Showing posts with label #Parables. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Parables. Show all posts

The Two Sons Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 September 2021

Matthew 18.28-32.

In the context of this story, Jesus was teaching in temple, and some of the head priests and elders—in other words, people who sat on the Judean senate—came to challenge him.

Matthew 18.23 KJV
23B …and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?

“These things” being when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey like a Messiah, the miracles and healings and exorcisms he performed, and of course his teachings—like he was doing right then. Jesus countered them by asking where they thought John the baptist’s authority came from—and since they didn’t care to answer that one, Jesus saw no point in giving them a straight answer. Mt 18.24-27 Instead he resorted to parables.

As I’ve said many times before, parables are about God’s kingdom. That includes the parables Jesus had for the senators. When Jesus returns to inaugurate his kingdom, every other government is getting overthrown. Every other government. He’s not gonna tell Americans, “You did such a good job with your Constitution, I’m keeping it; only I’m gonna be president now.” Civic idolaters are pretty sure Jesus will do something like that, but you can see how ridiculous it sounds.

And the main reason they’re getting overthrown is expressed in parables like these. God had put them in power, or let them take power; and the purpose of their position was to be just but merciful, Mc 6.8 and defend the needy. Jm 1.27 Instead, same as people have always done, they’re unjust, unmerciful, defend their friends, and their only real goal is to cling to power like a barnacle to a ship.

Jesus began with the Two Sons Story.

Matthew 21.28-32 KWL
28 “What do you senators think of this?—A person has two children.
Going to the first, he says, ‘Child, go today; work in the vineyard.’
29 In reply the child says, ‘I don’t want to.’
Later, repenting, he goes.
30 Going to the other child, the father says the same thing.
In reply the child says, ‘I hear you, sir!’—and doesn’t go.
31 Which of the two does the father’s will?”
The senators say, “The first.”
Jesus told them, “Amen! I promise you the taxmen and whores are ahead of you in God’s kingdom:
32 John the baptist comes to you with the right way.
You don’t believe him. The taxmen and whores believe him.
You who saw him, never repented later into believing him.”

Notice Jesus brings up John the baptist twice: When he asked the senators where John’s authority came from, Mt 21.24 and when he critiqued them for not listening to him. Mt 21.32 See, Jesus did most of his preaching in his home province, the Galilee. Other than his thrice-a-year visits to Jerusalem for the festivals, that’s where he was, and where he ministered. But John was in Judea. Had been for years. (Admittedly we don’t know how many, but it’s not unreasonable to figure a decade.) The senators even sent people to check him out, Jn 1.19 but never heeded him, and he called them out for it. Jesus had plenty of complementary things to say about John, but most Sadducees and Pharisees never did accept those statements, nor John.

The Unforgiving Debtor Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 September 2021

Matthew 18.23-35.

Mammonists are fond of saying Jesus teaches about money more often than a surprising number of subjects. More often than heaven and hell combined!

And that part’s true, ’cause Jesus teaches very little about heaven and hell. (Unless you think “the kingdom of heaven” actually means heaven. You’d be wrong.) His lessons are primarily about following God now, not the afterlife, nor after the world ends. Jesus teaches most subjects more than heaven and hell combined.

Though Jesus brings up money a lot, not all his lessons are actually about money. Money’s in them. Much like wheat and vineyards are in a number of his parables: They’re not about wheat and winegrapes, but about his kingdom. He uses them to make a point. They’re MacGuffins—a movie term for the valuable object which motivates the characters and drives the story. What the MacGuffin is, doesn’t matter; you can often swap it out for something else. In fact Jesus does just that when he speaks of a treasure in a field or a valuable pearl: Heaven’s kingdom is like any valuable thing which makes a betting person go all-in.

And in this parable, money’s the MacGuffin, but it could be anything people might owe. Like “You promised me a car; where’s the car?” or “You promised to take us to Disneyland; when’re we going?” or “You said you’d spend Saturday with the family instead of at work; are you gonna break your promise?” Or we’re in their karmic debt because we wronged them, or at their mercy because they can have us prosecuted. Money’s a simple concept though—although the amount of money Jesus refers to is kinda huge.

Two slaves. (I remind you slavery in ancient Israel usually had to do with indebtedness.) One owes 10,000 talents; the other 100 denarii. I also remind you ancient money’s value fluctuated wildly, but figuring silver at 75 cents a gram, the 10,000 talents (330,000 kilos or 750,000 pounds silver) is worth $247,500,000; and the 100 denarii only comes out to $342.75. So one’s an impossible debt, and the other really isn’t.

Now that you have these values in your head, check out Jesus’s parable.

Matthew 18.23-35 KWL
23 “This is why heaven’s kingdom is like a person,
a king who wants to review his instructions to his slaves.
24 Beginning his first review, he’s brought a debtor owing 10,000 talents.
25 The debtor doesn’t have anything to pay him back.
The master orders him to be sold—
and his wife, and his children, and all he has—to pay him back.
26 So the slave, falling down to worship the king, says,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything!’
27 Moved by this slave, the master frees him and forgives his debt.
28 On the way out, this slave finds one of his fellow slaves, who owes him 100 denarii.
Seizing him, he chokes him, saying, ‘Pay me back what you owe!’
29 So, falling down to worship, his fellow slave begs him, saying,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’
30 The slave doesn’t want to hear it,
but throws him away into debtors’ prison till he can pay back the debt.
31 Seeing this happen, the other fellow slaves are greatly upset.
and go to tell the master himself everything that happened.
32 Then summoning the slave, his master told him, ‘You evil slave!
I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
33 Do you not also have to be merciful to your fellow slave, like I showed you mercy?’
34 His enraged master turned him over to the torturers,
till he could pay back all the debt.
35 This is also how your heavenly Father will do for you,
unless you forgive each of your family members with all your heart.”

The Dinner Party Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 September 2021

Luke 14.15-24.

Jesus has two very similar parables in the gospels: The Wedding Party Story in Matthew, and the Dinner Party Story in Luke. Christians tend to lump ’em together, iron out the differences, and claim they’re about precisely the same thing. They’re actually not. The differences are big enough to where we gotta look at the variant parables individually, not together.

In the Wedding Party Story, Jesus compares his kingdom to a king holding a wedding for his son. That’s not a mere social function; it’s political. People’s response to that wedding was a political statement; it wasn’t merely some friends revealing how they’re not really friends. Whereas what we see in the Dinner Party Story is an act of hospitality, generosity, and love on the homeowner’s part… and the invitees blow him off because they’d rather do anything than spend time with him. The rebellion and sedition we detect in the Wedding Party Story isn’t in this story. These are just people being dicks to a guy who just wants their company.

God just wants to love his people, and give us his kingdom. And his people would honestly rather do anything else.

Luke 14.15-24 KWL
15 Someone who was reclining at dinner with Jesus, hearing this,
told him, “How awesome for whoever will eat bread in God’s kingdom!”
16 Jesus told him, “Some person was having a large dinner party, and invited many.
17 He sent his slave to tell the invited at the dinner hour, ‘Come! It’s ready now!’
18 And every one of them began to excuse himself.
The first told him, ‘I bought a field.
I seriously need to go out and see it. I pray you, have me excused.’
19 Another said, ‘I bought five teams of oxen.
I have to try them out. I pray you, have me excused.’
20 Another said, ‘I married a woman, and this is why I can’t come.’
21 Coming back, the slave reported these things to his master.
Then the enraged homeowner told his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the city’s squares and alleys,
and the poor, maimed, blind, and disabled: Bring them here!’
22 The slave said, ‘Master, I did as you ordered, and there’s still room.’
23 The master told the slave, ‘Go out of the city to the roads and property lines,
and make people come, so my house can be full!
24 For I tell you none of those invited men will taste my dinner.’ ”

Now y’notice the consequences of rejecting the dinner party are way less extreme than we see in the Wedding Party Story. In Matthew the king who throws the wedding party burns down a few cities, then has an underdressed guest hogtied and thrown out. Whereas in Luke the homeowner who throws the dinner party simply says, “None of those invited men will taste my dinner.” They’re not gonna be dead, nor cast into outer darkness where “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Mt 22.13 They’re only gonna miss out on a really nice meal.

Crummy friends with crummy excuses.

The dinner party host invites his guests to dinner, and it’s a μέγα/méga dinner. Yep, it’s the same word in both Greek and English: It’s big. It’s important. It’s the sort of dinner where he’d’ve been an idiot had he not confirmed they were coming, because he prepared a lot of food, and there were no refrigerators back then, so it had to be eaten that day. He fully expected they’d come—and they begged off with some really lame excuses.

There are no cultural reasons why they can’t make it to dinner. I’ve heard people actually try to defend these guests—“Well if an ancient Israeli bought land, he was legally obligated to go inspect it.” No he wasn’t. Not in the Law, not in Pharisee tradition; he could’ve purchased it sight unseen, and never visited it, if he so chose. True, some purchases were contingent on the buyer seeing the property, same as now, but there’s no reason to presume this was that. The way Jesus tells the story, everybody’s backing out for weak reasons, and this is meant to be interpreted as one of those weak reasons.

Likewise the guy who just bought five teams of oxen: Yes, 10 oxen is a major purchase. Yes he should try them out to make sure they’ll plow his fields properly. But this being case, why’d he inconveniently schedule his purchase so he can’t make it to the dinner party? This wasn’t a surprise purchase—“Wait, I gotta harvest my crops next week? I had no idea! Well I’d better buy some oxen right now!” Plus there’s no way he could drive five teams by himself: He had to have at least four other guys in his employ who could drive the other teams while he did. And shouldn’t any of those other guys be fully capable of testing out his oxen for him?

Lastly the guy who just got married. Okay, verse 24 refers to “none of those invited men,” which suggests the host only invited men. So some folks have claimed this was a men’s-only dinner, and the newlywed might’ve wanted to bring his wife, which seems like a valid enough reason to beg off the dinner. But I doubt it. In patriarchal cultures, if you wanted to formally invite a woman to a social function, you invited her patriarch, and implied to him that he oughta bring her. If he didn’t care to personally attend, he’d send her with a chaperone. But in any event men didn’t formally invite women to dinner parties. Informally maybe, but this wasn’t meant to be mistaken for an informal dinner. There were invitations.

Really, it was because the newlywed didn’t want to take a break from romping with the new wife, and go have dinner. No self-control on his part. Most of us can understand that, but still.

So everybody bailed on the host, and he was understandably enraged: He spent a lot of money on food and food prep, and now it would go uneaten, and go to waste. But no it wouldn’t: “Go out quickly to the city’s squares and alleys,” he instructed his slave, “and the poor, maimed, blind, and disabled: Bring them here!” Lk 14.21 Go get people whom the host knew would be hungry, and appreciate his hospitality.

The Dinner Party Story comes right after Jesus gave this teaching:

Luke 14.12.14 KWL
12 Jesus also said to those who invited him, “Whenever you have a lunch or dinner,
don’t invite your friends, siblings, relatives, or rich neighbors,
lest they invite you in return, to repay you.
13 Instead whenever you have a feast, invite the poor, maimed, disabled, blind,
14 and you’ll be awesome, because they have no way to repay you,
for you’ll be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus lists the very same disadvantaged folks in both his lesson and this story: The poor, maimed, blind, and disabled. Not in the same order, but they’re the same words. People who can’t possibly practice reciprocity, because they can’t throw a dinner party. But that’s okay. You’re not doing it for payback. You’re doing it to be awesome.

Apparently this dinner was so mega, they ran out of poor people in the city! Or at least poor people who would accept a free meal. You probably know people who absolutely refuse to accept anything for free—including grace—because they feel they should earn everything they have, and owe no one anything, nor be in any kind of karmic debt whatsoever. It’s a pride thing. But in my experience, the reason God lets some people be poor and stay poor is because he’s trying to break that pride off them… ’cause if he ever gives such people money, they’re gonna be so insufferably stingy.

Anyway the host had to order his slave “to the roads and property lines” (KJV “the highways and hedges”) —to places which’d be outside the city gates, where he might find people on their way to town, who might be tired and hungry and in need of a good meal, and here was a really good meal! The invitation was now extended, not just to the poor and needy who might know who the host was, but to strangers who might not. But that’s okay; there was plenty of food.

Spite and God’s kingdom.

Okay, time to address the elephant in the room. That last comment the host makes, “For I tell you none of those invited men will taste my dinner,” Lk 14.24 sounds just a bit spiteful. Or at least many a preacher has phrased it that way. Those guys who passed on dinner are totally gonna miss out.

And historically, spiteful preachers have interpreted it that very way. They claim the dinner is God’s kingdom, and the invited people who passed on dinner were God’s chosen people, the Jews. But because the Jews rejected Jesus, none of them are gonna inherit God’s kingdom. Because doesn’t the host in this story say so? “None of those invited men” means none of the Jews, right?

But it’s a ridiculous assumption, because all the first Christians were Jews. All the authors of the New Testament were either Jews by ancestry or (in Luke’s case) conversion. There are still tons of Christians of Jewish descent. Jesus is no antisemite; he’s the king of the Jews! It’s all kinds of stupid to apply antisemitic ideas to his teachings.

But there’s spite, and there’s spite. The word spite actually has two definitions.

SPITE spaɪt noun. A desire to hurt, offend, or annoy someone else.
2. Without regard for the wishes of someone else.

The first definition means we wanna poke someone in the feelings. The second doesn’t necessarily. It might poke them; it might enrage them. It might not. But either way, we’re doing as we’re doing, despite them, or in spite of them. It’s not the harmful sort of spite; it’s the passive sort.

God does the passive sort all the time. Plenty of people don’t want him to do as he’s doing. They don’t want him to love and bless the people they hate. They don’t want him to overthrow their favorite institutions. They don’t want him to intervene in their affairs. They don’t want him! And a lot of times, he’ll give them what they want, and give ’em space. But when their selfish desires start to harm others, especially the needy, he’s gonna intervene; he won’t stand by forever. He’s our savior, y’know. He’ll save people in spite of their haters. Not to deliberately enrage them, even though God knows they’ll be enraged. (And even though God’s people, who are way less kind than God is, will kinda enjoy their rage.)

Is the host being spiteful to his invited guests? Yes, but I would argue it’s the passive sort of spite. They bailed on his dinner because they don’t really care about him, and offered lame excuses because they wanted him to know they don’t really care about him. But rather than dwell on their offensive behavior, he threw his dinner party all the same. Rather than be frustrated he didn’t have enough guests, he went out and got plenty of guests. Rather than be miserable and not enjoy himself, I’m pretty sure he enjoyed himself a great deal. Generosity is fun!

None of this was to make the invited people miserable; I doubt the host cared whether his invitees were miserable. He had other things to focus on. Like making sure he had enough wine for all his new guests. Making sure they weren’t hesitant about eating as much as they liked. Being a good host in general.

God’s kingdom is like this host’s generosity. Everybody’s invited. Not everybody’s gonna accept the invitation. But if they think God’s gonna wallow in misery about their rejection, he really won’t; he’s gonna grant his kingdom to all sorts of people who don’t deserve it, including strangers and gentiles who never initially expected to be included. It’ll be awesome.

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The Equal-Pay Vineyard Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 September 2021

Matthew 20.1-16.

Jesus tells more than one parable about vineyards, and sometimes Christians mix ’em up. Whenever I refer to “the parable of the vineyard,” people sometimes assume I mean the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, or the tenant farmers who murder the vineyard owner’s son. I’ve tried to call this the Generous Employer Story, but if you don’t put “vineyard” in the title people don’t know what you mean—“Wait, is this a new parable?” No it’s not.

So I call it the Equal-Pay Vineyard Story. Because everybody gets paid a denarius at the end of the story, even though some of ’em didn’t work all that hard. The punchline is about how the landowner does this because he’s generous, so maybe it oughta be called the Generous Equal-Pay Vineyard Story. But instead of making the title longer and longer, till it winds up telling the story for us, Jesus may as well tell the story, right?

Matthew 20.1-16 KWL
1 “For heaven’s kingdom is like a person, a landowner,
who comes out first thing in the morning [6AM] to hire workers for his vineyard.
2 Once the workers agree to a denarius for the day,
he sends them to his vineyard.
3 Going out the third hour, [9AM] he sees others loitering in the square
4 and tells them, ‘You can also go to the vineyard,
and I’ll give you whatever might be fair.’
5 He goes away again, and comes back out at the sixth [12PM] and ninth hour, [3PM]
and does the same thing.
6 Around the 11th hour, [5PM] he comes out to find others standing around,
and tells them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’
7 They tell him this: ‘Nobody has hired us.’
He tells them, ‘You can also go to the vineyard.’
8 When evening comes, [6PM] the vineyard’s master tells his vineyard manager,
‘Call the workers, to give them their pay—
starting with the last, till you get to the first.’
9 Each of those who came at the 11th hour gets a denarius.
10 So the first to come, thought they would get more—
and each of them also gets a denarius.
11 Those who got paid last grumble against the landowner,
12 saying, ‘These last-hired worked one hour, and were paid as much as we?
Those who bore the weight of the day, and the heat?’
13 In reply, the landowner says to one of them,
‘Friend, I’ve not wronged you. Didn’t you agree with me to work for a denarius?
14 Take your denarius and go.
I want to give this last-hired what I also gave you.
15 Or is this not allowed me?—to do as I want with what’s mine?
Or is your eye evil, because I am good?’
16 In this way the last will be first,
and the first, last.”

I translated “is your eye evil” Mt 20.15 literally. But just to remind you, the “evil eye” has nothing to do with cursing anyone, like our culture has it. To ancient Hebrews it was an idiom meaning “greedy person.” And there are a lot of greedy people, both back then and now, whose Mammonism gets triggered every time they see generosity. They rage whenever someone gets a massive paycheck, whether it be a CEO who gets an outrageous bonus, or an entry-level employee who makes way more than minimum wage: “He doesn’t deserve that,” or “Why are you paying your people so much?” or “Any moron could do that job; how dare you overpay morons?” They’re as enraged as if it personally harms them for others to prosper. It’s karmic thinking, and wholly inappropriate behavior for Christians. And Jews. But it’s everywhere, so Jesus includes it in his story.

The Dragnet Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 August 2021

Matthew 13.47-50.

You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what a dragnet is, and think it has to do with cop shows, or police putting up roadblocks in order to catch a suspect. Police have certainly borrowed the term, but properly a dragnet is a fishing net.

There are many kinds of dragnets. The type most commonly used today is a seine (a word descended from the ancient Greek word for dragnet, σαγήνη/sayíni), a fishing net with floats on the top and weights on the bottom, pulled behind a boat, which catches everything swimming in the top part of a body of water. Another is the kind which sinks to the bottom of the lake or sea, and pulls up everything from the floor. And since it catches everything, it might catch garbage… or endangered fish or marine mammals, like dolphins. It’s an efficient way to catch fish, but it’s not popular with environmentalists.

Jesus’s base of operations was Kfar Nahum (Greek Καφαρναοὺμ/Kafarnaúm, KJV Capernaum), a fishing village on the coast of Lake Tiberius, the Galilee’s freshwater “sea.” No doubt a lot of his followers were fishers. Four of his Twelve definitely were: Andrew and Peter bar John, and James and John bar Zebedee. Mk 1.16-20 Four more might also have been: Thomas, Nathanael, and two unnamed others. Jn 21.2-3 So, two-thirds of the Twelve. And the other four were not unfamiliar with fishing practices… epsecially after several years of hanging out with fishers all day.

Y’notice Jesus tended to tell parables about agriculture and sheep-herding. This is the only one about fishing. He also told a few about building and carpentry too, but the reason he didn’t tell as many about his old vocation, is because he was concentrating on his audience. What’s gonna connect with them most?

Matthew 13.47-50 KWL
47 “Again, heaven’s kingdom is like a dragnet,
thrown in the sea and gathering together every species.
48 When it’s full, it’s dragged to shore and set down.
The fishers gather up the good into containers, and throw out the useless.
49 This is how it is in the end of the age:
The angels will go out and separate evildoers from the middle of the righteous,
50 and they’ll throw them into the fiery furnace;
there will be wailing and grinding teeth.”

Like all parables it’s about God’s kingdom, and specifically the people who will be judged worthy of it in the end. Or not.

The Major Finds Story. (Treasure in a Field, Pearl of Great Price.)

by K.W. Leslie, 15 August 2021

Matthew 13.44-46.

Jesus has two quick one-liner parables in Matthew which are about the very same thing. I don’t know whether he told these stories separately, and Matthew bunched ’em together, or whether he told them together so the repeated idea might sink in all the better.

Regardless, Christians have historically called ’em by separate names. One’s the Hidden Treasure, or Treasure in the Field, or Secret Treasure, or Clever Treasure Hunter, or whatever you wanna emphasize most in the story. The other’s the Hidden Pearl, Valuable Pearl, Pearl of Great Price, or Clever Pearl Merchant—again, whatever you wanna emphasize most.

Me, I bunch ’em together. Like I said, they’re about the very same thing, and they repeat the idea of finding something major, and selling all you have to get it. So I call them collectively the Major Finds Story. Heaven’s kingdom is like a major find. Really, heaven’s kingdom is a major find.

Take it away, Jesus:

Matthew 13.44-46 KWL
44 Again, heaven’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in the field.
When a person finds it, he hides it.
In his joy, he goes off and sells everything, whatever he has,
and buys that field.
45 Again, heaven’s kingdom is like a person, a merchant looking for good pearls.
46 Upon finding one extremely expensive pearl, going away,
he’s sold everything, whatever he has, and buys it.”

Christians are so used to telling this story, we never think about the problematic behavior involved by both of these guys who discover a major find.

The first one is a guy who stumbles across a treasure, hides it, then buys that field so he can possess the treasure—and obviously doesn’t tell the previous owners there’s treasure in their field. Um… shouldn’t they know? Maybe that’s their inheritance their father meant to give them, but died before he could disclose it to them. Maybe it’s stolen property, like pirate or drug lord treasure… although we probably shouldn’t go there, because I doubt Jesus had that in mind when he told the story. Regardless, the buyer’s behavior is such that any skeptical Pharisee (and many a skeptical pagan) would flinch. “Waitaminnit… is Jesus teaching ‘finders keepers’? Isn’t that a kind of theft?”

The second is a pearl merchant who finds a pearl worth all his existing fortune. Again, there’s the possibility he knows of the pearl’s true value and the seller does not, which is why the merchant’s so eager to spend all he has on it. But something which regularly skips most Christians’ notice: Pearls are something shellfish produce, and shellfish are ritually unclean. Is Jesus talking about an Israeli pearl merchant?—then he’s clearly talking about a secular Israeli, one who doesn’t bother to follow the Law, yet Jesus here uses him as an example of God’s kingdom. Or, which is a little less likely, and a lot more scandalous to his audience, is he talking about a pagan pearl merchant?

Yep, in both these stories, Jesus is talking about iffy, less-than-honorable, less-than-devout people. And comparing their behavior to God’s kingdom. And probably bugging devout Pharisees in so doing. Well, that’ll happen.

The Good Samaritan Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 August 2021

Luke 10.25-37.

This is probably Jesus’s best-known story, almost universally called the Good Samaritan. Which… is a problematic name, ’cause I’m not sure how many people realize the reason he’s called the good Samaritan, is because the usual Jewish and gentile presumption is he wouldn’t be good; he’d either be apathetic or outright evil.

The story begins with a νομικός/nomikós, a person who specialized in the Law of Moses and its many, many Pharisee loopholes. The KJV translates nomikós as “lawyer,” and yeah, today’s lawyers are often just as expert at manipulating our laws so their clients come out on top. So I’ll go with that translation.

Luke 10.25-29 KWL
25 Look, a certain lawyer stands up to examine Jesus,
saying, “Teacher, what makes me inherit life in the age to come?”
26 Jesus tells him, “What’s been written in the Law?
How are you reading it?
27 In reply the lawyer says, “You’ll love your Lord God from your whole heart,
your whole life, your whole strength, and your whole intellect; Dt 6.4-5
and your neighbor same as yourself.” Lv 19.18
28 Jesus tells the lawyer, “Correctly answered.
Do this and you’ll live.”
29 Wanting to make himself righteous,
the lawyer tells Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Bibles tend to render what the lawyer was doing as “standing up to test Jesus,” as if he was trying to attack our Lord. In a way he kinda was: Pharisee rabbis taught their students the Socratic method. They’d make statements, and their students were trained to pick apart these statements every which way, to see whether they held up to serious scrutiny. Jesus must’ve made some statement, and this lawyer decided to pick it apart. It feels adversarial ’cause it kinda is, but it was an acceptable form of adversarial dialogue. This lawyer wasn’t doing anything culturally wrong. Or hostile—unless he chose to be hostile, and we’ve no real evidence from the bible that’s what he was up to.

So Jesus must’ve made some statement about what God’s kingdom will be like in the age to come, after Messiah takes over the world. The lawyer wanted to examine Jesus’s understanding of the kingdom; either to learn more, or to see whether Jesus believed what he hoped Jesus believed; again there’s no real evidence from the bible he was looking for something in Jesus to reject or condemn. If he, as a devout follower of God, is gonna inherit the kingdom, what ought he be doing in the meanwhile? Which is an entirely valid question—and one we Christians oughta be asking ourselves, because our behavior indicates we’re not asking it, and just taking our inheritance for granted.

Jesus asked him a question right back: “You know the Law, so you already know the answer. What’s the Law say you oughta be doing?” And the lawyer’s response is the very same that Jesus of Nazareth, Hillel of Babylon, and most Pharisees recognized were the two greatest commands:

Mark 12.28-31 KWL
28 One of the scribes, standing there listening to the discussion,
recognizing how well Jesus answered the Sadducees,
asked Jesus, “Which command is first of all?”
29 Jesus gave this answer: “First is, ‘Listen Israel: Our god is the Lord. The Lord is One.
30 You’ll love your Lord God with all your mind, life, thought, and strength.’ Dt 6.4-5
Second is, ‘Love your neighbor like yourself.’ Lv 19.18
No command is higher than these.”

Jesus singling out the greatest commands, wasn’t anything new. Really, it’s self-evident. Love God; love your neighbor. Once you recognize God is love, it stands to reason loving God and our neighbor is of greatest importance. Jesus knew it; this lawyer knew it. We should know it.

But this lawyer wanted to play around with what Jesus meant by neighbor. Most of us kinda skeptically interpret Luke’s statement that the lawyer was “wanting to make himself righteous” Lk 10.29 —we’re not sure he really wanted to be righteous, or that he was looking to do the bare minimum and still feel righteous. Same as us, there were no doubt certain neighbors this lawyer had whom he didn’t wanna recognize as neighbors. Just like racists do with people of other ethnicities, Americans do with ex-convicts and illegal immigrants and beggars, and Jews and Palestinians still do with one another.

I figure you already loosely know the Good Samaritan Story; we put the twist ending in the title, for crying out loud. Jesus doesn’t do loopholes, and makes it quite clear that “your neighbor” includes everybody in our homeland. Family members, strangers, the rich, the poor, the unwanted, the folks we imagine ought not be there. Everybody. We’re to love everybody. No exceptions.

So to teach this, Jesus tells a story. Let’s get to it.

Eventually everyone will understand Jesus’s parables.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 August 2021

Mark 4.21-25.

When Jesus explained to his students how parables work and why he uses them, he told them this.

Mark 4.21-23 KWL
21 Jesus told them, “Does the light come in so it can be put under a basket or under the couch?
Not so it can be put on the lampstand?
22 It’s not secret except that it may later be revealed.
It doesn’t become hidden unless it may later be known.
23 If anyone has hearing ears, hear this.”

Too often Christians quote this passage as if it applies to every secret: Everything we say in secret is gonna eventually come out in public.

And y’know, Jesus did say something like that, in Matthew and Luke. But he did so in a different context. There, it was part of his Olivet Discourse, his last talk to his students before his arrest and death. At the time he spoke about when people persecute Christians for proclaiming the gospel, and how their evil would become public, in time. And all Jesus’s other, private teachings would also become public, in time. Everything becomes public… in time. The truth will out.

Matthew 10.26-27 KWL
26 “So don’t be afraid of your haters, for nothing has been covered up which won’t be revealed.
Nothing is secret which won’t be made known.
27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light.
What you hear in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.
 
Luke 12.2-3 KWL
2 “Nothing undercover exists which won’t be revealed.
Nothing is secret which won’t be made known.
3 As much as has been said in the dark about it, say in the light. It’ll be heard.
What was spoken in your ear in an inner room, will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

But that’s a whole ’nother lesson, and today I’m only discussing Jesus’s parables. And in Mark’s context, Jesus was only talking about his parables. Not everything.

Yes, Mark’s wording is the same as when Jesus taught about the light of the world:

Mark 4.21 KWL
Jesus told them, “Does the light come in so it can be put under a basket or under the couch?
Not so it can be put on the lampstand?”
 
Matthew 5.15 KWL
“Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket,
but on the lampstand, and it shines on everything in the house.”
 
Luke 8.16 KWL
“Nobody who grabs a light covers it with a jar, or puts it under the couch,
but puts it on a lampstand so those who enter can see the light.”
 
Luke 11.33 KWL
“Nobody who grabs a light puts a cover on it, nor under a basket,
but on the lampstand so those who enter can see the light.”

And again: Whole ’nother lesson. Jesus had no trouble using the same metaphor to teach a bunch of different things. The problem is we presume he’s teaching the same thing; that parables are secret codes. They’re not. Context, folks; the parables are always properly interpreted in context, same as the rest of the bible. There is no cryptography key which unlocks all the codes the very same way. That’s gnosticism, not to mention lazy thinking.

Nope, the reason Jesus said these things in Mark was ’cause he wanted his students to know that this bit—

Mark 4.11-12KWL
11 Jesus told them, “God’s kingdom’s mysteries were given to you.
To those outside, everything comes in parables.
12 Thus seers might not see—and realize.
Hearers might not hear—and be forgiven things.” Is 6.10

—is meant to be temporary. In time, outsiders get to understand what everything means. But when Jesus first shared these parables, it wasn’t yet the right time. His hour had not yet come.

The Fruitless Fig Tree Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 July 2021

Luke 13.1-9.

Two stories before Jesus presented the Mustard Seed Story in Luke, he told the Fruitless Fig Tree Story in response to then-current events. Let’s start with the events, since they’re relevant.

Luke 13.1 KWL
Some were present among Jesus’s listeners at that time, who brought news
of the Galileans whose blood Pontius Pilate mixed with the sacrifices.

We don’t know the actual story behind this. We just have guesses. Most of ’em presume Pilate put down an uprising, and in so doing killed some Galileans in the temple area, either close enough to the ritual sacrifices to splatter blood on ’em… or at least close enough for the Israelis to object it was just as bad, and hyperbolically claim he may as well have splattered their blood on their sacrifices. You know how people can get.

But again: We don’t know this is what happened. The Romans are pretty good at keeping records about such things, and we have no record of such an uprising. It’s certainly staying in Roman character to indiscriminately kill people in order to keep the peace, and certainly staying in Roman character to kill people even in sacred spaces. The whole concept of claiming sanctuary is a Hebrew thing 1Ki 2.28-34 and later a Christian thing. Not a Roman thing.

Popular songwriter Ephrem the Syrian (306–73) told an interesting story. Remember when Antipas Herod had John the baptist executed? Ephrem claimed this outraged Pilate—’cause the execution was illegal. After all, John hadn’t done anything wrong; he only pointed out it was against the Law of Moses for Herod to marry his sister-in-law. Lv 18.16 Which is true after all. Anyway because Pilate couldn’t do anything to Herod, he decided the next best thing was to arrest and execute anybody else who was present. He found ’em in the temple, killed ’em as they were offering sacrifice, and that’s the backstory. Commentary on Tatian’s Diatesseron 14.25 But Ephrem lived three centuries after it happened, so again: We don’t know this is what happened.

What we do know is Luke kinda expected his readers—or his main reader, Theophilus Lk 1.3 —to know this backstory. And maybe Theophilus did. But we don’t.

Anyway, back to Jesus.

Disasters and karma.

Luke 13.2-5 KWL
2 In reply Jesus told them, “You think these Galileans were sinners.
Worse than all the Galileans, because they suffered such evil things.
3 No, I tell you.
But unless you repent, everyone will likewise be destroyed.
4 Or those 18 killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them:
You think they were worse debtors than all the people inhabiting Jerusalem?
5 No, I tell you.
But unless you repent, everyone will likewise be destroyed.

We know of a pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, Jn 9.7 but not a tower. Probably because it fell. Possibly while it was under construction; it fell, killed the workers, and was never rebuilt. Possibly it was poorly made—or well-made, but an earthquake took it down. Again, we don’t have the backstory. But it was likely another then-current event. One Jesus brought up for two reasons.

First, both Pilate killing the Galileans, and the tower falling on people, were disasters. One was the deliberate product of human will. The other was an accident. But if you’re planning to highlight this difference, don’t bother. Jesus treats ’em exactly the same. A disaster’s a disaster.

Second, Jesus didn’t want anyone in his audience getting the idea that Galileans needed to repent but Judeans didn’t. Disaster strikes Galileans and Judeans alike. Disaster strikes Jews and gentiles alike as well. Everybody needs to repent. Everybody’s a sinner.

The problem was the ancient Israelis—and present-day Christians, and really everybody—had and have the bad habit of leaping to the conclusion every disaster is a consequence. They don’t have any apparent, visible reason, but they happen because these people need to die. ’Cause karma. The universe needs to balance out good and bad karma, and destroy evildoers one way or another. Christians might credit God for balancing things out; determinists certainly do. But they act as if God is beholden to follow the laws of karma. He is not. He does grace. Always has.

So the Galileans were sinners, and the Jerusalemites were debtors (a popular synonym for sinner). So they deserved to die; and since everybody sins we kinda all deserve to die, as determinists love to uncharitably point out whenever disaster strikes. But as Jesus points out, everybody’s gonna die—unless they repent.

We Christians usually assume Jesus means we’re gonna die in our sins, and go to hell, unless we repent and follow him. And yeah, maybe Jesus means that too. But on a more historical level, in about four decades after Jesus taught this, the Romans came and destroyed Israel—and only the Christians among the Israelis were forewarned, fled, and survived. Unless these literal people repent, follow Jesus, and hear from his apostles to flee for the hills, they’re literally, in their present era and not the End Times, gonna die. Jesus might be talking about humanity’s need to repent, but he’s definitely talking about Roman-era Israel.

And karma really has nothing to do with it. We Christians need to ditch these karmic ideas. They’re not of God; they’re not his idea; they’re ours. They’re how humans imagine the world should work; how people explain things away when bad things happen to good people. But Jesus tells us no. Twice.

Not every disaster is God smiting the wicked, nor balancing out the cosmos. Some events don’t mean anything. Stop trying to find meanings in them, and connecting cosmic dots which aren’t there. Focus on what we properly oughta focus upon: Our lifestyle of repentance. On following Jesus, and pointing others to him. On loving God and our neighbors. On his kingdom come.

Now for the fig tree.

The Fruitless Fig Tree Story doesn’t follow the previous lesson for no reason. It’s definitely connected.

Luke 13.6-9 KWL
6 Jesus was speaking this parable: “Someone has a fig tree,
planted in his vineyard, and comes to check for fruit on it, and finds none.
7 He tells his vinedresser, ‘Look, it’s been three years;
I come checking for fruit on this fig tree; I find none.
Cut it down. Why should it waste the soil?’
8 In reply the vinedresser tells him, ‘Master, leave it be this year,
till the time I can dig round it and can throw manure on it.
9 If it produces fruit, it can stay.
If not, cut it down indeed.’ ”

Historically Christians have interpreted this story thisaway:

  • The vineyard represents the church, or the world.
  • The tree represents a Christian.
  • The vineyard owner is the Father, who’s lost patience with this fleshly Christian.
  • The vinedresser is Jesus, who talks the Father down.

The reason we know this is a problematic interpretation is ’cause Jesus somehow has more patience than his Father. “The Father” might insist, “Times up; we should see fruit by now; cut it down,” but “Jesus” sees our potential and talks his Father out of it.

Thing is, the Father shares Jesus’s attitude of wanting to save the world. Jn 3.16, 1Ti 2.3-4, 2Pe 3.9 Saving the world is their idea. Patience is a trait they have in common ’cause they’re God, and not in unequal amounts. Pitting them against one another presumes they aren’t One God.

So there are a few problems with the traditional interpretation. Something’s amiss.

What’s amiss is Christians interpret this story without looking at the previous passage. Jesus’s audience was talking about disasters, and Jesus brought the discussion round to disaster coming for ancient Israel. This story is likewise about disaster coming for Israel. The tree represents ancient Israel. Contrary to the Pharisees’ intentions, Israel wasn’t adequately producing fruit.

The people knew this already, and not just because John the baptist had said so.

Luke 3.7-9 KJV
7 Then said [John] to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Yep, Jesus is talking about the very same thing John did. Even used a tree, and cutting it down, to make his point.

Jesus brings up one tree, and John many. One can argue each tree represents an individual person, and I’m inclined to say it’s an individual nation. Either way we know God judges both individuals and nations—that sometimes unrighteous people like Jeconiah and Zedekiah get what’s coming to them, and righteous people like Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel get caught up in the disasters that befall their nation. It’s why we all need to be forewarned.

In his story Jesus’s landowner says he’s seen nothing for three years. No this isn’t a secret code for how many literal years Israel had gone wrong. Too many Christians are trying to crack a code which isn’t there. Don’t fall for that. The three years in this story doesn’t represent literal years, but a length of time where a farmer should reasonably expect fruit. It doesn’t secretly represent three “weeks” of years, i.e. 21 years; the LORD took a lot longer than that to smite Egypt for its sin of Hebrew slavery, and to smite the United States for its sin of African slavery.

The Father and the Son have the same mind about salvation, and if the vineyard owner and the vinedresser represent them, they represent a discussion the LORD has within himself about what to do with his fruitless people. It’s not one person debating another person; it’s an inner monologue within the godhead. It’s the LORD determining what he’s gonna do, same as he does elsewhere in the scriptures.

Genesis 18.17-18 KJV
17 And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

Who’s he talking to? Himself. He does that. We now know God is a trinity, and while we don’t fully understand how he works, we know there are persons of the One God who have different wills, Lk 22.42 yet agree because he is One. The vineyard belongs to Jesus, the king of kings who conquered the world, Jn 16.33 who may decide, “Okay, this fruitless tree of mine oughta come down.” Yet the Holy Spirit says, “But I want some more time to work on it first. And if I don’t get results, then it’ll come down.”

So this is what God’s up to. Disaster was coming. (Disasters are always coming.) God sees his fruitless tree, wasting soil, and knows it oughta come down… and also knows if he pushes the tree just a bit more, he can wring fruit from it. He wants to save everybody he can. He’s still trying to.

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The Yeast in Dough Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 July 2021

Matthew 13.33, Luke 13.20-21.

Jesus gave this short one-liner parable right after his Mustard Seed Story in both Matthew and Luke. It’s quick.

Matthew 13.33 KWL
Jesus told them another parable: “Heaven’s kingdom is like yeast.
A woman who had it, mixed it into 43 liters of dough till it leavened it all.”
 
Luke 13.20-21 KWL
20 Jesus said again, “What’s God’s kingdom like? 21 It’s like yeast.
A woman who had it, mixed it into 43 liters of dough till it leavened it all.”

It follows the Mustard Seed Story because it’s presenting a similar idea about the growth and spread of God’s kingdom. The kingdom’s like a tiny seed which grows into a vast tree. Or like yeast which a woman mixes into an industrial-sized amount of dough.

The original text of both gospels has σάτα τρία/sáta tría, “three sátons.” No, not Satan; sáton. It’s Greek for the Hebrew unit of measurement סְאָה/çeá (NIV “seah”) which is a third of an אֵיפָה/eyfá (KJV “ephah”). No, that doesn’t clear things up any. Sorry.

Medieval rabbis believed measurements in the bible were based on the בֵּיצָה/beychá, “egg.” Six beychím made a לֹג/log, (pronounced loʊg, not like a block of wood). Four logím, or 24 eggs, made a קַב/qav (KJV “cab”). Six qavím, or 144 eggs, made a çeá. Three çeaím, or 432 eggs, made an eyfá… and I could go on, but your eyes would glaze over even more than they already have.

Whose eggs? Ah, that’s a whole other debate the rabbis had. Not that it mattered; some of them insisted eggs were smaller today than they were in bible times. But if we’re using chicken or duck eggs as a rough estimate, we get about 14⅓ liters per seah. Jesus said three of ’em, so that’s 43 liters.

Westerners tend to measure dough by weight, and figuring 1.18 pounds per liter, you’re talking roughly 50 pounds of dough. Which is what the translators of the CSB calculated; the translators of the NIV figured 60 pounds.

But most translators skipped the math and followed the KJV’s cop-out of translating sáta as “measures.” What’s a measure? You don’t know. Most people presume it’s the volume of a measuring cup; a quart, maybe. Three quarts. Three loaves of bread. Which is not what Jesus was thinking. Think much bigger.

KJV “…three measures of meal…”
CEB “…three batches of flour…”
ESV, ISV, NET, NLT, NRSV “…three measures of flour…”
GNT “…a bushel of flour…”
GNV “…three pecks of flour…”
ICB “…a big bowl of flour…”
NASB “…three sata of flour…”
NCV “…a large tub of flour…”
NLV “…three pails of flour…”
VOICE “…a huge quantity of flour…”

I used to work in a kitchen which had an industrial-size mixer for when we’d make lots of baked goods. I think we could fit a çeá’s worth of dough into it; might be pushing it. Yet Jesus described a woman mixing three of these volumes. Back in his day, it’d obviously be done by hand. Maybe with a really large spoon. Whenever I’ve had to mix a barrel’s worth of stuff by hand, I used an oar. It’s not light work.

This kinda begs the question: Why would this hypothetical woman be mixing 50 pounds of dough? The way they made bread in the ancient middle east, that’d make maybe 250 flatbreads. Enough for 100 people.

But like I said, these two parables are about impossibly large amounts. And Jesus is right about how yeast works: Given enough time, even a very small amount of yeast will work its way into every last milliliter of that dough. His kingdom’s like that. Little bit of gospel spreads everywhere.

The Wheat and Weeds Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 July 2021

Matthew 13.24-30, 13.36-43.

Presenting another of Jesus’s parables about agriculture. It appears nowhere but Matthew, and it happens right after the Four Seeds Story. Mt 13.18-23 Historically Christians have considered it a parable of the End Times.

Matthew 13.24-30 KWL
24 Jesus presents another parable to them, telling them,
“Heaven’s kingdom compares to a person planting a good seed in his field.
25 As the person sleeps his enemy comes,
plants weeds in the middle of the grain, and goes away.
26 When the stalks sprout and produce fruit, the weeds also appear.
27 The householder’s slaves, approaching, tell him, ‘Master, you plant good seed in your field, right?
So where have these weeds come from?’
28 The master tells them, ‘A person—an enemy—did this.’
The slaves tell him, ‘So do you want us to go out and pluck them?’
29 The master says, ‘No, lest plucking the weeds uproots the grain with them.
30 Leave them all to grow together till the harvest.
At harvest time, I’ll tell the harvesters, “Pluck the weeds first, and tie them in bundles to burn them.
Gather the grain into my barn.” ’ ”

I’m gonna point out something they tend to skip: Notice whenever the apostles describe the End in the scriptures, it looks like Jesus first raptures his Christians and gathers us into his kingdom, and then the rest of the world gets dealt with. But in the Wheat and Weeds Story, the master orders his harvesters to first pluck the weeds. So this story’s timeline, and the typical End Times timelines… don’t sync up.

Hmmm. Well, I’ll leave you to fret about that, and talk botany.


Left, vetch. Right, darnel.

This story’s also called the Wheat and Tares story. Wheat is how σῖτος/sítos traditionally gets translated, though the word really means “grain,” and the KJV sometimes even translates it “corn.” Mk 4.28, Ac 7.12 (No, they don’t mean maize; that’s what “corn” means in the United States. Elsewhere “corn” is just a synonym for grain.) Sítos could refer to wheat, barley, or oats. But likely wheat, ’cause of what takes place in this story.

Tares is the old-timey word for vetch (Vicia sativa), a type of weed which grows all over the planet. Looks like wheat till it starts growing leaves and flowers. It’s also kinda toxic to humans, although bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia) is edible, and sometimes the poor ate it in medieval Europe. And fava beans (Vicia faba) are used in all sorts of dishes.

However, vetch is what John Wycliffe imagined ζιζάνιον/zizánion meant, ’cause of what he knew about English agriculture. Later English translations, like the Geneva Bible and King James Version, followed Wycliffe’s lead. But Jesus isn’t English: Which plant might middle easterners have called zizánia? And most historians figure it’s darnel ryegrass (Lolium temulentum, “false wheat,” which ancient Jews called זוֹנִין/zonín). It’s another weed which grows everywhere, and likewise looks just like wheat… till the seeds appear. Wheat turns brown, and darnel turns black.

If it’s harmless, why did the ancients make a big deal about darnel? Because darnel is very susceptible to Neotyphodium funguses. If you eat any infected darnel, the symptoms are nausea and intoxication. (The temulentum in darnel’s scientific name means “drunk.”) And of course it might kill you. Hence people sometimes refer to darnel as poison.

So Jesus’s audience realized the serious problem these specific weeds posed. The rest of us, who only read “tares” or “weeds” in our bibles, not so much. Weeds are inconvenient, and use the water meant for our crops, but otherwise they sound kinda harmless, and it should be easy to sort them out, right? Um… not so much with darnel. And not so harmless.

Typically farmers waited till harvest time to sort out which was which. Most of ’em did as Jesus described his householder advising: Wait till harvest, then pluck and burn the darnel, lest their seeds infest a future crop. Which the seeds did anyway, ’cause seeds get loose.

The kingdom, Jesus said, is like this. I leave it to the now-worried “prophecy scholars” as to how close a match it is.

The Mustard Seed Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 July 2021

Mark 4.30-32, Matthew 13.31-32, Luke 13.18-19.

Another of Jesus’s agricultural parables. In Mark he told this one right the Independent Fruit Story, in Matthew it’s in between the Wheat and Weeds Story and its interpretation, Mt 13.24-30, 36-43 and in Luke it’s after Jesus cured a bent-over woman. Lk 13.10-17

Uniquely (in two gospels, anyway) Jesus starts it by especially pointing out it’s a hypothetical comparison to God’s kingdom. Just in case his listeners weren't yet clear he’s being parabolic; after all there are certain literalists who struggle with the concept. I’ll get to them.

Mark 4.30 KWL
Jesus said, “How might we compare God’s kingdom?
Or with what parable might we set it?”
 
Luke 13.18 KWL
So Jesus said, “What’s like God’s kingdom? What can it be compared with?”

So what’ll we compare God’s kingdom with today? How ’bout a mustard seed? Various preachers, and maybe a Jesus movie or two, like to imagine Jesus holding up one such seed, as if he was carrying around this prop just so he could whip it out during the lesson… as if anybody in the audience could even see the tiny thing between his fingers. This, Jesus said, is like the kingdom.

Mark 4.31-32 KWL
31 “Like a mustard seed?—which, when sown in the earth,
is smaller than all the seeds in the earth.
32 When it’s sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all the greens.
It makes great branches, so wild birds could live under its shadow.”
 
Matthew 13.31-32 KWL
31 Jesus set another parable before them, telling them, “Heaven’s kingdom is like a mustard seed,
which a person takes, sows in their field—
32 which is smaller than all seeds, and can grow to be the largest of the greens.
It becomes a tree, so wild birds are coming and living in its shadow.”
 
Luke 13.19 KWL
“It’s like a mustard seed, which a person takes and throws in their garden.
It grew and became a tree, and wild birds settled in its branches.”

Memorable story, right? Tiny little seed becomes a great big tree. God’s kingdom is just like that. Didn’t start from much, and now a third of the world claims allegiance to Jesus. Likewise when one of our evangelists comes into a community and starts sharing Jesus, it may begin with one or two people or families, and before we know it there’s a huge church, and everyone’s flocking to it like wild birds.

That’s the rather obvious interpretation of this parable. That’s the consensus of what Christians have been teaching for millennia. Small beginning, big finish.

So what’s the problem? Well, Jesus wasn’t giving a botany lesson; he was using a parable to teach on the kingdom. But Christians, particularly literalists, keep getting hung up on the botany.

The Independent Fruit Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 July 2021

Mark 4.26-29.

Here’s another of Jesus’s agricultural parables. It only appears in Mark, and because it comes right after the Four Seeds Story, some of the folks in the connect-the-dots school of bible interpretation presume the seed in this story is the same as the seed in that story: It’s God’s word. Mk 4.14

Thing is, Jesus says what the seed represents in his very introduction of the parable: “This is God’s kingdom.” Mk 4.26 It’s not merely a message, a teaching, a prophecy, a doctrine; it’s God’s kingdom itself. All Jesus’s parables are about his kingdom. Miss this fact and you’ll always miss the point.

There’s no secret code in which every “seed” in every parable represents God’s word. Every parable is interpreted independently of the others. Clear your mind about the other parables and come to this story fresh. Got it? Good. Now read.

Mark 4.26-29 KWL
26 Jesus was saying, “This is God’s kingdom:
Like a person throwing seed onto the ground.
27 He might sleep, and he might rise up, night and day,
and the seed might sprout, and might grow, while he’s unaware.
28 The ground automatically produces fruit.
First a sprout, then a head, then a head full of grain.
29 Once the fruit is ready, he quickly swings the sickle:
It’s harvest time.”

Jesus used a lot of subjunctive verbs in this story—talking about what might happen, what could happen; the KJV translates ’em as what “should” happen, but in the 1500s “should” meant it was likely, not mandatory. But typical translations delete all this possibility stuff, and make it sound all fixed and definite.

ME: “…and the seed might sprout, and might grow.”
KJV: “…and the seed should spring and grow up…”
NKJV: “…and the seed should sprout and grow…”
CSB, NIV, NLT: “…the seed sprouts and grows…”
ESV, NASB: “…and the seed sprouts and grows…”

Hence people with those translations get the idea the seed will sprout, will grow, will produce fruit, will be ready to harvest. But that’s not how Jesus describes it. These things might happen. And might not.

The Four Seeds Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 July 2021

Mark 4.1-9, 4.13-20; Matthew 13.1-9, 13.18-23; Luke 5.1-3, 8.4-8, 8.11-15.

Jesus’s first parable is often called “the Parable of the Sower,” which seems odd to me because the story’s not about the person sowing seed. It’s about the seeds and what happens to them. The planter just flung ’em around, as planters did back then. So I call it the Four Seeds Story.

As I said in my parables article, all of Jesus’s parables are about God’s kingdom. So you’d think the Four Seeds Story would be super easy to interpret—especially since Jesus privately gave his students a key to his analogies, and they put it in the bible. But never underestimate the ability of Christians who wanna weasel out of the implications of Jesus’s lessons.

The story starts with Jesus feeling the need to get a little distance from the crowds who swarmed him. Since a number of his students were fishermen, he figured hey, why not use this connection to his advantage?

Mark 4.1 KWL
Again Jesus went out to teach by the Galilee’s sea.
A large crowd gathered round him, so he entered a boat to sit in the sea.
The whole crowd at the sea were on the beach.
 
Matthew 13.1-2 KWL
1 That day, Jesus left the house and was sitting by the Galilee’s sea.
2 Large crowds gathered round him, so he entered a boat to sit in it.
The whole crowd was standing on the beach.
 
Luke 5.1-3 KWL
1 This happened when the crowds pressed on Jesus to listen to God’s word:
He was standing by Lake Kinneret, 2 and saw two boats run aground by the lake.
The fishermen had left them and were cleaning the nets.
3 Jesus entered one of the boats, which was Simon’s.
He asked Simon to put the boat out a little ways from the land.
Sitting in the boat, he taught the crowds.

The sea, or θάλασσα/thálassa, is what Greek-speakers called any large body of water, so those who object, “It’s a lake, not a sea,” is confusing our present-day definition with the ancient one. Lake Kinneret, nowadays called Lake Tiberias, is a fairly large lake. The waves crashing on shore, even on a calm day, make a whole lot of noise. Jesus would’ve had to shout to be heard over them. Still, he must’ve figured going hoarse was preferable to getting crowded.

Between the surf noises and the fact Jesus didn’t explain his analogy, a number of ’em likely didn’t catch what Jesus meant by this parable. Namely that it’s about them.

Mark 4.2-9 KWL
2 Jesus taught them many things in parables.
He told them in this lesson, 3 “Listen. Look, a planter came forth planting.
4 While planting, this happened: One seed fell by the road,
and birds came and devoured it.
5 Another seed fell by rocks where it hadn’t much earth,
quickly sprang up because it had no depth of earth,
6 and once the sun rose it was scorched,
and because it had no root it was dried up.
7 Another seed fell in the thorns,
and the thorns rose up and choked it. It produced no fruit.
8 Another seed fell on good earth and was producing fruit—
rising, growing, bearing 30, 60, and 100 fruits.”
9 Jesus said, “Who has listening ears? Listen!”
 
Matthew 13.3-9 KWL
3 Jesus told them many things in parables, saying,
“Look, a planter came forth for the planting,
4 and during this planting one seed fell by the road,
and the coming birds devoured it.
5 Another seed fell by rocks where it hadn’t much earth
and quickly sprang up because it had no depth of earth.
6 It was scorched by the rising sun,
and because it had no root it was dried up.
7 Another seed fell in the thorns,
and the thorns rose up and choked it.
8 Another seed fell on good earth and was producing fruit—
one 100 fruits, one 60, one 30.
9 Listen, you who have ears!”
 
Luke 8.4-8 KWL
4 With the great crowds with him, traveling to him from the city,
Jesus said by a parable, 5 “At the planting, a planter came out with his seed.
During his planting, one seed fell by the road and was trampled,
and birds of the air devoured it.
6 Another seed fell down in the rocks,
and as it grew it was dried up because it had no moisture.
7 Another seed fell in the middle of thorns,
and the thorns, growing up with it, choked it.
8 Another seed fell on good earth,
and as it grew it produced 100 times the fruit.”
Saying this, Jesus shouted, “Listen, you who have listening ears!”

If you too have listening ears, you’ll realize it’s just as much about you.

Parables: For those with ears to hear.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 July 2021

Mark 4.10-13; Matthew 13.10-17; Luke 8.9-10, 10.23-24; John 12.37-40.

The verb παραβάλλω/paravállo literally means “to throw to,” like the arc—the parabola—a ball makes when you throw it to a teammate. Often over the heads of your opponents. And in much the same way, a παραβολή/paravolí, “parable,” is meant to go to your teammate… and usually, deliberately, over the heads of your opponents.

When Jesus told stories, he used analogies. He wasn’t the only ancient teacher to use ’em; every ancient culture uses analogies. Aesop of Samos is an obvious one. His collection of stories is called the Μύθοι/Mýthi, “Stories,” which in English has been customarily translated “Fables,” ’cause fable is Middle English for “story.” But by our day, fable means “story about animals which has a moral”—in other words exactly like Aesop told.

As a dog crossed a river with a piece of good meat in his mouth, he believed he saw another dog under the water, with the very same meat. He never imagined the one was only the reflection of the other, and out of greediness to get both, he snapped at the reflection—and lost what he had. All who covet, lose.

Jesus’s stories weren’t told to teach morals. They’re meant to teach his followers, both ancient and current, about God’s kingdom. Thing is, Jesus seldom gave a key to his analogies: Who’s that person meant to represent? What’s that animal a symbol of? What does that action compare to? Is that character meant to be God, Messiah, the Christian, a pagan, what? But Jesus’s response to such queries was typically, “Listen, if you have ears!” Mt 13.9

See, when people pursue God’s kingdom, and realize Jesus’s stories are all about this kingdom, Jesus presumes we’ll easily figure out what he means. Really anybody can figure out what he means. I’ve heard pagans listen to Jesus’s parables and then be asked, “What do you think it means?” When they understand the context of God’s kingdom, their interpretations are usually dead on. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a biblical scholar to figure out what Jesus means; it’s hiding in plain sight.

But when people aren’t pursuing God’s kingdom at all—as, sad to say, a lot of Christians really aren’t—the analogies go right over their heads. As we see every time preachers claim Jesus’s stories aren’t really about his kingdom, but some other thing. Usually the preacher’s pet cause.

But the parables are always about the kingdom. Always. Period. Jesus said so.

Mark 4.10-11 KWL
10 When Jesus was with his students alone,
those around him with the 12 apostles asked him about the parables.
11 Jesus told them, “God’s kingdom’s mysteries were given to you.
To those outside, everything comes in parables.”
 
Matthew 13.10-12 KWL
10 Coming to Jesus, the students told him, “Why do you tell them parables?
11 In reply Jesus told them, “Because you were given knowledge of the heavenly kingdom’s mysteries.
They weren’t given that.
12 Whoever has, it’ll be given them; it’ll overflow.
Whoever doesn’t have, what they do have will also be taken from them.”
 
Luke 8.9-10 KWL
9 Jesus’s students were asking him why this ought to be a parable.
10 Jesus said, You were given knowledge of God’s kingdom’s mysteries.
The rest is in parables, so ‘seers might not see’
and ‘hearers not comprehend.’ ” Is 6.9

I’ve frequently heard this claim: Jesus supposedly told parables instead of blunt facts because he wanted plausible deniability. He was speaking in a politically charged environment, y’know. Though he’s Messiah, the king of Israel, two other guys held that title at the time: Tiberius Caesar personally held lordship over the province of Judea, so he was technically its king; and Caesar had appointed Antipas Herod as ruler of the Gailee, who was only tetrarch but still considered its king. So if Jesus spoke in any way about being king, it’d be sedition, and gave his critics and opponents the ammo they needed to have him arrested. Much like science fiction TV shows in the 1950s and ’60s, Jesus couched his radical ideas in parables so he could always claim he wasn’t literally speaking of a kingdom, and conquering the world.

This theory gets disproven pretty quickly by Jesus’s Vineyard Story. The head priests knew exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke of a “master” destroying his tenant farmers.

Luke 20.15-19 KWL
15 “Throwing him out of the vineyard, they killed him.
So what will the vineyard’s master do to them?
16 He’ll come, and he’ll destroy these farmers, and he’ll give the vineyard to others.”
Hearing this, the priests said, “It ought never!”
17 Staring straight at them, Jesus said, “So why is this written?—
‘A stone which the builders reject: This becomes the chief keystone.’ Ps 118.22
18 Everyone falling over that stone will break their legs,
and whoever it might fall on, it’ll crush them.”
19 The scribes and head priests sought to lay hands on Jesus at that very hour
(and were afraid of the people and didn’t)
for they knew Jesus spoke this parable about them.

I mean, the priests would have to be profoundly stupid to not recognize this. But not only did they get it, they’d’ve totally arrested Jesus had not the crowds been around. (Which is why they later arrested him once the crowds were gone.)

Nope, Jesus’s parables have nothing to do with dodging the authorities. They’d come for him regardless. It was about dodging the crowds. The parables are for people who are seeking Jesus. They’re not for lookie-loos. He wasn’t trying to dodge consequences. He was trying to dodge those who don’t seek him.