Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (27 July 2014)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Genesis 29:15-28 & Psalm 105:1-11, 45b (or Psalm 128) [alt 1 Kings 3:5-12 & Psalm 119:129-136]
  • Romans 8:26-39
  • Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Gospel: More parables from Matthew

The notes gathered here highlight comments on the various parables from a select group of scholars.

Mustard Seed

Crossan [Historical Jesus, 276-79] treats The Mustard Seed as one of 5 parables and 7 other items that comprise a list of 12 multiply-attested complexes that refer to the kingdom of God. He notes that this is the only extant parable with triple independent attestation. He notes three “converging vectors” along which the tradition has adapted the parable as it was handed on:

(1) developing the original contrast between seed and plant to emphasize the transition from smallness to greatness; (2) transformation of the mustard plant into a substantial tree (as in Sayings Gospel Q); and (3) inter textual links with the biblical traditions such as Ps 104:12; Ezek 31:3,6; Dan 4:10-12

Crossan cites the comments on the mustard plant by Pliny the Elder (fl. 23-79 CE) in his Natural History 19.170-71:

Mustard … with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.

Citing his own earlier work on the parable (In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. Harper & Row, 1973), Crossan points out:

When one starts a parable with a mustard seed one cannot end it with a tree, much less the great apocalyptic tree, unless, of course, one plans to lampoon rather crudely the whole apocalyptic tradition. After noting the way in which mustard plants tend to proliferate in both field and garden with negative results for both, so that the Mishnah (around 200 CE) would regulate its cultivation, Crossan cites with approval Douglas Oakman’s observation: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus deliberately likens the rule of God to a weed.”

In the end, Crossan concludes:

The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover qualities. Something you would want only in small and carefully controlled doses—if you could control it.

The Mustard Seed secured a combined red and pink score of 89% in the deliberations of the Jesus Seminar, putting it just marginally behind The Leaven (see below). The notes in The Parables of Jesus. Red Letter Edition (Polebridge:1988) read as follows:

The Mustard Seed originated with Jesus because the proverbially small mustard seed is a surprising metaphor for the kingdom. In everyday usage, the proper figure for the kingdom of God is greatness, not smallness. As the parable was handed on, interpreters converted the parable into the contrast between small beginnings (small seed) and great outcome (great tree). This process can be observed in both Mark and Thomas, where the small seed becomes a great shrub or plant; in Matthew and Luke, the shrub (plant) has actually become a tree, probably under the influence of Ezekiel 17:22-23—the great cedar representing Israel. In the hands of Jesus, the Mustard Seed is a parody of the noble cedar. Subsequent interpreters transformed the modest shrub into the traditional towering tree. (p. 34)

Brandon Scott [Reimagine the World, 35-40] provides a fresh look at this parable, but I shall cite just a few observations that he poses about the nature of the Jesus tradition within the church:

… for Jesus, God’s empire is more pervasive than dominant. It is like a pungent weed that takes over everything and in which the birds of the air can nest; it bears little if any resemblance to the mighty, majestic, and noble symbol of empire of Israel or Caesar. Take your choice, says the parable. The history of this parable’s interpretation is a clear example of how Jesus’ own language betrayed him, because the tradition had a clear preference for the cedar of Lebanon … Why did the parable of the Leaven and the Mustard Plant fail in the later tradition? Why did Christian preaching so perversely misunderstand them? The fault lies in the language of the parable. In these two parables Jesus took on the fundamental assumptions of his society—and nearly every human society—about how God acts. How are we to imagine God’s activity? As leaven or unleavened? As mustard plant or mighty cedar? The tradition either pretended or preferred not to hear in parable his re-imagined God. (p. 39-40)

The Leaven

Crossan discusses this parable as one of several in the section “A Kingdom of Undesirables” (Historical Jesus, 276-82).

The essential point is “that leaven in the ancient world was a symbol of moral corruption,” according to Brandon Scott, since it was “made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp, dark place until mold forms. The bread rots and decays … modern yeast … is domesticated.” Furthermore, “in Israel there is an equation that leaven is the unholy everyday, and unleaven the holy, the sacred, the feast” (324). Once again, we are confronted with an image of the Kingdom that is immediately shocking and provocative. And it is compounded by the fact that, again from Scott, “woman as a symbolic structure was associated in Judaism, as in other Mediterranean cultures, with the unclean, the religiously impure. The male was the symbol for purity.” Furthermore, “the figurative use of hiding to describe the mixing of leaven and flour is otherwise unattested in Greek or Hebrew” (326). With mustard and darnel, then, stands another and triply shocking image for the Kingdom: a woman hiding leaven in her dough. It’s there, it’s natural, it’s normal, it’s necessary, but society has a problem with it.

In the considerations of the Jesus Seminar, this parable received the highest rating of any saying attributed to Jesus. The combined red and pink vote was 90% and not a single black vote was cast in this case. That strong vote seems to have rested primarily on the reversal of expectations when Jesus used leaven (an agent of corruption typically associated with impurity in Jewish thought) as a metaphor for God’s kingdom. Brandon Scott [Reimagine the World, 21-34] has an excellent discussion of some key dimensions to this parable. (1) the inter textual allusion of the “three measures” to Abraham’s hospitality to three anonymous sacred visitors in Genesis 18:

When the parable employs the term three measures it conjures up from the audience’s repertoire the story of Abraham and the birth of Isaac. In parable it suggests a comparison between the woman’s actions and the birth of Isaac. Now we begin to understand the difference between parabolic or oral thinking and our own literate, more abstract way of thinking. In parable “three measures” serves to compare the event of Isaac’s birth with the event of the parable. Literally and abstractly it makes little sense. But parable is a concrete way of thinking, not an abstract way. (p. 28)

(2) leaven as a symbol of decay and corruption:

In the ancient world the process of leavening frequently stood as a metaphor for moral corruption. … The New Testament contains several examples of this negative use of leaven. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus warns the disciples concerning the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod (Mark 8:15). .. Twice Paul quotes the proverb, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” … In the Hebrew Bible unleavened bread is a powerful symbol of the holy. During the feast of Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, all leavened bread was to be cleansed out of the house. When we reflect how leaven is a product of rotten bread and is associated with a corpse, we begin to see how it can serve as a powerful metaphor for corruption and how its opposite, unleavened bread, can serve as a metaphor for the sacred and holy. The very beginning of the parables with the simple word “leaven,” would throw an audience off guard and maybe into panic. For leaven is surely no correct symbol of the kingdom of God. (pp. 25-27)

(3) a woman concealed … :

In the normal process of baking one might expect a woman to be kneading the dough. There is nothing untoward about her role here. But as a parable for the kingdom of God, a woman’s role as an emblem of the sacred becomes highly problematic. Again, there is nothing wrong with the kingdom of God being hidden. But in this parable an unexpected word is used for hiding. “Concealed”—krypto (Luke) or enkrypto (Matthew)—is a much more negative term, for hiding than the more neutral kalypto. Krypto has some sense of concealment. (p. 27f)

Finally, under the delightful subheading “Kneading the parable,” Scott begins to sketch out a way of hearing this parable:

… my contention is that Jesus told parables to let people in on his experience of God. Parables were his way of making God available to them. Actually, empire of God is a symbol used to make God available to folks, to provide them with an alternative to their everyday life in the empire of Caesar or in the kingdom of Caesar’s puppet, Herod Antipas. If we listen to the parable it says something like this. “The empire of God is like moral corruption.” Well of course that is a very bad start. Most folks in Jesus’ audience would have blanched at the first term “leaven.” Perhaps they would snicker that the empire of Caesar is more like leaven. “which a woman took.” Again how can a woman, weak as she is, have anything to do with God’s empire? But if it is like leaven, then there is a certain logic, a weird logic, to the parable. “and concealed …” Does she do it while no one is looking? How can she keep it concealed? Will folks be unaware that it is leavened bread? After all most bread in the ancient world was flat bread, like tortillas or pita. “in three measures of flour …” Now we are getting somewhere. Finally an image of great size, an image appropriate to God. And this tells us we are on the right track. Three measures assures us that this is after all the empire of God. What a huge banquet she is preparing, enough for a hundred people! This is an event like the birth of Isaac. Is she preparing the messianic banquet? “until it was all leavened …” Until it has worked its way through everything, until it has corrupted the whole mass of dough. Surely such total corruption is nonsense as a way of talking about God or experiencing God. What is this about?

Scott then poses the question: “for whom would this parable be good news?” Whether or not it seems good news for me probably depends on whether I see myself as doing well under the status quo, or whether I yearn for change and freedom. The following poem by Gene Stecher explores some of the themes relating to this parable:

GIVE US TODAY A LEAVENED LOAF Nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, nothing is veiled that will not be unveiled! The Leaven was placed and no one knew, but can you miss the 50 pound flour effect? (Th 5:2, Lk 12:2; 13:20-21) The mustard seed will burst from the earth. The treasure and pearl are going to be found. Wedding garments and fruit reveal the truth. The spotlight shines on what comes out of you. (Th 20, Mt 13:44, Th 76, Mt 7:16; 22:11, Mk 7:15) The lamp goes on top of the bushel. The lost are found, whether sheep or coin. The seed ripens, and it is harvested. Log removal brings one’s friend into focus. (Lk 8:16, Lk 15:4-9, Mk 4:26, Th 26) Investment matters, so expect good gifts. The embers smolder. Uh oh, the jar is empty! The leavened demon came out screaming! This Jesus is now exalted to Lord and Messiah! (Mt 25:14, Th 97, Mt 7:9, Th 10, Lk 11:20, Acts 2:32-36) Is there any better feeling, than finding or discovering something of value that had been hidden, even rising to giddiness at seeing the hidden emerge, like when one’s ten year old daughter picks up a basketball for the first time, walks up to the playground, and knocks down shot after shot. [Gene Stecher – Chambersburg, Pa.]

The Treasure

There is a rabbinic parallel to this story:

R. Simeon b. Yohai taught [that the Egyptians were] like a man who inherited a piece of ground used as a dunghill. Being an indolent man he went and sold it for a trifling sum. The purchaser began working and digging it up and he found a treasure there out of which he built himself a fine palace. He began going about in public followed by a retinue of servants, all out of the treasure he found in it. When the seller saw it, he was ready to choke and exclaimed, “Alas, what have I thrown away?” So when Israel was in Egypt they were set to work at bricks and mortar, and they were despised in the eyes of the Egyptians. But when the Egyptians saw them encamped under their standards by the sea in military array, they were deeply mortified and exclaimed, “Alas, what have we sent forth from our land.” [Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs 4.12.1 tr. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon] (London: Soncino Press, 1939. Vol 9, pages 292-20)

The Jesus Seminar (The Parables of Jesus) voted both the Matthew and Thomas versions of this parable pink, but Matthew seems to be closer to the presumed original form. The version in Thomas is closer to the rabbinic parallel than the version in Matthew, suggesting that perhaps it has been adapted to conform to the better-known rabbinic parable. The Matthean version also has a slightly more scandalous character as the person who finds the treasure is not the rightful owner, but secures title to the treasure by deceit. This twist to the tale is also seen in parables such as 466 The Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-7). John Dominic Crossan (In Parables) suggests that The Treasure, The Pearl and The Fishnet belong together as stories that affirm the advent of God’s kingdom, describe the reversal of fortunes flowing from its arrival among us, and create new possibilities for action. He then goes on to structure his study of the parable tradition around those key descriptors: parables of advent, parable of reversal, and parables of action. He writes:

These are surely humble and everyday examples and yet they are startling in their implications. It has always been clear that Jesus criticized many of the notions open to the religious experience of his contemporaries: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes. But usually, and especially since Paul and the Reformation, it is his critique of the Law that is to the forefront. It is here suggested that the basic attack of Jesus is on an idolatry of time and that this is the center whence issued forth what Yeats called that “Galilean turbulence” which set Jesus against all the major religious options of his contemporaries. It should be quite clear that he forged a two-edged sword which strikes as lethally against his contemporary Judaism as it should have done against primitive Christianity; thereafter it was much too late. The one who plans, projects, and programs a future, even and especially if one covers the denial of finitude by calling it God’s future disclosed or disclosable to oneself, is in idolatry against the sovereign freedom of God’s advent to create one’s time and establish one’s historicity. This is the central challenge of Jesus. The geographers tell us we do not live on firm earth but on giant moving plates whose grinding passage and tortured depths give us earthquake and volcano. Jesus tells us that we do not live in firm time but on giant shifting epochs whose transitions and changes are the eschatological advent of God. It is the view of time as man’s future that Jesus opposed in the name of time as God’s presence, not as eternity beyond us but as advent within us. Jesus simply took the third commandment seriously: keep time holy! (p. 35)

 

The Pearl

The Jesus Seminar (The Parables of Jesus) simply notes that Matthew and Thomas seem to preserve independent versions of this saying, with each source developing the underlying tradition in slightly different directions. The saying was voted pink in both its versions. Another poem by Gene Stecher:

The surprise within and the systematic search among. The subject of the surprise, the subject of the searching. Pearls and treasures come from either direction. Better stay alert for the knock! or maybe we’re talking about JOY! The joy of the surprise, the joy of priceless discovery, the joy of paying the full value. A pearl in a field? Hard to find! After you rush to buy the field, the joy of walking barefoot through luscious HJ grass. But you have to pay the full value, everything you have! [Gene Stecher – Chambersburg, Pa.]

The Fishnet

There is a parallel to this story from Aesop:

A fisherman drew in the dragnet he had cast <into the sea> only a short time before. As luck would have it, it was filled with all kinds <of fish>. The small fish made for the bottom of the net and escaped through its porous mesh. The large fish were trapped and lay stretched out in the boat.

While Crossan gives this item a positive historical assessment, he notes [Historical Jesus, 350f] that it is also a prime example of the ambiguity inherent in the traditions associated with Jesus:

Nothing could illustrate more clearly the problem of deciding original materials even within the first stratum. Jesus could use a more or less proverbial or parabolic image that is radical only in its application, namely, that his vision, his message, or his challenge is as obvious, ordinary, or necessary as this or that action. It is as clear as a fisherman choosing the better fish or a harvester choosing the right moment to begin reaping. But the transmission could just as easily interpret common sense as sapiential mystery hidden from the dawn of creation or eschatological secret to be revealed at the imminent eschaton. Jesus, like all the Cynics, would claim that their life was simply the wisdom of common sense open to all with eyes to see and ears to hear

The Jesus Seminar (The Parables of Jesus) notes that both versions of this parable were given a black vote as the saying seems to originate from the common lore of the ancient world:

The Fishnet, like the Planted Weeds, reflects the necessity of the young Christian movement to mark off its social boundaries from the larger world, hence the interest in sorting out the good from the bad. The separation to take place at the close of the age (Matt 13:49-50) is a typical Matthean theme and represents the way he understood the parable. (p. 70)

The Kingdom’s Scribe

The Jesus Seminar report on this item in The Five Gospels reads as follows:

This saying has probably been composed by Matthew as the conclusion to his collection of parables. For Matthew, scholars schooled in Heaven’s imperial rule will understand the parables in much the same way that the disciples respond in this exchange. The toastmaster at a banquet produces both mature and young wine from a large cellar (drawing images and stories, old and new, from a large repertoire and then explaining what they mean for those present). This is the way Jesus tells and explains parables according to Matthew. (p. 198)

Jesus Database

  • 035 The Mustard Seed – (1) GThom. 20:1-2; (2) 1or2?Q: Luke 13:18-19 = Matt 13:31-32; (3) Mark 4:30-32 = Matt 13:31-32
  • 104 The Leaven – (1) GThom. 96:1; (2) 1or2?Q: Luke 13:20-21 = Matt 13:33

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean-elect, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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