By the Rev. Darren Miner
Four days ago, June Foray died at the age of 99. You probably don’t recognize her name, but you just might recognize her voice—at least if you are of a certain age! You see, she was the voice of a whole host of cartoon characters in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” which was popular when I was a child. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, I was particularly fond of that cartoon. And second, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” gives us some insight into today’s Gospel. You see, a regular feature of that cartoon was a segment called “Fractured Fairy Tales.” In it, they would retell a well-known fairy tale, but then give it an unexpected twist. You just never knew how the “fractured fairy tale” was going to end. I think that Jesus’ parables are like the fractured fairy tales of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” They all have some kind of twist to them.
Consider the well-known parable of the mustard seed. We are told that someone planted a mustard seed in his field, which according to the parable is the smallest of all seeds. But in reality, the orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed. Next, we are told that the mustard seed grows into a tree and the birds of the air nest in its branches. This is even more problematic than the error about the mustard seed’s size. For mustard bushes simply don’t grow to the size of trees, and the branches are too flimsy to support bird nests. So what are we to make of this impossible parable? Here’s what I think: Jesus knew very well that mustard bushes weren’t trees, but he wanted his audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment…to imagine the impossible. For if we can imagine that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and then imagine that it can grow into a large tree and provide nesting for birds, then and only then are we ready to imagine what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
In the next parable, Jesus tells us about a women who mixes yeast into three measures of flour until it is all leavened, and he likens the Kingdom of Heaven to this yeast. First, I should point out that the three measures that Jesus mentions in the story is a lot of flour. The woman was baking enough bread to feed 100 people. Second, Jesus does something very uncharacteristic in Jewish storytelling. He uses yeast as an example of something good! Typically, yeast was considered a source of spreading spoilage, much like the proverbial rotten apple that spoils the barrel. So, to paraphrase, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven will spread as fast as rot in a giant barrel of apples!
Now let’s turn to the parable of the hidden treasure. This parable has a strange twist to it as well. Someone finds a treasure hidden in a field. He reburies it. Then he sells all that he has, and he buys that field. The first little twist to the story has to do with the morality of the man’s actions. In first-century Palestine, there were no safe deposit boxes and if you wanted to safeguard a large sum of money outside of your house, you only had two choices. You could trust your wealth to the Temple, or you could bury it. So the treasure that the man in the parable finds is someone’s safe deposit box, probably that of someone deceased. And by buying the land to get the treasure, the main character of this story is defrauding the estate of the dead man who hid it. The parable is morally troubling, but one thing is clear: Jesus is advising that we do whatever it takes to attain the Kingdom of Heaven.
The parable of the pearl of great price tells a similar message. A pearl merchant sells all his belongings to buy a single pearl of great value. Unlike the parable of the hidden treasure, there is no hint of impropriety here. The merchant isn’t cheating anyone. But he is being foolish. By selling all his belongings, including his entire stock of goods, he is virtually putting himself out of business. Assuming he wanted to sell the pearl, there would be very few people who would be able to afford buying a pearl of such great value. And from the parable, it is not clear that the merchant ever intend to sell it. In which case, he is not only out of business, but he is left with nothing to live on! The point of this “fractured fairy tale” seems to be that there is one, and only one, thing that should matter—attaining the Kingdom of Heaven.
The final parable tells about fishermen dragging a fishing net in the sea. They capture a full catch, and when they get to shore they sort the fish into two categories: good and bad. They keep the good and toss the bad. According to the explanation that follows this story, the good fish that are collected into baskets represent those who will be saved at the end of the world, while the bad fish represent those who will be condemned to the fires of Hell. Here again, Jesus plays fast and loose with the facts, since fishermen in those days didn’t dispose of waste fish by burning. They used them for fertilizer! In any case, the point of this final parable is to explain the problem of evil in the world. In Jesus’ day, just like today, people wanted to know why evil people so often prosper, while the good suffer. How can a just God allow such injustice? The answer is that ultimately, when the Kingdom of Heaven arrives in its fullness, this will all be put right.
To sum up, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed and like yeast. It is like buried treasure and like an expensive pearl. And last but not least, it is like a fishing net. Now, I will admit that these obscure comparisons frustrate me just a little. What I would really like is an exact definition of the Kingdom of Heaven. But an exact definition is precisely what Jesus never, ever provides. Instead, he gives us “fractured fairy tales.” Through these unconventional stories about the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus encourages us to stretch our imaginations and to suspend our disbelief. For then, and only then, may we hope to catch even the briefest glimpse of what Jesus meant by the “Kingdom of Heaven.”
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.