“Who Hath Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: Matthew 13; Luke 8-13

The Gospel writers, in their wisdom, left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them. Each reader will hear a distinct message and may find that the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time. . . . Reducing parables to a single meaning destroys their aesthetic as well as ethical potential. This surplus of meaning is how poetry and storytelling work, and it is all to the good.”

–Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus

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This week we launch into the Kingdom Parables–those brief narratives in which Jesus tries to eff the ineffable and give ordinary mortals some frame of reference for talking about the Kingdom of God. This is beyond a hard sell. The Kingdom that Jesus spent most of his ministry talking about is an earthly kingdom, but it is like no earthly kingdom that has ever existed, and its governing logic is absolutely foreign to natural humanity.

But we have to see it to be it, so Jesus tells us about the parts–much like the blind men describing the elephant in the famous poem by John Godfrey Saxe. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom starts small and becomes a place of shelter; like a fishing net, it draws in everyone and throws back what it can’t keep; like a great treasure, a person who knows about it will be willing to sacrifice everything to get it. And so on. These are all imperfect and incomplete, but every one of them contributes something to the picture, and, if we add them all up, we might be able to imagine the whole elephant.

The parables, then, are teaching tools, right? Illustrative stories that Jesus uses to make difficult things easier to understand. Right?

But that’s not what Jesus says in Matthew 13. In fact, in one of the verses that I have struggled with for much of my life, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, and he says:

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: (Matt. 13:10-14)

So that clears things up. The whole point of using parables is to make sure that people have a harder time understanding the message because, for some reason, Jesus apparently wants the people he is teaching not to have any idea what he is talking about. Plausible deniability maybe? Or a secret code for the righteous?

It was not until I read Amy-Jill Levine’s epicly wonderful book Short Stories by Jesus that I got a sense of the answer to this question. In the introduction to this book, which is quoted in the epigraph, Levine explains that the whole point of parables in the world of the New Testament is to teach in a way that defies easy attempts to fix the meaning of the lesson. Parables aren’t supposed to mean just one thing. A parable offers us infinite interpretive possibilities–without which one could never attempt a definition of something as hard to define as the Kingdom of God.

Let’s just look at one example–not the longest or most famous parable in Matthew 13, but one whose meaning splashes around and touches enough other parables to make it a good way to begin a discussion of how to read them all. In Matthew 13:33, Jesus says,

The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.

So that’s the Kingdom of Heaven for you. Yeast. A smelly little chemical agent that interacts with the flour and makes the break puffy. But, like leaven, this parable expands to fill a lot of space. Here are four specific ways that we can think about the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of leaven. These are neither exhaustive nor always compatible with each other. But they each name a part of the big, bready, yeasty elephant that we are trying to define:

Interpretation: 1: The Kingdom of Heaven Makes Everything Taste Better
The first, and by far the most common interpretation of the Parable is that, like leaven, people who actively work to create the Kingdom make the whole world better. They are agents of change who interact with plain old flour to lift it up and make it better than it ever knew it could be. This resonates with Jesus’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount that the Chosen People should be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” Leaven works in much the same way. It does very little for itself and quite a lot for everything it touches.

This interpretation of the parable actually interacts with many of the other parables in Matthew 13 and changes the way that we read them. It is important that the woman in the parable doesn’t just use leaven; she hides it, in much the same way that the great treasure hidden in the field (13:44). But the leaven is not buried; it is hidden in plain sight because, until it is cooked, the leaven (which is really something closer to sourdough starter than the packets of yellow yeast we know and love) looks exactly like the dough. And this makes it sort of like the wheat among the tares (13:24-30) and the good fish among the bad ones (13:47-48).

In all three cases–wheat/tares, good fish/bad fish, and leaven/dough–something good is hidden among other things that look just like it. But the leaven parable works very differently than the other two. The tares are burned in a furnace and the undesirable fish are thrown back in the sea (which is arguably the better fate). The allegories clearly separate the “good,” who are saved, from the “bad,” who are cast away.

But leaven doesn’t work like that. There is no point at which the leaven is separated from the dough and saved while the rest of the dough is thrown away. And who would want that? Yeast does not taste good by itself. The leaven mixes with the dough in a way that cannot be undone, and it actually changes the nature of the entire mixture. It makes the flour better by becoming a part of it, and by the end of the process, there is not “leaven” and “flour,” there is just good bread that has been created by the action of the leaven.

And this, perhaps, is the way to build the Kingdom of Heaven.

Interpretation 2: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Abundant and Generous
The easiest way to misread this parable is to assume that “three measures” of flour is something like “three cups.” It is much, much more. The NIV actually eliminates the possibility of making this error by translating “three measures” into its modern equivalent of “about 60 pounds.” This is the sort of thing that everybody in Jesus’s audience would have understood but that most of us miss: the woman was making a LOT of bread.

And we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus gives this very specific amount here–it has to be significant. Otherwise he could have just said that the woman was making bread. But she was making 60 pounds of bread–far more than she or her family could have eaten before it spoiled. She was making bread for other people. And she was making them the good stuff. Leaven is not required for bread (unleavened bread was actually a big thing back then). She was giving her time and her talents to nourish other people in a way that strongly suggests luxury, abundance, and generosity. Could the Kingdom of God be all of these things too?

Interpretation 3: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Not Uptight about Stuff
It was a requirement for Second Temple Jews to remove all leaven from their homes during Passover and eat only unleavened bread. Leavened bread wasn’t sinful or anything. You could eat it in the off season. But it wasn’t as good, ritually speaking, as the flat, uninteresting cracker-like stuff that you were supposed to eat at Passover. A member of this audience might reasonably have expected Jesus, if he was going to say that the Kingdom of God was like bread, to say that it was at least like unleavened bread.

So maybe this is (also) the point. Maybe Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God is like something that is not part of the strict, ritualistic, regulatory elements of a religion–but the joyful, abundant, and celebratory part. This would certainly be compatible with the rest of Jesus’s ministry, in which he insists that things like sacrifices, sabbath observance, and rigid adherence to a dietary code would not build the Kingdom. Neither will the Word of Wisdom, the Law of Chastity, and paying tithing–all things that could reasonably be called the unleavened breads of our religion.

Perhaps the Kingdom works on different principles than we think it does. Perhaps God is less worried about all of that stuff than we are. And perhaps the pearls of great price are for something other than clutching.

Interpretation 4: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Not a Gendered Space
It is not an accident that the Parable of the Leaven follows directly from the Parable of the Mustard Seed. The two parables have a very similar range of meanings, but the come from two different spheres. Mustard seeds and mustard plants are part of the (for the time) very male sphere of work and agriculture. Leaven and bread come from the (for the time) very female sphere of preparing food and sustaining family. The two perspectives are given equal weight and equal importance. It is even possible that they have to be combined together to understand what Jesus is really describing.

And maybe this is the point. Maybe the reason that these two stories occur in parallel is that nothing about the Kingdom of Heaven can be explained from a single, gendered cultural sphere because dividing the world up into gendered cultural spheres is the logic of the world and not the logic of the Kingdom. Maybe human beings who are working to build the Kingdom need to step out of those spheres and become fully human. And maybe, just maybe, gender is not as eternal as we like to believe.

And maybe I am wrong about everything. I am certainly not inclusively correct. It would be just as silly to say that a parable means only four things as to say that it means only one. The range of interpretation for all of Jesus’s parables is infinite–because the thing they are trying to describe is infinite. And “having ears to hear” means something more than just being vaguely spiritually in tune. “Having ears” means being willing to do the hard work to read, re-read, study, and interpret the multitudes of things that thee marvelous stories mean.


  1. Left Field says:

    This is very good stuff. But I would point out a couple of things about yeast. I wouldn’t call yeast a chemical agent. It’s a living unicellular fungus that goes into alcohol fermentation under anaerobic conditions (such as found when suffocating in the middle of bread dough). It doesn’t really change the flour. It leavens by producing tiny pockets of carbon dioxide in the dough. (It also produces ethanol, but that’s more important when using yeast in brewing.)

    I bet we can come up with several additional interpretations derived from yeast being a living organism and filling the dough with alcohol and bubbles of gas.

  2. Another Roy says:

    I remember as a missionary finding a new meaning to some of the elements in the Tree of Life dream. My companion felt that I was clearly wrong because Nephi provided revealed interpretations for us in a later chapter. I was hurt at the time but now I feel sorry for him for not being able to imagine any meanings or interpretations that are not explicitly spelled out by someone in authority.

  3. If something can mean infinite things, then doesn’t also mean nothing at all?

  4. So now I’m thinking about the “not of the world” line in the intercessionary prayer (John 17):
    “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (NRSV) Not the leaven image. And not the “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” image. Food for thought.

  5. Eric Facer says:

    I read Amy-Jill Levine’s book about six months ago and enjoyed it immensely, especially her approach to the kingdom parables, which you have captured well. One thing you neglected to mention, which I find interesting, is that Professor Levine is a self-described Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the Bible Belt. You gotta love that!

  6. @jader3rd, as a math nerd, it is incumbent on me to point out that the fact something is infinite doesn’t imply that it covers the space. For example, in geometry, a line segment (no matter how short) has an infinite number of points in it, but it doesn’t turn the page entirely black.

    I would suggest to you that the space of human ideas and experience is similar (part of why an exhaustive list of dos/don’t would never work). Part of our mandate is using the Holy Ghost to help us discern the parts that are covered.

  7. Joseph had a good take on interpreting parables: (kinda long, but there’s too much good stuff here to delete much of it)

    In reference to the prodigal son, I said it was a subject I had never dwelt upon; that it was understood by many to be one of the intricate subjects of the scriptures; and even the Elders of this Church have preached largely upon it, without having any rule of interpretation. What is the rule of interpretation? Just no interpretation at all. Understand it precisely as it reads. I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer, or caused Jesus to utter the parable? …

    While Jesus was teaching the people, all the publicans and sinners drew near to hear Him; “and the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying: This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” This is the keyword which unlocks the parable of the prodigal son. It was given to answer the murmurings and questions of the Sadducees and Pharisees, who were querying, finding fault, and saying, “How is it that this man as great as He pretends to be, eats with publicans and sinners?” Jesus was not put to it so, but He could have found something to illustrate His subject, if He had designed it for nation or nations; but He did not. It was for men in an individual capacity; and all straining on this point is a bubble. “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”

    And he spake this parable unto them—“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them doth not leave the ninety-and-nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety-and-nine just persons which need no repentance.” The hundred sheep represent one hundred Sadducees and Pharisees, as though Jesus had said, “If you Sadducees and Pharisees are in the sheepfold, I have no mission for you; I am sent to look up sheep that are lost; and when I have found them, I will back them up and make joy in heaven.” This represents hunting after a few individuals, or one poor publican, which the Pharisees and Sadducees despised.

    He also gave them the parable of the woman and her ten pieces of silver, and how she lost one, and searching diligently, found it again, which gave more joy among the friends and neighbors than the nine which were not lost; like I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety-and-nine just persons that are so righteous; they will be damned anyhow; you cannot save them.

  8. Very much appreciate your hermeneutical approach the NT text, Michael. Regarding Interpretation 4: How did you get from two (intentionally?) gendered parables to “gender is not as eternal as we like to believe”? Seems to me that these two parables may better signal that The Kingdom of Heaven is gender inclusive rather than degendered.

  9. Andi Pitcher Davis says:
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