Here's a secret: I like the little parables, the ones we heard in church last week (mustard seed, yeast, treasure-in-field, pearl, net-of-fish) better than many of the longer parables that Jesus tells. I especially like these little parables better than the parables where Jesus has to break down and give an explanation of the parable a little while later. I prefer the eye-brow raising ambiguity of these stories more than the dreadful clarity of the parable of the sower, or at least its explanation. Perhaps I just prefer ambiguity. Or the possibility of a surplus of meaning.
There they are, a handful of one-sentence stories, challenging me to squeeze the Kingdom of God into six words, or a 120 character tweet, or a three-line haiku. They are the Shortest Parables Ever, full of simple complexity, or complex simplicity. They seem to mean one thing, but if you turn them over, and look on the underside, you discover unknown worlds. The mustard seed seems to be a parable about tiny seeds growing into great trees, until you realize that the mustard tree is really a bush, not a tree, and to make matters worse, an invasive species, like buckthorn or creeping charlie or even the oregano I didn't plant this year, but which appeared anyway. The mustard seed seems to be a nice parable about the smallest amount of faith doing wonderful things, until you start thinking about what it means to be an invasive species in a world that isn't always wild about you.
They are all like that, these parables. Think harder about the treasure in the field, and how weird it is that the man finds the treasure and then hides it again in the field. Why not just take the treasure? No, he hides it and then he goes and sells everything he has so he can be the whole field. The kingdom of heaven is like that. Get it? (Okay, not really.) There's an irrational, extravagant, even wasteful joy to it.
I tell you, it makes me hear the story this week: the story of the feeding of the five thousand, in a whole different way. Having come from three straight weeks of parables, I can't totally get them out of my system. I still think I'm hearing a story. I want to say: "The Kingdom of heaven is like five loaves and two fish, which, when they were divided up and shared, were enough to feed everyone, with leftovers."
Or possibly, I want to say, "The Kingdom of heaven is like 5,000 uninvited guests (not including women and children) who come over when all you wanted was to be alone."
I used to think that the issue with this parable was whether or not it really was a miracle. Did Jesus really feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes? Did the menu literally expand? There are those who say that what really happened was that hearts expanded instead; when Jesus broke the bread and blessed it, all of those who were so afraid to share what they had suddenly changed their minds. There was always enough. They just had to decide to share it.
But now I'm thinking of the story as a parable, just like those last three weeks of parables, just like the little parables we heard last week. It shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, where in the midst of grieving and injustice, God is making a new world: delicious, messy, with more leftovers than we can handle. It also invites us to see parables in the stuff of our own lives: ordinary, abundant, miraculous, ambiguous.
Once, long ago, I lived for a month with a small group of German Lutheran sisters out in the desert in Arizona. They lived by faith, they said, which means that they did not go shopping, but gardened and prayed and trusted God for their food. I was not sure how it worked. But I remember one Sunday evening when our cupboards were bare, that we sat in the living room and prayed and prayed. While we were praying the doorbell rang. Someone had dropped off two bags of groceries. I knew that I couldn't count on things like this happening all the time. At the same time I also knew: the kingdom of heaven is similar to this.
So the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast, a pearl, a net -- and five loaves and two fish divided, which were enough. The Kingdom of heaven is like a fresh bouquet of flowers left outside your door, or like a ball of yarn of many colors, being woven into a mysterious garment fit for a king. The kingdom of heaven is like a room at the nursing home, where an old woman lays dying, when a young woman runs in and tenderly kisses her on the forehead. The Kingdom of heaven is like that.
Get it? (Not entirely, I admit.)
But that is all right. There is more to life than understanding. There is the surplus of meaning, the Kingdom of heaven breaking in, breaking our hearts, feeding us, in more ways than one.