In my last blog entry I shared a fun exercise learned from Dr. Doug Adams of the Pacific School of Religion. He suggested that if we want to ascertain the humor of Jesus’ parables we need to switch out the everyday examples of his time and world and replace them with everyday examples of our own. We will then not only realize that Jesus was indeed funny and why “parables” are synonymous with “riddles”, surprising and clever. We also start to appreciate why Jesus so strangely announced in the gospels right off the bat the reason he was going to teach in parables: “So you will listen but never understand, look but never perceive….” Riddles by their very nature offend and subvert our “proper” sense of reality, whether it’s a child’s pun like, “When is a chair like an expensive scarf? When it’s satin!”, or something a little more grown-up like, “What’s the difference between savings bonds and men? Savings bonds mature.” ....
Maybe what Jesus was suggesting was not that his audience wasn’t going to understand what he was talking about when he compared the Kingdom of God to an assortment of seemingly mundane experiences of everyday life, or that Jesus somehow wanted the people to misunderstand, it’s that they weren’t going to be laughing at his offensive, subversive punch lines. And/or the nature of the incoming Kingdom he shockingly, slyly implied.
I have taken Dr. Adams up on his suggestion and made contemporary parallels to the three brief parables shared in Matthew 13 24-33 (which comprise this Sunday’s lectionary gospel reading btw).
The first, “The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds,” comes to the contemporary ear perhaps a little more sharply in every way if we hear it like this:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who planted MSN on cable television to bring the correct perspective on world events to viewers 24-7. But while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and plopped Fox News into the channel just next to it. This is how it must be until the end of time for without Fox News MSN will die. (Matt 13:24-30)
Whether we like the truth it speaks or not, this parable (and its punch line) are pretty self-explanatory.
When it comes to the next parable, “The Mustard Seed,” it helps to know that mustard plants were experienced in the ancient world as noxious weeds, nightmarishly virile and requiring the farmer’s most diligent efforts to contain growth even if at the end of the day such efforts proved futile. Mustard plants had a way of growing, growing and growing, making life a living hell hell hell!
So here’s my parallel parable:
The kingdom of heaven is like a head louse that someone sowed into a child’s scalp, and although it is the smallest of creatures, before anyone knows it the child’s whole head becomes a safe haven for lice and a nest for its young. (Matt. 13:31-2)
Ychh! No wonder no one understands or perceives…at least wants to!!
And here’s what I posit for a contemporary parallel to the “Parable of the Leaven.” Again, it’s helpful to remember that for the ancient Jewish hearer, “leaven” is not considered a desirable thing; it was unleavened bread that reminded the people they were holy and specially chosen by God. In fact, even Paul refers to “leaven” as an analogy to sin. For example in 1 Corinthians 5:8 - “Let us celebrate not with the leaven of malice and evil but with unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” What does it mean that Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a woman putting all sorts of sinful leaven into her dough?
Maybe something with as odious implications as this:
The kingdom of heaven is like high fructose corn syrup that a woman mixes into her English muffin, roll, white and wheat bread dough; her pizza sauce, tomato sauce, barbeque sauce and catsup; her soft drinks (except for diet), fruit drinks, breakfast cereals, lunch meats, dinner sausage, macaroni and cheese, boxed meals, packaged lunch meals, low-fat and low-calorie salad dressings, yogurt (even many called “all natural” and “organic”), liquid cough suppressants and expectorants (especially those designed to appeal to children)…. (Matt. 13:33)
It would seem that all of these parables intend to offend all of us as they describe who's "in" and who's "out" of God's Kingdom, as well as what we can expect once that glorious realm comes to Earth. If we’re not scratching our heads (and yes, risking the discovery of new nits allegorical or otherwise), we’re not getting the point...and getting Jesus’ grimy jokes. If we’re not wanting to hurl some rotten produce at him even as he continues to use the world of agriculture to turn the rest of the world upside down, we’re not on our way to salvation.
I’m still trying to work up a faint titter. How about you?