns into a great branch so that a lot of birds can rest in its shade. All of these expectations are contrary to the facts. A mustard seed does not become a tree, the greatest of shrubs, or put forth a great branch, however much one may want it to. The oral tradition was evidently influenced by the old expectations of grandeur as people gradually slipped back into their former mindsets. They lost the radical thrust and the incredible freedom to which the parable called them. For us too, it is a threat to our preconceived ideas and mythical belief systems, and hence there is a strong tendency to resist its stark realism.

If we are looking for a great expansion of our particular religion, nation, ethnic group, social movement, or whatever, into some great visible organization that fills the earth, we are on the wrong track. This is not God’s idea of success. Where are the mightiest works of the kingdom accomplished? In our attitudes and hence in secret. Where there is compassion, there is God. Opportunities to work for the homeless, the starving, the aging, are all readily available. No one may notice our good deeds, including ourselves. The kingdom of God manifests itself in the modest changes in our attitudes and in the little improvements in our behavior that no one may notice, including ourselves. These are the mighty works of God, not great external accomplishments.

parable of the leaven

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a women took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until all of it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21)

Modern people often think of leaven in a positive sense — fermentation, new life and growth. But for the people of Israel, leaven — today’s yeast — was a symbol of uncleanness and corruption. In ancient times leaven was made by placing a piece of bread in a dark, damp place until it rotted, molded and stank. Both leaven and the process of leavening were symbols of corruption. Leavened bread (our daily bread) was the symbol of the unholy, the profane, a sign of everyday life. Unleavened bread was the proper symbol of the holy, the sacred, the religious feast.

In this parable the leaven is kneaded into a large amount of dough and in time the whole batch becomes leavened. The amount of flour, three measures or fifty pounds, is the same amount that Sarah used to make bread for the three angels that visited Abraham at Mamre. Thus there is in this story the possibility of preparation for a divine epiphany, or revelation of God’s presence. What’s more, the enormous amount of dough suggests that what is taking place is not just ordinary corruption but monumental corruption. The kingdom of God will not take place where people are concerned about remaining holy and uncorrupted by the world. Reaching out in love, compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness is more important in God’s eyes than moral incorruption.

In this parable Jesus again confronts the popular idea that the kingdom of God is holy, good and triumphant. The kingdom turns out to be active in the ordinary, almost unnoticeable aspects of life.

The leaven itself is not visible in the dough, but the effect of its action is gradually noticeable, sometimes taking us by surprise. God’s action in our lives is not always obvious. In this parable Jesus points out that God does not operate in the world by great signs and wonders. There may be no great deliverance, no sensational conversion. God’s action in our lives is present in a very real but often hidden way. The kingdom of God is found in small changes. The power of God’s kingdom manifests itself by changing our inner dispositions and attitudes. The kingdom is present when our hearts are transformed so that our relationships with other people become transformed. The kingdom is active when we begin to turn our backs on domination, greed, power, and violence. It is found when we begin to live out God’s vision of acceptance, compassion, sharing and reconciliation. Small mundane acts of love are signs of the kingdom. We are left with the hope of transformation without any experience of it happening.