We have come to chapter 5 of A-J. Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. She starts with the hilarious statement, “the parable … has put forth so many branches of interpretation that the birds of heaven could build multiple nests and still have room for expansion.” She then elaborates on the two major branches to interpretive tendencies: the contrast between the small (seed) and large (other plants) and the allegorical symbolic value of seed, tree, birds etc. These are obviously unacceptable tendencies with the first one being not necessarily the point of comparison and the second not necessarily symbolic of everything in our lives. After all, Jesus didn’t point out the symbolism.
The first interpretive tendency of comparing smallness to greatness can be a comparison between the smallness of Israel to the greatness of gentile incorporation; the smallness of ministry in Israel to the greatness of the church; or smallness of this life to the greatness of eternal life. The second interpretive tendency of allegory can create all sorts of wild symbolism from the dangerous seed causing the demise of the great garden (i.e. the empire or Judaism); the upper class causing the demise of the poor and other similarly negative interpretation of the seed.
Levine points out that the seed in later rabbinic literature does point to fertility. This is a good place to start when we talk about growth. It is probably not wise, according to Levine, to see the seed as the cause for a weed as the shrub which the seed produces is a vegetable fit for human consumption. She then sees the seed and its growth as being part of the good world God gave to humans. God through Jesus gave an invitation to partake in this goodness.
When reading this little parable, I agree with Levine that just because mustard seeds grow easily, it doesn’t make them weeds. These are vegetables. Even less does it have to do with impurity in Judaism. Like the yeast parable, it lines up well with the emphasis on smallness growing into a comparatively big size plant. She also points out that the birds are often allegorized for no good reason. I admire her patience in dealing with all sorts of allegorical interpretations about the birds. Unfortunately, patience is not one virtue I possess. I usually just dismiss such fantasy to the realm of fairy tales. I think the birds are there to show the size of the plant, but they themselves shouldn’t occupy our attention too much.
Here’re some areas where I explore in my Right Kingdom Wrong Stories book that Levine has only started exploring. There’re good reasons for people to see the plant as weed not because it isn’t fit for human consumption but because of its common growth. Such a small seed gets carried everywhere, often without an intention from an owner. Yet, it benefits those who eat the plant. In this parable however, the planting of the seed is intentional by a sower. In other words, if this is compared to the kingdom, Jesus was talking about the strangeness of the kingdom starting from its smallness but also from its undiscovered purpose. No one who saw the plant would think, “Someone just have taken the time and care to plant this.” In the same way, the kingdom has its undiscovered aspect that grows to bigger benefits. Even when these results look accidental, they are intentional. Bigger isn’t always better. Smallness also has potential.
In the light of our love for bigness, Jesus’ story about the kingdom being intentional and small has so much to teach modern believers. We live in an age where “bigger is better”. Let’s think about the last time you want to go to a church because it lacks the facility, the large size congregation and the empty building. Not very likely! We measure success in terms of size. Only the book sells the most is considered book of the year here in the US. Only the church with the most members are considered successful. Jesus’ parable goes directly against our pragmatic and short-sighted worldview. Smallness has potential. Its impact may not be immediate. In fact, Jesus only had twelve disciples on top of his seventy two others in his lifetime. He had huge crowds but at the cross, he only had a few women and one disciple. Such is the outworking of the kingdom. Bigness isn’t always best.