Reversal of human priorities is a common theme in parables of the kingdom and they are meant to shock. Whenever you hear the phrase, “The Kingdom of God is like,” sit down and hold on because the illustration is going to be different than human standards of power and might. What are some of the “The Kingdom of God is like” parables?
One example is, “You are the salt of the earth.”
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. Matthew 5:13
Many Jews like the Essenes believed they needed to separate themselves from society. The Qumran community believed one had to withdraw from society. They had a two-year novitiate and then they lived the rest of their life in the cloister. In Jesus’ day one would go along the shore of the Dead Sea and see crystallized salt that was mixed with windblown dust called loess soil. The lumps of crystallized salt and soil were put in bags and sold on the market. After it was purchased, it was put on a plate and placed on the dining room table (both dirt and salt mixed together.) The white pieces were picked out of the mixed lump and sprinkled on food. When the lump of mixed dirt and salt “lost its flavor” it means there was no more salt in the lump, only the dirt remained, since salt does not lose its flavor. When the lump “lost its flavor” because no more salt crystals remained, it was cast out into the street since it was dirt.
Jesus took something that was commonly known in that day to illustrate that “you are to be the flavor and preserver of the earth.” We are not to be ashen, ascetic figures that bring dread wherever we look, but rather we are to bring flavor and life. Jesus’ notion of “kingdom” is that you mix with the world and be a light to those in darkness.
There were complaints that John the Baptist lived alone in the desert while Jesus attended public feasts. Jesus said to those who complained, “You are just like kids in the market.” (Some kids at play, for example, said we wanted to play wedding, but you did not want to play wedding. Then we wanted to play funeral but you did not want to play funeral.) The complaints about John the Baptist vs. Jesus demonstrated their immaturity; they just wanted to find something to complain about. Some did not like John, some did not like Jesus. Jesus encouraged his disciples to bring the kingdom by being preservers of the earth just like salt is a preserver. The kingdom is mixed and not withdrawn from the community.
Most Jews believed that one should not have dialogue with Samaritans because they were not kosher and did not worship the “right way.” Jesus’ parable about the man on the Jerusalem-Jericho road says that “a Samaritan helped.” The people were supposed to realize that the proper questions were not “Who is my neighbor? Who qualifies for my time, my gifts, and my energy?” When asked this question Jesus answered “Any one in need is your neighbor.” The breadth of Christian witness and service is to translate beyond language, culture, and religion. The question that should have been asked is “To whom can I be a neighbor?”
In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus illustrated to his disciples the crossing of social, religious, and gender barriers. The woman’s life was so changed that she left her water jug at the well in her haste to get back to tell others in the town what Jesus had done.
Then there is the parable of the sower. A sower of a congregation should not sow just where they expect to harvest (not only where statistics or desires say there should be new members). There are four different types of receptivity described in this parable. When Jesus and the disciples were back at Peter’s mother-in-law’s house in Capernaum, they asked Jesus what this parable meant. The seed is the word of God and there will be different responses to the word of God. Some land is flat with nice furrows where the seed can be sown, placed intentionally in the right spots. Then there is broadcast sowing. Near the periphery of the field, the wind blows the seed and sometimes it falls on rocky soil. Between the rocks there is a little bit of soil. Most of you would advise to forget trying to sow seed in this field in Judea where there is a beaten path and rocky ground. The sower realizes that you don’t sow only where you expect to harvest. It is true that hard rocky soil is not very receptive, but there are exceptions. You never know what people are ready to receive. Also, when a parable begins, “What do you think?” it also means you should sit down and hold on.
In another parable of a different farmer (Matthew 13:24-30): The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who sowed wheat in the fields and later someone came and sowed weeds (darnel). To understand this parable, you need to know that wheat and darnel look very similar same when they begin to sprout. The servants come and say, “Master didn’t you sow wheat in the field? Why is all this darnel there? Why don’t we pull out the darnel now, while it is young?” This seemed like good practical advice, pull out the weeds before the roots take hold. What did Jesus have the farmer say? The farmer says, “No, let’s wait until harvest time.” Stupid farmer – this meant extra work for the servants to pull out the mature weeds, when it would be so much easier to pull them out now. But God is like a stupid farmer! Jesus has the farmer explain his decision. If you pull out the weeds next to the wheat when it is young, you might uproot some wheat as well because the wheat does not have a solid root system yet. You also might mistake wheat and darnel, because they look similar when they are young, and pull up some wheat. If you wait until the harvest when the plants are mature, as in this picture, you can tell the difference between the wheat and darnel. Of course this meant extra work for the servants. In human values, they would do what is easier. In God’s values, every single grain of wheat is important. The point of this parable is that every single grain of wheat is important and every individual is important in the Kingdom of God, and you are less likely to lose any wheat if you wait until the time of the harvest.
What I like about this parable is that it means God understands late bloomers. Some of us are not ready and our roots are shallow. God has the time and says let’s wait until harvest time.
God is like another stupid farmer who planted mustard in his garden and allowed it to grow (Matthew 13:31-32). It got so big that birds built nests in it. Today, in our culture, we might ask “What is wrong with a mustard plant, and birds? In Israel, Mustard is actually a weed, and it is called field mustard. No one in their right mind plants mustard in their garden. The word “garden” is used in this parable rather than “field” because it means a vegetable garden next to the house. Mustard would be allowed to grow in a field but it would never be planted in a cultivated garden. On hearing this parable, everyone would be scratching their head saying, “The farmer planted field mustard in his garden? What a stupid farmer! You must keep mustard out of your garden!” What is Jesus doing with this kingdom parable? We very easily put certain species in categories of weeds and pests and don’t want them. Gardens have two enemies – field mustard (weeds) and birds (pests). The birds eat the berries and the seeds. The last thing a farmer wants to do is to encourage the mustard to get so high that pests are all around the garden. “What do you think?” Kingdom values are not quickly labeled as weeds or pests. God likes all of creation – thank God! God likes persons even in our pest-like moments.
The story in John 21 at the Sea of Galilee after the resurrection reminds me of this. In John 21, there is this statement, “There were one-hundred and fifty three fish.” Why would anyone need to know how many fish there were? We are helped to understand this by Pliny, who wrote Historia Naturalis in about 20 C.E. Pliny listed one hundred and fifty three species of fish, which is the number of species of fish that people of the first century believed there were. The story is saying they caught as many fish as there are varieties of fish. In this setting, after the resurrection, they are about to become “fishers of persons” who, when they overcome their prejudices, will catch as many persons as there are varieties of persons. They will not say this kind of person is a weed and this kind of person is a pest. The Kingdom of God does not have this kind of judgmental attitude.