One day, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why do you use parables when you speak to the crowds?”
And he replied, “Because they haven’t received the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but you have. Although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand. What Isaiah prophesied has become completely true for them:
You will hear, to be sure, but never understand; and you will certainly see but never recognize what you are seeing. For this people’s senses have become calloused, and they’ve become hard of hearing, and they’ve shut their eyes so that they won’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears or understand with their minds, and change their hearts and lives that I may heal them.”
Jesus tells parables to get through to people whose senses have become calloused. They are people who have heard too many lies, too many promises that evaporated into thin air, too many speeches that only add heat and noise to the debate. They are people who have seen too much of the heart-breaking stuff; now their eyes are clouded with the cataracts of cynicism and despair, and they can’t see the things that heal. Jesus tells parables to crack the shells of our imagination and allow us to glimpse the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.
In many ways, parables are like jokes: you either get them or you don’t; and if you don’t, no amount of explanation will make you laugh – and making you laugh is the point, after all. Perhaps you have seen the clip of the Dalai Lama who was interviewed on a morning news show a few weeks ago. The reporter wanted to lighten things up a little bit by telling a joke – opening line: The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop. Simple enough intro, you’d think, except that the Dalai Lama sitting in the studio apparently has no idea what a pizza shop is. With a puzzled look he turns to his translator for help, who probably tells him something about a bakery, pies, crusts, and toppings, who knows.
The Dalai Lama nods and the reporter resumes telling his joke.
The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop. “Make me one with everything.”
That’s the whole joke, and it’s actually quite funny – if you know a little bit about ordering pizza and the basic tenets of buddhism. If you don’t, you just stare at the reporter waiting to hear how the story might continue or wondering if he is quite right in his head.
A snowman walks into a bar. “I smell a carrot. Do you smell a carrot?”
I love that joke, but I wouldn’t want to explain it to a kid who’s never seen a snowman.
Now back to Jesus. Jesus tells parables to heal our calloused senses so that we might perceive the secrets of the world of God’s reign. And just like any joke is embedded in a culture, so is every parable.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make their nests in its branches.
Now you can call a mustard plant a shrub or a bush, but nobody in their right mind would call it a tree. It grows about five feet tall, maybe six in a good year, or even nine, but only if you coddle it because you want to take it to the Tallest Mustard Plant Competition at the county fair – and even at nine feet tall it’s still only a scrawny, twiggy thing. If you want to talk about a tree, you don’t start with mustard seed. Everybody knows that.
The prophet Ezekiel compared Israel’s powerful neighbor to the north, Assyria, to a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds. The waters nourished it, the deep made it grow tall, making its rivers flow around the place it was planted, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. So it towered high above all the trees ... All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived.
In Israel’s imagination, trees represented the great empires of Assyria, of Egypt, Babylonia, and Rome, and in Jesus’ day, many hoped that God’s coming kindom would be the most magnificent tree of all: it would be the very tree of life with the nations of the world finding peace and security in its shade, together with the birds of the air and the animals of the field. Trees with birds in them had become symbols of hope, hope that in the end God’s reign would prevail on earth.
I remember a story from Uruguay, about a teacher and his daughter. During the years of military rule, the teacher was thrown in prison for what the generals called subversive activity. He hadn’t planned an assassination, nor had he been part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government; he was imprisoned for teaching history and literature. He was fortunate, though, because his 7-year-old daughter was allowed to come and visit him once a week. On one of her first visits, she brought him a picture she had drawn the night before at his desk at home: it was a tree with it’s top touching the clouds, and birds flying in the sky and perching on the branches. However, her dad didn’t get to see it, because the guards took the picture away from her. Birds were considered subversive, free as they were to fly anywhere they wanted in a sky without borders—they might give the people the wrong ideas.
A week later the little girl returned with another drawing. It was a beautiful tree, tall, with strong branches, lush and green, and the sun was smiling in the sky. The sun had not yet been put on the index of banned images, and so the girl was able to give her dad the picture.
“Thank you, darling, this is the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. Is it a cherry tree?” he asked, pointing at a number of small red dots among the leaves.
“Shhh, Papa,” she said, “those are the eyes of the birds. They live in the tree, and when the guards aren’t watching, they fly!”
The tree with birds in it was a symbol of resilience, freedom and hope, and the guards were clueless.
When we hear the story of the mustard seed and the tree with birds in it, we might think, at first, that it is about the contrast of small beginnings and wonderful endings, but it is about more. Perhaps farmers in Jesus’ day actually did grow mustard to eat the greens or use the seeds as medicine. Perhaps they knew about mustard as a rotation crop that helps improve the soil; if so, they had to get it plowed under before the plants seeded—otherwise their fields would produce very little that year except a bumper crop of mustard. I think of mustard as the perfect weed—invasive, fast-growing, drought-resistant, and impossible to control. It begins with a seed only slightly bigger than a pin head, and before you know it, it’s taken over your field and garden.
Jesus tells a parable with mustard in it. Yes, the mighty tree of God’s reign on earth begins with the tiniest of seeds, but this is about more than small things growing tall. For that kind of story any kind of seed would do, but Jesus tells a parable with mustard in it. Mustard is a necessary ingredient here, and there’s nothing mighty or majestic about mustard. It grows everywhere, not just on the hights of Lebanon or the seven hills of Rome or by the great rivers of Egypt or Babylon. It doesn’t just grow in the places where power tends to be at home, no, it grows like a weed wherever the tiny seeds get dropped. It is invasive, fast-growing, drought-resistant, impossible to control, and common as crab grass and thistles.
I don’t know if I get this parable, but what I’m beginning to hear and see is an incredible affirmation of common men and women. The oaks of righteousness don’t sprout from acorns, genetically engineered in the lab and pampered in beds of privilege in the greenhouses of power. No, the great tree of God’s reign on earth begins with ordinary seed, common as mustard and just as invasive. Ordinary men and women, inspired by Jesus to live as citizens of God’s reign, are part of the transformation of the world that will abide when all empires have fallen. Every small act of love and compassion matters. Every unsung moment of forgiveness, every little word of encouragement matters. God’s reign is like a weed that finds the tiniest crack in the concrete and it grows and nothing can stop it until the birds of the air make nests in its shade.
After this, Jesus takes us from the field to the kitchen.
“The kingdom of heaven,” he says, “is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
If you’ve never baked with yeast or sourdough, you need to give it a shot. Popping a can of ready-to-bake cinnamon rolls makes nice enough rolls in the morning, but it’s not much of a parable. To get the meaning of leaven, you must have seen and smelled and felt it at least once.
For bread, all you need is flour, water, yeast, and a little salt. You make the dough and you place it in the bottom of a bowl. It looks great, a little dense, perhaps, and heavy, and it doesn’t smell much like anything. Now you cover the bowl with a clean dish towel, and then you go and watch the news, walk the dog, or take a nap. You just give it time.
An hour later you come back to the kitchen, and it smells lovely: fresh and tangy, like somebody squirted a little lemon in the air. Then you notice the kitchen towel: it doesn’t just hang over the bowl, no, it rests on a perfectly rounded mound of dough that is light and springy, and touching it makes you think about baby skin.
The parable works with this beautiful image of slow, barely noticable and powerful transformation, and it doesn’t begin in a palace or a board room on Wall Street. It begins in the kitchen, the garden, the field – it begins with you and me. It begins with our ordinary days that suddenly become transparent to reveal the kingdom of heaven. And finally we begin to see.
 Matthew 13:10-15 (CEB)
 See Ezekiel 31:2-9; see also Daniel 4:10-12