Saturday, January 07, 2012


Marcel comments on my previous post that he thinks the birds in the mustard tree are gentiles. This suggested to me a thought on the interpretation of the parables (take this for what it is, I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, claim to be an expert on parables).

My thought was that I try to think of a justification for viewing the birds as gentiles, and it goes something like this: "well, the tree represents the kingom of God and there are only good things in the Church so the birds must be something good that are sort of added after the main church --hey, the gentiles were the latecomers, so..."

But that seems rather a backwards way to interpret a parable. Recall that Jesus had a specific purpose in speaking in parables --he wanted to confuse people. He want people to hear without hearing. If you can figure out the whole meaning of a parable just by logic, it seems that Jesus wasn't doing a very good job of hiding things.

It seems that to understand what Jesus was saying, you have to have access to the secret key. Part of the key is his surely the private explanation that he gave to his disciples of how to interpret the parable of the sower. That parable also had seeds which grew into plants, which represented the kingdom of God. In that parable, the birds represented Satan which ate the seed, snatching the word of God away before it can bear fruit. What do you think birds do in mustard trees? I'll bet they are eating the new mustard seeds.

Bearing fruit is another thing. In other parables, plants that represent the kingdom of God or believers show that they are in God's will by bearing fruit. There is nothing in this parable that says the mustard tree is bearing fruit, just that it is sheltering these mysterious birds.

Is there any other parable where sheltering birds represents something good? Well, there's the metaphor of a chicken sheltering her chicks under her wings, but that's not a parable, the meaning is manifest, and it's really exploiting the relationship of motherhood, not the mere fact of sheltering.

Finally, there is the fact that in a number of other parables, Jesus clearly is talking about bad influences in the Church, such as the parable of the wheat and the tares and the parable of drawing in the net. This seems to have been a point that he wanted to stress: just because someone is among the believers does not mean that he is a believer.

The parable of the wheat and the tares seems to teach that it is not our responsibility to sift out the unbelievers --that is a task for God. I propose that the point of the mustard seed was slightly different --that the entire Church as a body would grow into something unnaturally large that sheltered evil.


Suburbanbanshee said...

The "secret key" isn't very secret; but in case you need one, try Ezekiel 17. That whole chapter corresponds pretty fairly to that parable's whole chapter of Matthew.

And it even starts with, "Son of man, set forth an allegory and tell the house of Israel a parable."

Read the whole thing. Then you'll get to Ezekiel 17:23, and read about the tree planted on the heights by God Himself: "And all birds shall dwell under it, and every fowl shall make its nest under the shadow of the branches thereof." And in the next verse, "All the trees of the field will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall."

Birds nesting peacefully in a tall tree is a good thing. Birds pecking at your field, not so good. The significance of birds in Scripture largely rests on what they are doing and where, which is why eagles/vultures can be good or bad.

Suburbanbanshee said...

Or are you seriously suggesting that sparrows finding a home in the eaves of the Temple were supposed to be demons?

Doc Rampage said...

That's not an argument, just a statement of your alternate opinion. Why should we interpret the birds as a good thing in Ezekiel? And even if we do, why use the Ezekiel interpretation instead of using the symbolism that Jesus specifically spelled out?

As to your question, I am not suggesting that sparrows finding a home in the eaves of the Temple were supposed to be demons --seriously or otherwise. I have no idea where you got that.

Marcel said...

You could put the parable of the mustard seed together with the wheat and the tares and the drawing in of the net. But, the tares are bundled up and burned, and the trash fish are thrown away. The birds in the mustard plant just rest/shelter/lodge/nest there. There's no obvious fruit (unless shelter for the birds) but neither does anything get burnt up or cast out. You have a point about leaven being understood as a type of corruption, or something ceremonially unclean. If we include the parable of the leaven, there's no fruit either (unless the bread), nor is spoiled dough thrown out, but neither does anything unnatural happen. She just makes some sour dough bread - not suitable for passover, not thrown into the fire and burnt, just eaten as daily bread I guess. Also, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to the yeast, not to the flour or the resulting dough, making it harder to draw a parallel between the yeast and the birds.

At least one lesson that can be taken from your understanding of the mustard seed and the birds is solidly part of Jesus's message: the Kingdom of God is not like scrupulously pure unleavened bread. It's full of unclean people like the good Samaritan, and super-clean pharisees who are bad, and we can't tell by looking which is which. We'll all be mixed together until the Last Judgement. Even the Apostles included Judas. Maybe it's not stretch to say there won't be any identifiable groups of people who will all go to Heaven, or all go to Hell. But the other interpretation also supports a solid teaching of Jesus: that the Kingdom of God, rooted in God's covenant with the Jews, will expand to include the gentiles as people from all over come to be part of it.

"just because someone is among the believers does not mean that he is a believer." Certainly true. "the entire Church as a body would grow into something unnaturally large that sheltered evil." To the extent it recapitulates the wheat and the tares or the drawing of the net, also true. I wonder if "unnatural" is the best word, and what the difference is between the Church as a body and the Kingdom of God.

Some other questions that occur to me: What's unique in your interpretation and in mine - what is in each that is not somewhere else in the teachings of Jesus? What else is implied by each interpretation, and is that something we can check elsewhere in scripture? Next time it comes up in Bible study I'll bring up the interpretations of the birds in the mustard plant and ask what people think about it.

Suburbanbanshee said...

This is not terribly hard. You have one parable where the Kingdom gets sowed, but not every heart/soil is ready. You have one parable where what is properly sowed is mixed with the wrong seed.

And then, you have a parable of good growth, to round out the triad, and another parable of good growth to parallel it.

And then, after another explanatory passage, we have two parables of good growth and a third of warning, to round out the triad, and then a fourth comparison to the householder who can bring out new things and old.

And I've looked everywhere, and can't find even Protestant commentators who find fault with the birds in the mustard tree story. Everyone on that side seems to think the tree is the spread of the Gospel; and the birds of the air are believers, or people drawn to Christ, the Gospel, and the Kingdom. Apparently, most people think Jesus is allowed to change the birds' meaning.

After all, you've already had "the birds" change to "his enemy", and wheatseed change to mustardseed. When you start with different story terms, why wouldn't you treat it as a different story? Are you demanding that all parables occupy a shared world and the same characters?

'Cause if so, it's kind of difficult to have "the farmer" be God one moment, and "the woman" with the flour be God the next.

Foxfier said...

Recall that Jesus had a specific purpose in speaking in parables --he wanted to confuse people.

Based on what?

The point of parables is telling you a story that makes sense...then you figure out, hey, it works here, too.

Doc Rampage said...

Suburbanbanshee, the whole point of my post is that the parables are not supposed to have a clear and obvious meaning and that this brings into doubt the "clear and obvious meaning" method of interpretation that are using.

Here is someone else who goes with my interpretation:

Foxfier, Jesus said that the parables were not meant to be understood by everyone. See Mathew 13:11-13.

Foxfier said...

13:10- 15.

The Purpose of the Parables The disciples approached him and said, "why do you speak to them in parables?" He said to them in reply, "Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he as will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables because 'they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.' Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of the people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted and I heal them.

(end quote)

It's not that he wanted to confuse people, it's that they would not understand, although some interpretations-- so say the footnote-- hold that the parables were because saying it straight out didn't work.

Looks to me like the quote from prophecy is a pretty decent description of salvation vs damnation.